16/07/2011

Lenin in the Cathedral

We attended the Durham Miners' Gala last Saturday (pronounced gay-la, not gar-la, if you're not from these parts; it's important). (Wiki, news report, BBC slideshow, Guardian Video)

I took a lot of pictures of the backs of people's heads
It was a tremendous day. We went at the invitation of a retired miner who says he's only missed 1 Gala since he first began at the pit. The brass bands played and over 100 banners marched past for hour after hour in a tremendous display of historic and current solidarity, community pride and a continued determination to fight for the workers against the bosses. There are no deep mines left in the area now.

The rain was on and off. As the very last band played outside the County Hotel the heavens opened and everyone was drenched. There was a band of young women playing (I'm not sure which band) and a police van with lights and barely audible siren pushed passed them. They were soaked to the skin, pushed out of order and never stopped playing - and they deserved and got the longest and loudest applause.

We didn't go the the race course for the fun fair or the speeches. We went, at the urging of our host, to the service at Durham Cathedral. 'Makes the hairs on the back of my head stand up' he said, but not mine.

The Cathedral was packed and there was a tremendous atmosphere. But the service seemed disconnected from the events outside. It felt like a standard Cathedral service tailored for this audience as they might for the Mother Union or Durham County Council Civic Service. Nothing about it echoed the enthusiasm or community feeling of the marchers. It didn't even pick up the religious iconography and slogans of the banners.  It certainly didn't pick up the dominant feeling of working class solidarity. Somehow the choir's anthem (Hubert Parry's Hear my words) just didn't cut it in style or content. Many sang the hymns but, where we were sitting at least, a lot didn't.

We also commemorated the deaths of 81 miners at Easington Colliery and 9 at Eppleton Colliery in two disasters 60 years earlier. Memories are long and these events are a constant reminder not only of the dangers miners face (one of the trapped Chilean miners was a guest of honour at the Gala) but also that these dangers and deaths were for the sake of the owners and bosses. (The industry had been nationalised in 1947.)

The sermon was a bit of a disappointment too. The motif was: coal, caused by sustained pressure, aeons later shaped the region and brought wealth and work. This time of pressure will also pass and new hope will grow (see what Sunderland has done).

It missed the note of opposition to pressure, of standing together against the oppressor who is not a force of nature but the beneficiary of an unequal society. It missed the fact that it is people who are crushed, not merely trees, in our inequitable ordering of society. It was, I think, meant to offer people hope despite the present troubles but it felt as though it was just counselling fatalism.

Perhaps I shouldn't have expected any different. After all the Church, epitomised in Cathedrals, embodies hierarchy and status, not nascent egalitarianism.

So I was highly intrigued that, amongst the new banners that the Bishop of Jarrow blessed, was that of Follonsby Lodge. The original had been destroyed in 1938 in a fire.

The banner has Lenin in the place of honour. (Wiki has the advice "Not to be confused with linen, a textile made from flax.")

J. Keir Hardie was a founder and leader of the Independent Labour Party. He was the first independent working class Member of Parliament.

Arthur Cook was leader of the National Union of Miners during the 1926 General Strike and subsequent lockout. (Autobiography)

George Harvey was one of the leaders of the Ruskin College strike,1909, a founder of the Plebs League and the Industrial Union of Britain. He was also the Wardley colliery check weighman.

James Connolly was a founder member of the IWW (the 'Wobblies'), the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Irish Citizen Army. He was executed by the British in 1916 after the failed Easter Rising.

What I'd love to know is, what was in the mind of the bishop as he blessed this banner?

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