Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros49Conflicted IdentitiesFrom Picket Lines to Poetic Ones:...

Conflicted Identities

From Picket Lines to Poetic Ones: the 1984–1985 Miners’ Strike and the Idea of a ‘Condition of England Poetry’

La grève des mineurs de 1984–1985 et la possibilité d’une « poésie sur l’état de l’Angleterre »
Claire Hélie


En 2014, les Britanniques ont commémoré le trentième anniversaire de la grève des mineurs, lors de laquelle des milliers de mineurs et leur famille ont été qualifiés d’« ennemis de l’intérieur » par Margaret Thatcher et son gouvernement. Des piquets de grève aux vers poétiques, nombreux ont été les champs de bataille qui ont donné à voir une Angleterre divisée. En se plongeant dans des poèmes sur la grève, qu’ils aient été ou non écrits par des mineurs, en 1984 ou depuis, l’article examine le passage d’une poésie qui est un moyen comme un autre de se battre à une poésie qui devient ce pour quoi l’on se bat. Il essaie aussi de répondre à la question : est-ce que l’étiquette « poésie sur la condition de l’Angleterre » — dont l’usage n’est pas attesté — peut passer le test de l’analyse critique ?

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1In 2014, the British commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ strike. Local communities, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and politicians participated in remembrance ceremonies and in debates that helped reaffirm or reassess the legacy of the strike. The BBC, ITV News, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and many other media reported on what history remembers as the bitterest industrial dispute in the United Kingdom. During the year-long strike, three were killed, two hundred were imprisoned and some 20,000 were injured, not forgetting the hundreds of thousands who lived in dire conditions to support the fight for the survival of their community. Margaret Thatcher and her government were bent on closing twenty pits that were too costly to operate and they used violence to reach their goal: physical violence through the police, and linguistic violence through the media. Miners and their families were declared the ‘Enemy Within’ and the clash orchestrated at Orgreave became the ‘Battle of Orgreave.’ That class war was a war of words too and the miners took to the street, started picketing and kept on chanting for survival. Some slogans have outlived them like ‘when they close a pit they kill a community,’ ‘save our pits’ or the most famous ‘coal, not dole.’ Robert Taylor, in The Trade Union Question in British Politics: Government and Unions Since 1945, called it ‘the last, almost primeval scream of a dying proletariat’ (Taylor 298). Their shout was no swansong though: echoes can still be heard today, and in particular in literary production.

  • 1 One may think of J. D. Walford’s ‘Egni,’ a poem in Welsh that won the Crown at the National Eistedd (...)

2Debating the whys and wherefores of the strike will not be the purpose of this article which will focus instead on the production of poetry about the strike, that is, during the strike and since the strike. Besides, though the strike affected Great Britain as a whole and even though poetry about the strike has flourished in every nook and corner of the kingdom,1 the focus here will be on English, more precisely Northern English poetry. Indeed, not only did the dispute polarize the nation, but it also showed that the state of poetry was taking a critical turn, moving from the miners’ literature to mining literature through ‘minor literature’ to take up Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase. After Chartist poetry in the 19th–century, the poetry written by the 1980s miners can be considered as the second golden age of working class poetry: whether self-educated or state-educated, miners could have their say, find their voice and circulate their poems in their communities and sometimes beyond. Yet, an official voice, a poetic voice that could benefit from a wider circulation was failing them. When poet Laureate John Betjeman died in May 1984, Philip Larkin and Tony Harrison declined the offer to succeed him, because they deemed Little England or class allegiances above the imperialistic claims of Great Britain, because they wanted poetry to be a tool to dismantle the illusions of a united nation, a goal which is hardly compatible with the Laureateship. Ted Hughes finally accepted the Laureateship, but, as he writes in his Notes to Rain Charm For the Duchy, his collection of Laureate poems, his outlook is ‘almost entirely limited to those born after the First World War but before the late thirties’ (Hughes 1221). In other words, his Laureate poems are cut off from contemporary history and the one and only time he mentions 1984 in his notes is to remind his readers of the terrible drought that was followed by a storm that provided him with a suitable metaphor for the title poem of the collection, and for Prince Harry’s christening. Today, commemorating the strike is tantamount to reviving a culture, a community and a language that tend to disappear under the pressure of homogenising forces; it means looking back, not in anger though, to find the core of a lost Englishness. Indeed, from picket lines to poetic ones, the battlegrounds have been many that display the state of a divided England.

3More than a simple narrative of the events as presented through poetry, what might be interesting is to examine the shift from a poetry used as one among many other means to fight to a poetry that has become the end to fight for. To do so, I will look at one poet-cum-miners’ attempt at dealing with frustration in angry verse and songs to contemporary poetic reworkings of the strike. Three case studies will delineate three different approaches: miner Jean A. Gittins’s Striking stuff, written during the strike and published in 1986, Ted Hughes’s ‘On the Reservations,’ published in The London Review of Books in 1988, and Helen Mort’s ‘Scab,’ the central piece of her first collection, Division Street, published in 2013. Underlining the analysis of these three pieces is the question of whether the label ‘condition of England poetry’—which is not in use—stands the test of critical scrutiny.

Miners’ Poetry in 1984–1985: the Case of Jean Gittins

4A question that crops up when one digs any topical verse, is whether the hic and nunc described by one particular individual in a lyrical form can bear testimony to the state of a whole nation. In her seminal work, Mining the Meaning (2012), Katie Shaw, a leading expert on the subject of miners’ poetry, has examined an archives of 1984 strikers’ poetry that ranges from poems published in anthologies and national newspapers to works published in small presses, not forgetting poems scribbled at the back of cereal boxes and beer mats. Shaw claims that the strike disempowered workers economically but empowered them linguistically: miners, with the help of benevolent publishers, wrote to raise funds, for instance for the Miners’ Victimization Fund, but mostly to strike a balance against many misconceptions conveyed by the media, which forced them to take a deep look at their action as a collective force, but also as individuals who were finding their own way of making history. Against All the Odds, a collection of poems published by the NUM in 1984 is proof of this newly acquired linguistic power.

5Jean A. Gittins’s poetry is particularly interesting in that respect. A miner’s wife born in 1937, she lived in Kippax, near Leeds, and was a member of the North Yorkshire Women Against Pit Closures. She had already written a couple of poems before 1984, but the strike sparked a creative light in her—she wrote almost one poem a month from May 1984 to December 1985. Her twenty poems were collected in Striking Stuff, published in 1986, and which is now available online, complete with pictures and photos. The poems record the material and psychological hardships endured by the working class, but they have far more than documentary or entertaining value. This differentiates 1984–1985 strikers’ poetry from previous miners’ poetry. Indeed, according to Martha Vicinus in The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working class Literature (1974), ‘[In the Nineteenth century, British Working class literature] provided entertainment and consolation within the sphere of the familiar,’ ‘the literature asserted the autonomy of the working-class but did not posit a new world view’ (Vicinus 2–3). On the contrary, the domestic scenes described by Gittins have definite political value, which she was deeply aware of as she wrote: ‘Those that could write, wrote; those that could cook did the cooking. It was all part of the whole fight.’ Since the strike had consequences on domestic life, poeticizing domestic life was a political commentary on the strike, and therefore, a political act.

6The opening poem, ‘Why Mam, why’ is a dialogue between a mother and her child. The child’s relentless questions about what he/she witnesses in their community forces the mother to find words that her child can understand, words that rhymes and rhythms that help remember:

Why don’t the wheels go round, mam?
Why don’t the wheels go round?
Our fathers fought, and their fathers too
For an industry that we’ll leave to you
Just remember lad, its not them, but you
That makes Britain’s wheels go round.

7And just as the mother educates her child, the poet educates the reader to the language (‘Why does me dad hate scabs, mam?’) and realia (‘Why is the table bare?’) of the strike. There is no bathos and no pathos either in the answers, instead, mother and poet extol the virtues of resilience, the fighting spirit of the strikers. The opposition between a collective ‘us’ and an unnamed and therefore multifaceted ‘them’—the government, the media, the police, the ‘them’ that Richard Hoggart developed in his Uses of Literacy (1957)—leaves no doubt as to who stands for British values in this strike. Dialecticisms are used to describe family relationships (‘Mam’, ‘me dad’)—the working class is the heart, the home of Englishness.

8Throughout the poems, Gittins uses different masks that are not exclusively, but mainly, feminine. For instance, in ‘A Sad Tale of a Striker’s Bride,’ she speaks for a newly-wed, who is determined to put her dreams on hold to support her man, while he is showing his fortitude in the picket line. These two poems provide examples of rather stereotyped gender roles—the working-class woman who stays at home, looks after the children and stands behind her man. But a later poem, entitled ‘Kim,’ a first name that tends to indicate that the character is a person, not a role, shows the transformative power of the strike: ‘She’d have been trapped in our image of her/If it hadn’t been for the strike.’ Indeed, the strike allowed women to be actors outside their household, to take part in collective action, to discover new modes of being. Though the strike came first, it also opened new paths for women, new ways to consider gender.

9But mostly, it opened new ways to consider language and action or, better said, language in action. For instance, picketing had been a rather successful strategy in past disputes but some of its forms (like secondary picketing) had been made illegal by Thatcher, which helped the government demonize the strikers in the eyes of the general public through biased media coverage of class action. Picketing was a way of labelling a form of strike action; it became a way of libelling the actors in the strike. That is why in ‘The Yorkshire Picket Song,’ a poem narrated by a picket line, Gittins protests against false allegations, challenges linguistic assimilation and opposes her own truth to the untruth reported by the media. Her way of reclaiming those words is through dialect, that is to say the language of the community. According to linguists, dialect is not a ‘deviant’ or ‘corrupt’ form of English but a variety of English (Wales 98); in other words, dialect is just as valid a language as Standard English linguistically, only it is overloaded with a whole mythology of social and cultural deprivation. What Gittins advocates is that Northern English, as the language of collective action, of honesty, of long-term gain, is more valid than Standard English, the language of lies, individualism and short-lived gains, when it comes to recording history.

Ah’m a picket
A Yorkshire picket
We confront our friendly bobbies every day
Ah’m a picket
A Yorkshire picket
What we do for love, they’re doing for th’ pay
But when we’re standin’ side by side
And singin’ ‘Here we go’
Or ‘Arthur, we’ll support you evermore’
That feeling of true brotherhood is one they’ll never know
Those overpaid, blue BASTions of the law.

10Gittins paints the picture of a brotherhood of workers, united in defeat and in victory, who follow their champion Scargill, plain ‘Arthur,’ the man next door, or the long-expected king who is finally returning as a new Messiah to save his people. She almost resorts to calumny but ostentatiously refrains from it by using the word ‘BASTions’ with the capital letters instead of the expected bastards and ‘she,’ in the next stanza, so as not to name Margaret Thatcher: the ‘wicket witch’, as she was nicknamed by protesters soon after she died, was still for some she-who-must-not-be-named. These writing strategies are not tantamount to self-censorship though, they are not a way to protect herself against retaliation, but an aesthetic and political stance: Gittins won’t play the game of defamation that characterized the government and the media.

11The last poems of the collection, written after the end of the strike, show a new-found pride in the collective return to work, which the poet refuses to see as a defeat and even less as the end of the working-class: ‘We can hold our heads up as the closures seal our fate/They may win, but God knows, we have tried,’ Strikers are moving forward, they haven’t lost control of their future but have gained command of their language. Gittins’s poetry certainly engages with the social and political issues of the mid-80s, the domestic and collective consequences of the strike, but also the labour relations and the new role of women outside the household. Her poetry, which harks back to nineteenth-century working class poetry tinged with the 1960s spirit of the civil rights fight, is didactic, it speaks of political and national divisions, it shows that the personal is nothing but political. Her poetry gives a picture of a nation divided around labour lines and clearly sides with the poor against the rich to call for progress. In other words, it does speak about the condition of England at a specific moment of its history.

Poets Mining Poetry in the Late 1980s: Hughes’s ‘On the Reservations’

  • 2 Here are four references spanning 24 years of criticism and 4 countries. Terry Eagleton, ‘Antagonis (...)

12How do texts that document the state of a split nation come to epitomize the core of Englishness? Tony Harrison’s v., written during the strike, published in 1985, and broadcast on BBC4 in 1987, has come to exemplify the kind of response a working-class poet could give the events—not only does the poem document the aftermath of the strike, but it also gives a voice to those who have lost the battle, while expressing the pangs of guilt felt by those who have escaped the plight of the dole by writing on the working class. The poem has received so much critical attention though2 that it might be more interesting to take a look at a less famous poem by one of England’s Poet Laureates, namely ‘On the Reservations,’ published in Ted Hughes’s Wolfwatching in 1989. An ‘emphatically non-Laureate poem’ (Bentley 97) according to Paul Bentley who, in Ted Hughes, Class and Violence (2014), gives an in-depth analysis of the social dimension of the poem, ‘On the Reservations’ sees Hughes drawing a parallel between the miners and the American Indians that turns the ‘tribal lands of the North’ into a nightmarish version of themselves.

13Hughes wrote a thorough explanation of the poem and its central metaphor in a letter to Joanny Moulin who had asked him about the dedicatee of the poem:

[Jack Brown] is an ex-collier, who lives in Barnsley (centre of the coal-belt—the ‘reservations’ in which the unemployed colliers now find themselves imprisoned). The whole poem was a belated response to various requests for me to write something about the Miner’s Strike and the resulting destruction of the Coal Mining Industry in the North of England (the watershed of the River Don in South Yorkshire)—where I went to school (most of my schoolfriends were sons and daughters of colliers). Jack Brown became an active Labour campaigner. A very talented writer himself—but not much published. Because of an unfortunate thing in our social history, the ‘industrial masses’ in England feel themselves to be a slightly different nation from those who employ and govern them . . . And those who employ and govern them also tend to regard them as such—a different nation. The unexploded bomb in British society… The epigraphs from the Americas are merely to touch my overall metaphor (that the whole population of unemployed miners was dealt with as the US Govt dealt with tribes) into context. The colliers literally demanded ‘work’—for themselves and as they said ‘their sons’: the tribes refused to do any ‘work’, ever. The colliers didn’t know what to do with doing nothing—the rich, large-scale, sophisticated spiritual life of the tribes was cultivated out of ‘doing nothing’. Dreaming. (quoted in Gifford 84)

14Hughes seems to have felt compelled to write that poem on the strike and he seems to have yielded to a form of allegiance to his native North (he mentions the people he knew as a child as well as the geographical area). Even though his justifications are unclear (‘because of an unfortunate thing in our social history’), he definitely roots the problem in terms reminiscent of a novel that has come to stand for the Victorian Condition of England novel, that is to say Sybil—or the two Nations, by Benjamin Disraeli, while hinting at another division, the Troubles, that began in the late 1960s (‘the unexploded bomb in British history’). Hughes’s opposition between the Miners and Indians may be slightly too blunt to leave the reader comfortable. Yet, not only does it echo some of Harrison’s idea that the division between labour and capitalism runs along a division between real work (‘doing [some]thing’) and idleness (‘dreaming’), but it also foregrounds his main understanding of what is wrong with England, namely the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (Eliot 64) that characterizes it.

15In this triptych, Hughes uses a different mask in each part: he voices the concerns of a miner in part one, of a miner’s wife in part two and of a teenager in part three. Each of them is characterized by an internal split. Though the poem, in ‘Sitting Bull on Christmas Morning,’ opens with all the images of the mining culture (‘pit’, ‘wheel’, ‘coal’…), the poet distances his miner by combining many similes and metaphors from totally different fields:

Who put this pit-head wheel,
Smashed but carefully folded
In some sooty fields, into his stocking ?
And this lifetime nightshift—a snarl
Of sprung celluloid ? here’s his tin flattened,
His helmet. And the actual sun closed
Into what looks like a bible of coal
That falls to bits as he lifts it. Very strange.

16The familiar scene of the pitman at home is entirely defamiliarized, the metaphors preventing any assignation of the scene to a specific time and place in such a whirl of references that even the metaphoric process is destabilized by the opposition between ‘actual’ and ‘what looks like.’ To ram it in, the poet even includes the metatextual comment: ‘very strange’. Even though his stocking is progressively overloaded with a whole list of events and things that tell of a disintegrating culture, the miner feels renewed:

Nevertheless he feels like a new man.
Though tribally scarred (stitch-tatoos of coal-dust),
Though pale (soiled, the ivory bulb of a snowdrop
Dug up and tossed aside),
Though one of the lads (the horde, the spores of nowhere
Cultured under lamps and multiplied
In the laboratories
Between Mersey and Humber),
He stands, lungs easy, freed hands –
Bombarded by pollens from the supernovae,
Two eyepits awash in the millenia—
With his foot in his stocking.

17The anaphora of ‘though’ also distances the miner from the running metaphor provided by Sitting Bull: he is a lad who belongs to the tribal North which has been mistreated by the government, and yet he is also a weird being, a monster straight out of Dr Frankenstein’s imagination maybe, created in the ‘laboratories’ of the North, or by, the ‘labour or tories,’ a pun that shows Hughes’s uneasiness to take side according to Bentley.

18In the second part, ‘Nightvoice,’ the woman is a mourner, a mourner who cries for personal and collective losses because the pit has been turned into a mass grave:

She dreams she sleepwalks crying the Don River […]
She dreams she sleepwalks crying her Dad alive […]
She dreams she sleepwalks crying all the dead […]
She dreams she sleepwalks mainstreet nightly crying
keeps her as an ant
in a formicary in a
garbage-can which is his private office

19According to Paul Bentley, ‘one particularly damaging accusation in the smear campaign against the NUM president, which Hughes seems to allude to in the phrase “private office,” was that he had diverted union hardship funds to pay for his private property (the accusation was later disproved)’ (Bentley 103). Once again, the fact that Hughes mentions the allegation and compares Scargill with Stalin proves that even though he shows obedience to the working class, his political allegiances are not so clear. Yet the poet manages to capture the sorrow of the miners through the relentless repetitions of losses, be they personal, universal or ideological.

20In the third part, ‘The Ghost Dancer,’ Hughes turns the punk movement of the late 1970s into shamanic expression and the Mau Mau Uprising in 1950s Kenya into revolutionary energy:

This megawatt, berserker medium
With his strobe-drenched battle-cry delivers
The nineteenth century from his mother’s womb:

The work-house dread that brooded, through her term,
Over the despair of the salvaged sperm.
Mau-Mau Messiah’s showbiz lightning stroke
Puffs the stump of Empire up to smoke.

21Post-industrial culture, in this context punk songs and dances, is a shaman-like attempt at exorcising the remains of Victorian culture—the work-house, the Empire and the repression of the body. The diagnoses of the disease are pretty much the same as the skinhead’s in Harrison’s v., but the hopes for recovery are radically different: while Harrison sees no future for the skin, Hughes ends his poem on an appeal to the fighting spirit of the miners, even in times of defeat: ‘Start afresh, this time unconquerable.’ The Mau Mau might have failed against the British army, but there is a good chance the punk figure will be the new liberator of the working class.

22If one bears in mind that Hughes’s father read him from Longfellow’s Hiawatha, that his older brother mythologized their native Yorkshire as being inhabited by the spirits of North American Indians, and that, in his collection Remains of Elmet (1979), his native Calder Valley is regenerated thanks to the spirit of the earth, in other words that his poetic imagination throve on shamanism, then the association of miners and Indians allows us to put forward that he became a poet also by sympathising with the working class, while not necessarily embracing left-wing politics. In a very different way from Harrison’s v., Hughes commemorates the miners’ strike while mining the role of the working class in his own poetic growth.

Commemorating the Strike 30 Years on: Helen Mort’s ‘Scab’

23With the commemoration of the strike, quite a few poems were published, some of them good—Ian MacMillan’s ‘The Miners’ Strike,’ Geoff Hattersley’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or Paul Bentley’s ‘The Two Magicians,’ to name but a few. What is noticeable is how the language of the strike has given way to a strikingly poetic language. One good case in point is Helen Mort’s ‘Scab,’ published in her debut collection in 2013. Division Street, entitled after the name of a street in Sheffield, is programmatic: divisions, lines, borders will be explored. It also seems to hint at Harrison’s v., an interpretation which is sustained by the graffiti-like font. The cover photo is a confrontational black-and-white photograph of a man with a large moustache and a Support the Miners badge on a home-made police helmet facing a row of actual police, a rather famous photograph by Don McPhee who covered the strike for The Guardian. The presentation on the back-cover quotes four lines from the central piece of the collection, ‘Scab,’ with a clear reference to the Miners’ strike in Sheffield. And indeed her work explores the North, its long radical history, its geographical diversity, its oppositional energy. Yet, saying that the whole collection is about the strike would be a bit of a stretch. There is a reference to a man ‘felled by bricks/in the strike’ in the poem ‘Twenty-Two Words for Snow’ and a couple of allusions to the closure of pubs and working men’s clubs in some other poems, but the strike is just one example of division in the collection.

24The five-part poem ‘Scab’ is entitled after the word of insult used to call a worker who accepts employment or replaces a union worker during a strike, the word the child asks their mother in Gittins’s ‘Why, Mam Why?’ As Mort claims in the introduction to her reading of the poem, the poem is about her family ‘legacy’ and her strong desire to come to terms with, or to find her own terms for, a hand-me-down experience. The first part ironically juxtaposes the image of a stone thrown at a scab with images of the Magi visiting Jesus after his birth to show the horror of the treatment reserved for traitors to the class. In the next part, the speaker is clearly identified as a member of the working-class community, and its tribal, violent culture, since she parties with the Miners’ Welfare football team.

25Her sense of belonging is reinforced when she moves to Cambridge where she is recognised as an outsider because of her accent. She mentions a ‘wine/everyone else is able to pronounce.’ In the very first poem of the collection, she had already referred to her dad’s ‘Oldham’s finest guttural,’ a phrase that is reminiscent of Hughes’s ‘gutturals of dialect’ (Hughes 147): language, and more precisely accent, is what gives her a sense of belonging but also what makes her different in the world of Cambridge. It seems as if her life in the 2010 were no different to Harrison’s in the 1950s. At this point, she seems to be making a choice radically different from Margaret Thatcher who studied at Cambridge, meaning she didn’t try to work her accent up the social ladder.

26Yet something fundamental has changed: Mort was born the year the strike ended and she knows the strike second-hand through hand-me-down tales and cultural representations. When part three moves back to the strike, it is not to tackle the strike head-on but to deal with Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. When the speaker imagines what the director might have said to his actors, his tone is so assertive that it sounds pushy:

This is a re-enactment.
When I blow the whistle, charge
but not before. On my instruction,
throw your missiles in the air.
On my instruction, tackle him,
then kick him when he’s down,
kick him in the bollocks, boot him
like a man in flames. Now harder,
kick him till he doesn’t know his name.

27The director, who is organizing what could be called ‘ordered violence,’ a violence that would be commandeered and organized from above, re-enacts the violence of the police that was orchestrated in 1984 to satirize it, denounce it as sheer dramatization. Yet, more importantly, Orgreave is used as a paradigm for her own re-enactment of the dividing lines in her life. Indeed, part four uses the same rhetoric of theatrics to describe how she tries and mimics the attitude of the other Cambridge students. Finally, part five gathers the scattered elements together: the speaker realises she is re-enacting the strike and is now a scab, a traitor to her class because she has had access to higher education. The scrawled insult on her door, ‘mort,’ her name and death in French, is a four-letter word, just as scab is, just as the words sprayed in the graveyard where Harrison’s parents are buried, a word she need to claim for herself so as to move on.

28Therefore, the poem mentions the politics of striking and Thatcher is named, but the poem is not so much about her and the eighties politics as about her legacy in the private sphere. As Mort wrote on her blog: ‘One of the most interesting (and frightening) things about the strike to me is its enduring legacy, how recent it still feels. In some ways, it’s still being reinvented.’ The strike provides a metaphor for Mort’s analysis of her own experience as a ‘Yorkshire poet who came to read the meter’ to take up Harrison’s words (Harrison 1985, 6), that is to say, as a writer who benefits from the privileges of an elitist Cambridge education, but who also suffers because they can hardly be reconciled with her working-class Northern heritage. More importantly, the realities of the strike are replaced by its many cultural representations, be they documentaries, re-enactments or poems. The whole paratext of the collection is not as programmatic as stated before but is, on the contrary, highly ironic. Contextually, the cover photograph may very well suggest a certain degree of complicity between policemen and strikers, a complicity that is at the heart of ‘Scab.’ Besides, in an age of excessive media exposure, the reference to the strike no longer alludes to the state of a divided nation but epitomizes the spectacular withdrawal into the private sphere. In other words, the political is strictly personal.

29According to the Victorian Web, the Condition-of-England novel, a label that doesn’t seem to have received much critical attention as a genre so far, ‘sought to engage directly with the contemporary social and political issues with a focus on the representation of class, gender, and labour relations, as well as on social unrest and the growing antagonism between the rich and the poor in England.’ What that study has tried to show is that ‘Condition-of-England poetry’ is a valid label too, but that the further one gets from the topical event, the more conditional on past poetry this state of England gets, up to the point that the Miners’ strike seems to be no longer a text to be written poetically but a pretext to write on poetry. Incidentally, the label genre ‘Condition-of-England poetry’ would also raise the question of the process of canonisation of topical poems.

Haut de page


Bentley, Paul, Ted Hughes, Class and Violence, London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari, Kafka. Pour une littérature mineure, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1975.

Disraeli, Benjamin, Sybil—or the two Nations (1845), Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Eliot, T. S., Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode, London: Faber, 1975.

Gifford, Terry, ‘Hughes’s Social Ecology,’ The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes, ed. Terry Gifford, Cambridge: CUP, 2011, 81–93.

Gittins, Jean A., Striking Stuff, 1 in 12 Publications, 1986,, last accessed May 20, 2015.

Harrison, Tony, The Mysteries, London: Faber, 1985.

———, Selected Poems (1987), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life (1957), London: Penguin, 2009.

Hughes, Ted, Collected Poems of Ted Hughes, London: Faber, 2003.

Mort, Helen, Division Street, London: Chatto and Windus, 2013.

———,, last accessed April 20, 2015

Shaw, Katie, Mining the Meaning; Cultural Representations of the 1984-5 UK Miners’ Strike, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

Taylor, Robert, The Trade Union Question in British Politics: Government and Unions Since 1945, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993.

Vicinus, Martha, The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working class Literature, London: Croom Helm, 1974.

Wales, Katie, Northern English: A Social and Cultural History, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2006,, last accessed April 20, 2015.

Haut de page


1 One may think of J. D. Walford’s ‘Egni,’ a poem in Welsh that won the Crown at the National Eisteddfod in Newport in 2004, or more recently of A. L. Richard’s’ Hope Now published in 2013.

2 Here are four references spanning 24 years of criticism and 4 countries. Terry Eagleton, ‘Antagonisms: Tony Harrison’s v..’ Poetry Review 67:1-2 (June 1986): 20-22; Helmut Haberkamm, “‘These Vs are All the Versuses of Life’: A Reading of Tony Harrison’s Social Elegy v.’, Black and Gold: Contiguous Tradition in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, ed. C. C. Barfoot (Rodopi: Amsterdam, Atlanta, 1994), 79–94; Cécile Véhégan-Marshall, ‘The autre that je est is fucking you: modalités et langages de la rencontre dans v. de Tony Harrison’, Premières rencontres avec l’Autre dans les cultures anglophones (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2010), 205–214; Wojciech Klepuszewski, ‘v.—Tony Harison’s Poetic Dialectic.’ Lingua Ac Communitas 21 (2011): 21–32.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Claire Hélie, « From Picket Lines to Poetic Ones: the 1984–1985 Miners’ Strike and the Idea of a ‘Condition of England Poetry’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Claire Hélie

Claire Hélie is a Senior Lecturer at Lille 3 University. She is a member of the CECILLE research team (Lille 3) and an adjunct to the PRISMES research team (Paris 3). She regularly contributes to Ebc. Her research field, initially centred on four poets from the North of England (Basil Bunting, Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage), now extends to issues of language and power in contemporary English poetry and drama.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search