Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Pits and Perverts

"We knew gay people existed – my dad worked with a miner who was gay – but nobody openly talked about it; it was considered very personal. There was an uncertainty about how these people would be different and whether we would have to modify our behaviour. Would they expect us to talk about things, ask them questions? And they were bloody vegetarians! This fazed us far more." (Siân James: miner's wife, now Labour MP)

To my eternal shame, I have yet to see the film Pride [although I hope to redress this heinous omission during the forthcoming London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in March]. Of course, I knew the story [I came out in 1984 in the middle of the strike, and my first Gay Pride was in 1985 - Divine-on-Thames, and all], and I was overjoyed that a mainstream film starring luminaries such as Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West, had been made and was met with such huge acclaim (not at the Oscars, inevitably) - nominations for Best Film at the London Film Critics Circle, the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, winner at the British Independent Film Awards, and awards at the Cannes, Flanders and Leiden film festivals. By all accounts, it is joyful.

Of the real story - well, there was nothing particularly "celebratory" about the 1984-5 Miners' Strike. It proved massively divisive and caused bloodshed and mayhem up and down the country - mineworkers vs police, mineworker against mineworker in some cases. So, to find that of all the fundraising efforts from traditionally militant minority groups in Britain at the time, the one that raised the greatest amount of money for Welsh miners' families (whose union welfare fund had been frozen by the government during the strike) was a rag-tag bunch of gay men and lesbians from London, of all places, must have come as a shock to all concerned.

Three decades on from that momentous tale, and as part of Camden and Islington LGBT History Month 2015, we were ecstatic that one of the founder-members of that original "rag-tag" group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), Mike Jackson was to speak about his memories of that era (at Central Station pub near King's Cross - where he is a regular) last Sunday. I was very pleased to find that time has not eroded his passion...

As he said in an interview in Pink News: "We are so thrilled that [the film] has happened because there was a great danger that the story would be lost to history forever. I mean OK, yes, I did keep an archive of everything that we did but it’s a chicken and egg argument – it’s no good having a historical archive gallery in a museum if nobody actually knows about the history in the first place."

Along with the politics and how it felt to be part of a ground-breaking "meld" of what at the time probably could not have been two more diametrically opposite causes (gay rights and those of striking workers in Britain's dying industrial heartlands), he gave us an insight into some of the fun times they all had (that form a major part of the film's story, no doubt) - such as how on their very first visit to the village of Dulais near Swansea, the group's minibuses got lost in the valleys and didn't get there till one in the morning, long after the "reception committee" had packed up and gone to bed. Twenty-seven assorted gays and lesbians (in the film it is a dozen) slept on the floor in one of the miners' houses.

Then there were tales about the hugely well-attended "Pits and Perverts" gala concert with Jimmy Somerville, Mike's secret crush on the group's founder (who sadly died of AIDS-related pneumonia not long after the strike ended) Mark Ashton, his long-time friend and co-founder the eternally camp Jonathan Blake in his home-made faux-furs and flamboyant trousers raising money basically by leaping on people, and about many others who were sadly left out of the film (for logistical reasons - the cast would have been too huge). Of the film's variance from their real experiences, he was benign.

In real life, he did not ring to offer the Welsh miners LGSM's support as he does in the film – he wrote them a letter. "I thought - God, I'd love to be a fly on the wall when they open it." Nor was there much in the way of homophobia on the group's first meeting with the miners:

"It would be dishonest to say there was no dissent. Years later, we found out there had been a meeting following my letter explaining a bunch of queers wanted to support them. It had led to a very heated discussion. But the consensus was: we have been demonised by the press, maybe we should meet the gay people because they've also been demonised. Those who had a problem with it were told to stay away. So we never encountered any hostility."

"They started wearing gay badges on their lapels. They wanted money because they were on strike; we wanted recognition and acceptance – not that we went with any preconditions, we did not expect anything back."
However, the miners were the "headline act" who led the Gay Pride march in London the very next year alongside Mike and the LGSM crew - and, by all accounts, they will be doing so again at this year's march to mark the thirtieth anniversary...

This was a fascinating and intriguing evening, and made me just want to see the film even more. Here, however, is a real treat from the archives - the home-made mini-documentary made at the time of the strike and of LGSM:

Read more interviews with the real people behind the story of Pride in The Guardian

Oh, yes! And guess who's performing at the closing Gala Ball for this year's Camden and Islington LGBT History Month? Only the aforementioned Jimmy Somerville, that's who!

Can't wait...


  1. So interesting to read this story. My partner works for The Aids Health Foundation (AHF) and he has mentioned several times now that we should see this "documentary" called, Pride. I tagged it in Netflix but since the film has been removed from the listings. Last Saturday night we met with one of his co-workers for pizza night and she mentioned how much she enjoyed the film. Now you write of the very same experience of needing to get around to it as well. I think someone is trying to send me a message...

    1. Film is one of those artforms that always gets pushed down the list of priorities here at Dolores Delargo Towers. We go out of our way to see plays and performances of varying degrees of frippery or seriousness yet in the last few years I can count on the fingers of one hand how many movies (on TV, let alone in the cinema) we have actually got around to watching. This weekend I plan to get my sorry arse in gear and book tickets to see Pride at the British Film Institute during the LGBT Film Festival if it kills me! Jx

  2. Stuck here in the American hinterlands, everything I knew about the miner's strike I learned from "Billy Elliot." I rented "Pride" a few weeks ago, and honestly I think it is one of the most enjoyable films I've seen in a very long time. The film makers have been clear that "Pride" is not a documentary, but based on real events. I loved it. So interesting to read your take on it the actual event.

    1. Mike (portrayed by Joseph Gilgun in the film) certainly gave us a brilliant first-hand account of how it actually was to be a participant in the events at that unique time. As I mention in the blog, I was actually there at the Gay Pride rally in 1985 (my first ever Pride!) and witnessed the polarisation of attitudes both for and against the presence of the miners. [I vividly recall one towering drag queen berating them, screeching "We want to march under a PINK banner, not a fucking RED one!"] However I knew little, if anything, about what the people concerned really thought or felt... Jx

  3. Can't wait for your reaction, especially having lived through it. I knew nothing about the events depicted and went to a GMHC benefit showing at the Ziegfeld, the biggest screen in NYC, with a wildly enthusiastic audience and free popcorn. Even with all that in it's favor, I found it formulaic and manipulative. Why is it always the movies that are "based on actual events" that I don't believe a minute of?!

    1. Well, Mr Jackson seemed happy that it accurately portrayed things that did actually happen at the time - but I have no doubt that there will be no end of "ouch" moments, done in the name of "artistic licence". However, I reserve judgement till I have actually seen it for myself. Jx

  4. Several of the surviving participants were at the screening, which would seem to speak to some level of verisimilitude. Mine is admittedly the 'odd duck" minority opinion on the movie -- critical (if not Academy) response here was VERY positive...


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