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You are in: South Yorkshire > History > Miners Strike > Ian McMillan's poem for the Miners Strike

Ian McMillan's poem for the Miners Strike

Barnsley poet Ian McMillan has powerful memories of the Miners Strike so Look North commissioned him to write a special poem to commemorate the 25th anniversary in March 2009. Listen to Ian's poem and his memories of the time.

Pithead and miners

Pithead and miners

:: March 2009

Listen to Ian McMillan reading his poem by clicking on the link below.

The poem

It feels like a hundred years ago, or it could just be last week
When they stood on a freezing picket line and history took a turn
When communities refused to die or turn the other cheek
And what did we learn, eh? What did we learn?

For a year the pit wheels stood stock still,
And money dwindled, then ran out
But collectivism's hard to kill
And if you stand and listen, you'll still hear them shout...
But what did we learn, eh? What did we learn?

British PM Margaret Thatcher in 1984

British PM Margaret Thatcher in 1984

It feels like just a week ago, or it could be a hundred years
When the police vans charged with their sirens on through the silent weeping streets;
And they cooked and marched and argued through a mist of pain and fear
And a shut down pit's a symbol of depression and defeat
So what did we learn, eh? What did we learn?

The past is not just Kings and Queens, it's those like me and you
Who clashed with a woman at Number 10, who had to stand and fight
Cos when your way of life's being smashed to bits, what else can you do?
As the pickets braziers glow and smoke in the freezing Yorkshire night;
What did we learn, he? What did we learn?
Buy frozen peas where the braziers burned
What did we learn? What should we learn?

:: Ian McMillan, March 2009

Ian McMillan was born in Darfield near Barnsley in 1956 and has lived in the area for most of his life.

He was in his late 20s during the 1984-5 Miners Strike and although his own family didn't have direct mining connections (his dad was a Scottish sailor), Ian's wife's father was a miner at Houghton Main.

He was also surrounded by friends and neighbours who worked in the mining industry, so the Strike had a big impact on him.

Ian came into BBC Radio Sheffield in early March 2009 to record his poem with Look North. Listen to the interview with him by clicking on the link below.

"I'd been thinking a lot about the 25th anniversary of the Miners Strike and then Look North asked me to write a poem because the programme [Look North on Thursday 5th March, 2009] is coming from Cortonwood.

:: Watch Ian McMillan and more guests on the Look North Miners Strike special on BBC 1, Thursday 5th March 2009 at 1830 ::

"Look North sent me a DVD with a compilation of all the news from that period. I could hardly watch it, I was so cross. You forget how divisive it was.

"I watched it in bits then I wrote the poem. I wrote it in a white heat of trying to remember what it was like, and I'm quite pleased with the result."

It feels like 100 years ago, or it could just be last week

 "It feels like it could be 100 years ago - the way people were dressed, the cars they were driving. But when you think about it, it could be last week. And that's why I put in the poem, 'it could be a hundred years.'

"What really interested me - which I didn't put in the poem - was quite posh newsreaders from the south talking about it like it was happening somewhere in Eastern Europe or a long, long way away. But in fact it was just happening up the road."

Barnsley poet Ian McMillan

Barnsley poet Ian McMillan

"The Strike really did divide the country, and it still does. That's why I put at the end of the poem, 'What have we learnt?'"

Ian was a freelance writer at the time of the Strike but his father in law was a miner at Houghton Main, and he went on strike for the duration of the year.

Ian remembers some comical moments in the midst of the cold, hard strike:

"Me and my father-in-law went coal picking near where the Wetlands centre, cos he'd run out of coal.

"A lot of coppers drove past in vans and slowed down, and me father in law said, 'I don't know what we're going to do 'ere, cos I can't run and tha can't fight!'"

A literary strike

Ian McMillan was in a band at the time of the strike - Circus of Poets. He remembers the musicians' run-ins with the police, and the fact that the arts seemed to flourish under the Strike.

"Our costume was t-shirts - multicoloured - with braces. We used to get stopped by the coppers - 'Are you picketing lads?' - Would we go picketing dressed like this?!"

Ian McMillan: Miners Strike poem, 2009

Ian McMillan: Miners Strike poem, 2009

Grace Shaw: "There was a lot of poetry and culture around that time wasn't there? Women's groups too.

Ian McMillan: "It almost felt like there was a literary arm to the strike. I had just become a freelance writer and I was running loads of writing workshops and people would turn up.

"The thing I remember most is once coming on the bus from Wakefield back to Barnsley in the middle of the Strike. Everyone was talking about it - all the time - that's all people talked about.

"Suddenly this fella stood up on the bus and said, "I've written a poem about it [the Strike]. Do you want to hear it?" And the bus went quiet, and he stood up and read this poem, and there was applause, and there were people disagreeing with it, and then this literary debate happened on the bus!

"I thought, 'Blimey, that is amazing. That is how we can actually take charge of writing when other things have been taken away from us'.

"So yeah, it was a literary strike. There were songs, poems, stories. Sometimes the poems people wrote weren't that good, but the sentiment was fantastic!

"I went to see a play by Ron Rose's theatre company - Doncaster Arts Co-operative in Thurnscoe. It was full of pitmen, this play was just about things that had happened during the strike and it was amazing to see. This was real theatre - a community seeing its own culture reflected back on itself."

:: Howard Crossley was one actor who appeared in Ron Rose's play. He says the Miners Strike play actually kick-started his career, and he wrote to BBC Radio Sheffield about it. More from Howard Crossley - and other Miners Strike Memories - by clicking on the link below.

The Miners Strike, 1984-5

The Miners Strike, 1984-5

Commemorative tea towels

Ian's poem forms part of the special Look North Miners Strike programme from Cortonwood on Thursday 5th March 2009 - but it doesn't stop there. We ask what else will happen to Ian's poem.

"I've got this band called The Ian McMillan Orchestra and we wrote a piece about the Strike called A Year and 4 Mornings.

"We've got a chorus and a verse... maybe this poem can go in the middle.

"Also... I've always fancied having a range of commemorative tea towels so maybe that's it! Commemorative tea towels with my poem on!"

More from Ian

Ian McMillan spoke to BBC Radio Sheffield's Rony Robinson back in 2008. You can read and hear the interview by clicking on the link below.

:: BBC Radio Sheffield's Kate Linderholm is producing an hour-long documentary about the BBC and the Miners Strike. We will post the documentary on this website as soon as it's complete.

last updated: 25/08/2009 at 12:01
created: 04/03/2009

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