George Orwell said that when he read Charles Dickens, he could see in the author “a generous anger.” And that sums up the ethos behind “Close the Coalhouse Door” very succinctly. Alan Plater’s 1968 evocation of the history behind Durham’s now defunct coal fields is very explicit about the deliberate privations wrought upon the pit men by the owners, but there is a refreshing lack of victimitis, and the overwhelming feeling of the play is the triumph of positive spirit and humour, over the obvious adversities faced.
We on the Left need to be careful about over sentimentality regarding the past. There is a note worthy passage in the play where Harold Wilson is explaining how the “white heat of technology” could liberate the working class in the coal fields, meaning that men would no longer have to risk their lives in the back breaking environment under ground when the women, “ don’t sleep easy, often the earth will tremble and roll. When the earth is restless, miners die, bone and blood is the price of coal”, as put by Peggy Seeger in the song “Springhill Mining Disaster.
Mining is a brutal and cruel industry, and not a job that any father would truly wish for his son. But the struggle of the miners is in microcosm the struggle of the working class.
In the beginning miners were little more than slave labourers, even the wages were paid in tokens, which could only be redeemed in the food depots belonging to the pit owners. This was on top of the “Bond” system, which yoked the colliers to the pits, and the miserable hovels that constituted “homes”. There was no escape. Seven-day weeks, children of six crawling about in the unreachable seams. And this was less than 200 years ago.
In 1831 the formation of fledgling Unions saw a brutal strike that resulted in near civil war in the North East. The army, manned by local boys was sent in to break the will, and the bodies of the pitmen. Coal villages were occupied by the military, and striking miners were jailed as vagrants for leaving their place of work.
Such bloody and brutal disputes broke out when the men and their families were pushed to absolute breaking point. The owners refused point blank to give any ground unless they absolutely had to. And then it was done in the worst of spirits.
That’s why we have Trade Unions at all, because Capitalism is based purely and simply on the profit motive with no account taken what so ever of the human cost. Not one concession (even the word suggests coercion) has ever been given by the Boss Class off their own bat. Every single iota of progress in the work place has had to be fought for, and capital has only assented because they weigh up how much it would hit them in the pocket not to play along.
The play follows the travails of a family over the 140-year history of mining in the North East. It is surreal and funny, but most of all the lessons are there staring you in the face, for how we must stick together and fight the onslaught of this sick and twisted Tory Government.
From the crass and casual cruelty of ATOS hounding sick and dying people over benefit claims, to even having the idea of getting rid of housing benefit for the under 25’s, this Government is populated by mindless, inhumane robots parroting bilious sentiments against the most vulnerable in our Society.
The Tories are using the bank inflicted economic depression to put into action their dream for UK PLC: a low wage, low skill, low aspiration, and high profit economy where the balance sheet is king, and the majority of us are to either be exploited whilst in work, or demonised and trashed if not.
If you see this play come out as I did, mad as hell. But don’t fall into the worthy trap of the woolly liberal, full of sentimentalised bullshit about the iniquities of the past. These issues are in the here and now. “The Tories have declared Class War”, said Ed Miliband to a closed meeting of activists in December 2011.
Well, the answer to that is simple. Say it loud, say it proud. We are the Labour Party and are fighting back.
We need to be united, we need to be forensic, we need to be as hard headed as they are and not get het up about ideology (that leads down the dead end of the 1980’s were we were pure but “irrelevant to the needs”), but above all we need to win.
That’s the lesson I took from this piece of genius. Art has the capacity to change the world and “Close the Coalhouse Door” proves it.