Memories of JOHN DENNIS
A REMARKABLE MINER FROM KIVETON PARK COLLIERY,
SOUTH YORKSHIRE, WHO KICKED THE BUCKET ON
THE 22ND OF MAY, 2000.
"I go ape everytime I see you smile, I'm a sing-song gorilla with a carry on crazy style, I'm going to bop you on the head and love you all the while, aba raba ring ting tong , I'm related to ol' King Kong, Baby when you say your mine, with that honky tonk monkeyshine, When you hold my hand I'm a prehistoric man, I GO APE".
- A typical John Dennis inventive diversion of a popular song -
1. Speeches at a funeral pyre.
2. Jenny's commemoration.
3. Homage to John from Dave.
4. E-mails from French friends.
5. Nick's reflections.
6. "A Story With No Name": An account of an incident at the pit.
7. A proposed nature reserve on the grounds of the former Kiveton Park Colliery. Inside back cover.
8. JD's final writings.
SPEECHES AT A FUNERAL PYRE: ROTHERHAM, SOUTH YORKSHIRE JUNE 6th 2002
This gathering represents John's life and says a great deal about our respect for him as a person. In fact all his life is represented whether close family who watched him grow, school pals and teenage cohorts, myself and his children, his work mates and their partners, friends from the folk club and those he made during the strike and the friends of our children. Each one of us brings our own special memories of John here today and in that sense JD (John Dennis) is here with us now to celebrate his life. When discussing arrangements for today, I commented upon the unusual nature of some of this service and qualified it by saying JD was not a run-of-the-mill sort of person.
He took pleasure where he found it.
In nature: - the flight or song of a bird, the perfection of a flower, the colour of an insect's wings. - A walk across the fields with John was a voyage of discovery.
In music: - whether playing rock 'n' roll on a pub piano, enjoying the harmony of traditional folk tunes, blues on the guitar, or being brought to tears the first time he heard the Bruch Violin concerto.
In children: - in poetry and literature. In having a good meal with friends around his table AND in a good malt whisky.
John lived his life to the full and has often been heard to say he had no regrets and would do the same all over again. I believe John took more from life than most of us. Nevertheless, he was a giver who rarely spoke ill of anyone and similarly, rarely grumbled or moaned when things were difficult for him.
He wouldn't "talk posh", treated people as equals and had a mischievous sense of humour as we all know. None more so than his workmates. Small wonder then, that when we met under that table in The Saxon pub in 1966 and he walked me home and proposed - I accepted. We married and for most of my life JD was my best friend.
We did things together and took enormous pleasure in entertaining. WE WERE A TEAM - "THE A TEAM" - as JD described it. My happiest memories, as I'm sure are many of yours, are of JD with a glass in his hand talking for hours on a wealth of topics. Invariably music would come to be a part of these gatherings which is why his music was chosen for today.
John was a happy-go-lucky sort of person. Maggie summed him up when she said despite his many problems he hadn't changed in his attitude to people he met on the street even the week before he died.
John liked to drink and refused to compromise even when faced with tremendous health problems he knew couldn't tolerate alcohol.
Although we came to live apart we could never abandon each other. Sarah, Matt and I simply couldn't bear to witness on a daily basis his chosen path of self-destruction.
You should know that his interest and passion for what was happening in the world hadn't waned. Beside his settee was a page of his thoughts on the Middle East crises.
JD died peacefully and with great dignity. He knew he was dying and welcomed it, saying he was tired and ready. He asked that I be strong and remember he had chosen his path and was going on his own terms. I'm trying; in fact, we have had to try so hard to accept this for the last ten years. Trouble is we loved you so much John and always did.
Above: Kiveton Pit in its heyday
HOMAGE TO JOHN
There are only a few people in my life I have had a great respect for but one of them is John Dennis. He remained basically the same to the end despite the ravages of alcohol never bending to the passing fads and cop-outs of the times. It's an old truism but the miners were well to the forefront of the working classes in these islands in taking on a brutal and barbaric system. John Dennis was one of the very best of this gallant band.
In many respects, John with his exuberant sense of life, deep intelligence, wide knowledge and his delightfully mad humour were also part of the very essence of the miners especially during the great strike of 1984/5. Like John, that strike with its quest for humanity and community looked towards the creation of a new world and a world without money. All of us too who weren't miners looked to it for the fulfillment of our future hopes and happiness. If the miners were defeated we'd be defeated too.
It was a strike of earth-shattering dimensions eagerly sensed by workers and others throughout the world from Europe, Asia, to South Africa, to the Americas. It's fair to say that if the great strike had succeeded - and it nearly did - the world would have palpably become, almost immediately, a better place to live in as workers everywhere over the globe would have seized on the example set by the miners here. This country would have been turned upside down and that nightmare of PM Thatcher's free market economics would never have gotten off the ground. Truly we would have been at the forefront of an inspiring social revolution, imaginative, joyful - all encompassing in its beautiful diversity - and the like of which the world has never seen.
Instead and as we all know, the opposite happened. Defeat and hell unfolded everywhere. That real Nightmare on Elm Street unleashed by that grim reaper, "Scissorshands" Thatcher, became reality, as day by day it endlessly got worse as everything collapsed before an onslaught. Blair, need it be said, is merely perfecting its brutality making it even worse than the former Tories. It's a poisoned atmosphere we cannot even for a brief moment distance ourselves from.
For those who fought that great battle they reaped the whirlwind in the devastation of their lives and communities as devastation also swept through the cities and the green fields. Everywhere and wholesale, peoples' lives were wrecked. It meant that the great vision and passionate quest for a new world got turned into its opposite as state-orchestrated destruction drifted into self-destruction as bleak nothingness often set in for the protagonists - abandoned and alone.
John was one, if you like, who had this Hobson's Choice thrust upon him. Always one who liked a good drink - often teetering on very heavy drinking - John, to makes his mates feel at home would, for instance, carry his tape machine up through the vegetable garden late on a cold January night as he played some Mississippi blues accompanied by excellent home brewed beer. Bit by bit though, John really did take to the bottle as other serious illnesses related to hard graft began to overwhelm him. Illness and drink did not go well together but for John cutting out drink was never an option. Lacking in all future hope as everything disintegrated and vanished in front of his eyes, John resolved, as his son Matt said, "to commit slow-motion suicide" as his life spiralled out of control with everything falling apart. A real craziness ensued which was impossible to live or be with for any length of time. It was however, such an utterly understandable course to take and many other fine people have taken the same path.
Nonetheless, even during his on-going, final collapse, things could still be occasionally enjoyable. I remember a few years ago picking up a guitar I'd stopped playing decades before and with John on another guitar played some old blues together. It felt exhilarating. John's crazy letters were always a treat but he also wrote some fine things, particularly a true life story about a boat he was forced to build for one of the pit bosses. It ended up being accidentally-on-purpose demolished . It was like a piece of social surrealism with all the wry asides, mad-cap edge and precision which was John's hallmark. It's been published in other countries and in other languages, though typically retarded England saw fit not to publish simply because it was just too good.
Towards the end John's love of wildlife again strongly resurfaced. He once explained how sparrow hawks could dive through a thick hedge without slowing down. It was something I'd never noticed. Typically John resigned from the RSPB (the bird preservation society) complaining to the editorial board that the magazine had become purely ad oriented, obsessed with sponsorship at the expense of field naturalist research. More broadly John felt that the organisation had gone money mad purchasing tracts of land as they sought to buy their way out of an all enveloping ecological crisis. In short, the RSPB was opting for a free-market solution. He was right. The last time I had a good long talk with him was autumn last year and the old lucid, warm John was there again in person'., though glad to see the whisky I'd brought with me.
It's difficult saying all these things and if John was here, he'd probably have a drink discreetly in his hand or hidden in some bushes around the corner, nodding with the things he agreed with and with others, putting forward another point of view. Maybe he is even having a drink now right there. Whatever, this would merely be a preamble on the way to the pub. So let's take a final cue from John. Cheers mate. I'll never forget you.
With lots of love
Extended footnote: added later.
Two criticisms were made of the above speech. I had not intended to read it out verbatim but to simply use it as a prompt. But as time was of the essence I did read it out. I've never done anything like this before and I dislike ritualistic speechifying intensely as yet another example of anti-dialogue and non-communication. I was also very nervous of stating what I believed to be the truth while not shying away from John's alcoholism - especially as I too like more than a good drink - before an assembly full of Yorkshire miners, their wives and kids. I have the greatest regard for them as people because they also formed part of my background and left an indelible impression on me. I also partially owe to them a certain dogged intransigence and cussedness. It is a heritage I don't want to escape from and when my Mother lay dying in her last words as death approached, she described the feeling of claustrophobia she experienced descending into the drift mine in North Yorks where my grandfather and uncles worked, to escape zeppelin raids in the First World War. Although I'd kept the tears within me up to that point her final sentences alluding to the Yorkshire miners opened the floodgates within me.
As I stood there this memory came back to me and I was overcome by a thought of my own wasted life even though I have desperately fought against that waste. Above all, I did not want to break down in front of Jenny, Matthew and Sarah Dennis not wanting, if only in my own eyes, to let them down. All I wanted to do was run, run, run. Perhaps in retrospect the text should have been re-worked and certain errors corrected. My heart was in my mouth when I finished and I was surprised as anyone at the spontaneous applause. I was particularly gratified when, later on, young people came up to me to say how utterly fed up they were with their lives. Here at last between young and old a real dialogue was beginning to take shape and the "Homage" had helped prepare the ground. For a brief few hours the reification of youth and age, that pigeon-holing according to commodity stereotypes began to crack and we could all begin to admit just how bad we all felt. After a few pints much older ex-miners came up to shake hands and some of their wives put their arms around me. On the wasteland new shoots had begun to sprout'..
One of the criticisms in the cold light of day pointed out that an uprising on the backs of a miners' victory should have had a cautionary "could well have" inserted otherwise the argument was deterministic. That is quite true and should be altered. The second criticism was levelled at my suggestion that the miners' strike was ushering in a world without money. When putting together the "Homage" I was well aware of all the difficulties surrounding such a suggestion knowing full well it could cause controversy but because of the time allotted to me during the funeral service I had to glibly pass over the difficulties.
However they can now be raised in this footnote. A mantra-like insistence on the abolition of money can become tiresome because it neglects how we are going to get from a world in which money increasingly becomes the only necessity to the money-less utopia. Abolition of the wages system in the early years of the 20th century was high up on the statutes of the Irish Transport and General Union as it was also inscribed, until recently, on the banner of the National Union of Railwaymen (now RMT) here. In practise it was, most of the time, a mere slogan like the internationalism of the Second and Third Internationals. On the other hand, strikes over pay are not necessarily at odds with the final aim of abolishing the wages system. It must be emphasized, if further emphasis is necessary, that the miners strike was not about pay. They feared above all that the destruction of their livelihoods would lead to a destruction of a community that was remarkable in its own right. Moreover, henceforth meaningful resistance, sufficient to strike terror into the heart of the world's ruling class, would be all but destroyed. Nearly 20 years on we are beginning to see how right these fears were as paranoia and the terror of isolation everywhere engulfs the living. Some saw in the strike a merely backward response and a submission preserving old style exploitation and drudgery. In reality, that was only a minor part of this epic saga that promised so much to those who experienced it, even if it was for many supporters only at a distance. Nonetheless the strike constantly threatened to transcend its stated aims.
Increasingly, during the year-long miners' strike of 1984/5, as the months wore on, money almost ceased to exist. Of course, for the miners and their families they would have loved some eccentric rich toff to have turned up throwing sack fulls of '50 notes around but they knew that was also the stuff of wild fiction. Apart from gifts of food and clothes from support groups and massed women's pickets stopping bailiffs evicting miners' families or cutting off gas and electricity etc, forms of barter played quite a major part. Of course, one can be "correct" by arguing that barter is a pre-capitalist, pre-monetary form of value exchange implying equal labour and is therefore "un-communist". However, it has played a part in 20th revolutions and when a capitalist economy ceases to function as in Argentina and in vast swathes of Russia today willy-nilly it makes an appearance. Basically, it's a bread and butter issue and even the most unsullied theorist would be forced to submit to it if they wished to continue breathing. All depending, it can be a makeshift measure leading to restoration or a prelude to something better. Unless it is part of a broader unfolding social process encompassing ever greater sections of the world's populations entailing the abolition of global enterprises, commodities, the state, the army, police and what have you, barter is doomed to remain a largely notional interregnum, often getting increasingly desperate, in the rise and fall of capitalist accumulation.
Perhaps I should end this postscript on another personal note by drawing upon my own experiences. As a child, I can remember my grandfather, a Yorkshire miner, throwing shillings at me (10 pence) and telling me that coins "were made round, to go round". If one wants to be accurate it is possible to argue such a simple-minded view goes no further than a pious desire to "democratise" money. True, it does, but to me it also expressed unease, a wish to have done with it by simply giving it away (which he often did). And when I came of age as an earnest "revolutionary", I would try to picture to my Mother the wonders of a world without money. "Don't be daft," she would say, "however would people survive?" Then years later, after I had learned not to tub-thump and pressurise, she suddenly announced how she, " had often wondered why there was such a thing as money". Having left school at eleven clearly she had been pondering on the roots of things in her own untutored way. Looking back I realise that such "uneducated" insights had as a child, a lasting influence on me. The defeat of the miners meant their wisdom which, to me, became operative in the miners' strike of 1984/85 is now tragically lost. Let us hope not for good.
Of all my memories of the miners' strike there is one in particular that sticks out. In the early summer off 1984 there was a virtual uprising at Fitzwilliam (around the Kinsley drift mine) in West Yorks. For a time, striking miners and disaffected town youth came together to fight the police invasion of this little town. Unlike today's largely brain dead apologies for the rather more subversive hooligans of the early 80s, this emancipatory coming together had been anticipated since the class riots of 1981. It was the longed for coming together of strikers and kids hanging around on street corners. For quite a time after the miners' strike was over the effects seemed to linger on. Walking into the countryside from Fitzwilliam one noted a singular absence of fences, hedgerows and trees. All had been cut down for firewood. In consequence, the landscape took on a new aspect as if fields had been abolished and there was a return to common land such as had existed before the enclosures. In immediate terms, it meant no land owner dared tell you to fuck off his land as you walked across former fields to the smart, very up-market hamlet of Nostell, next to the heritage pile of Nostell Priory. And yet in this olde world hamlet not a soul stirred. "For Sale" notices were everywhere The rich had fled - perhaps fearing they would be "murdered in their beds" by insurgent miners bent on bloody revenge in this unintentional, though delightful piss-take of Olivier Goldsmith's. The Deserted Village now based on the paranoid fears of the upper middle classes and their daily fodder of Yorkshire Post editorials. But To me, all this was concrete evidence of the wider ramifications of the miners' strike. A shadowy hint - if you like - of totality. And if I remember correctly, I overheard a conversation on a bus near to this spot by local lads discussing in their broad Yorkshire accents the abolition of money. In their hands was the indispensable can of beer. Cheers again, John Dennis!
- Dave -
Despite the distance, despite the absence, John, you've always kept a place in our hearts. We've known you after the strike and because of the strike. Your intelligence, your sense of humour, your open mind, your fights, your humanity have moved us, impressed us and made you dear to us. Broken by the strike, broken by life, ill, alcoholic, John: damned poet, friend, we won't forget you.
YOUR FRIENDS FROM THE SOUTH OF FRANCE
- Chantal, Remy, Sylvie, Agathe and Victor.
Now you've gone and I think of you with all my heart. Since we met during the strike, you made me share with you your sense of friendship, your love of Yorkshire and the moors, which I too loved so much. You fought with all your might during the strike for another world and mans' dignity. The defeat of the strike killed you. You chose to put your soul out of the orbit of daily reality. It was your choice. You are one of the most respected men I've ever met.
BE PEACEFUL NOW.
I LOVE YOU - Morgane -
It's a little difficult writing about John - I haven't seen him for over 8 years and not spoken to him for about 6 years, as he kind of broke off all contact. Not exactly a break, more to do with alcoholism - letters not answered, phone cut-off, etc. Not so much malice as indifference, the product of defeat. Great defeats, with all their often concomitant emotional breakdown breed self-hate and contempt as well as guilt and even fragments of psychosis. Most people only saw John at the end, as how he behaved towards them: not how he behaved towards himself, nor the history of what was behind his behaviour, especially the devastating failure to break on through to the other side, the defeat of '85, and the nail in the coffin of the early 90s with the vicious wholesale pit closures.
But my memories are of before the last 8 years, memories of someone else, someone who I talked, walked, talked, drank, drank, got stoned with, went on holidays with, had lots of Christmases and New Years with, drank, drank, walked and talked with.
We met a few days before Christmas 1984, ten months into the strike and only a handful of scabs, amazingly solid, considering. Me and some friends had been accumulating kids' toys liberated at amazingly reduced prices (free) from various toyshops over the previous 3 months or more, all expressly collected to give to striking miners' families at Christmas, We'd given over half of them to some Durham miners and had intended to give the rest to other pits in Durham, but the warmth of our reception from John (and Jenny) made us decide to give the rest to Kiveton strikers. Within a minute of us walking in - complete strangers - John was offering us some homemade wine, and Jenny was offering us some food. This, from officially the poorest people in the land: poor they may well have been, but their generosity showed how rich in spirit they were. Within a couple more minutes both John and Jenny were talking about the strike and openly criticising Scargill ("Scargill goes up Orgreave in his chauffeur-driven car, gets himself arrested, then gets picked up from the police station by the chauffeur'"). Then we went out walking - the first of many walks across Tommy Flocktons', where we continued talking politics, John declaring he was a "Marxist but definitely not a Leninist". Over that period we went down to the picket line, blowing kazoos, whistles, plastic trumpets, etc, a festive atmosphere all very different from the media's image of abject misery.
Once around this time, John overheard in the local pub/club some businessmen smugly boasting to each other how they'd conned some naive punter out of lots of money. John rushed out to the car park and punctured the tyres of their car. Another time, after the agonizing return to work, John told me with a mischievous gleam in his eye, that the expensive machinery of the pit shaft had been sabotaged (with no danger to anybody, of course): who did it is anyone's guess. I remember John, above all, for the sense of fun that surrounded him: him singing songs on the piano, acting and singing in the mad spirit of the song. "I go ape everytime I see you smile, I'm a sing-song gorilla with a carry on crazy style, I'm going to bop you on the head and love you all the while, aba raba ring ting tong, I'm related to ol' King Kong, Baby when you say your mine, With that honky tonky monkeyshine, When you hold my hand I'm a prehistoric man, I GO APE." and us sometimes doing duets; or playing parody folk music on the guitar; or going for midnight walks through the London parks, exploding fireworks; him doing psychological mind-games with Tarot readings; long walks round the Yorkshire countryside where he'd make me realize how ignorant I was about nature (for example, I never knew there was even such a thing as wild garlic, let alone that it grew in England); stoned drunken evenings talking about our problems and about different social movements here and abroad. I already missed him long before he died. His death just adds to the sadness, and above all to the scary feeling of impossibility of this, possibly the most horrific, epoch in history. May this future be faced with at least as much rebellion and humanity as was expressed in John's life.
A TRUE LIFE STORY WRITTEN
WITHOUT NAME NOR TITLE:
by John Dennis
This story begins in the early sixties. I would be just sixteen years old, just entering the world of work. Life appeared good and for me everything seemed possible (people of my age are obliged to say that sort of thing about the sixties). Anyway, Europe at that time had a massive mining industry in which millions of people were employed and on which millions depended. We happily polluted the skies with our smoke and denuded the land and forests with our acid rain. The Beatles were beatling and The Stones were beginning to roll. Good whisky was about two pounds a bottle, beer was around seven pence a pint. We teenagers were being trained to provide the hands and minds that would begin to embrace the white heat of technology. Most of us in the mining communities seemed to have a place in the present and great expectations of the future. Ignorance was bliss and we were blissfully ignorant.
For such kids as myself who did not enjoy an above average intelligence or parents with middle-class aspirations we generally gleaned some sort of education from the secondary modern schools. Thus after spending five years learning the rudiments of social interaction, petty crime and sexual experimentation it would be time to leave and be taken into one of the three great soaks of the young white male in Yorkshire. For the majority it would be the mines, the steel industry or the armed forces. If you consider my family history and the proximity of the coal mines - six within a three mile radius and one on the doorstep - it's not too surprising that I should take what seemed to be the easy option and sign up with the NCB (National Coal Board).
After the primary euphoria of acceptance and a vigorous sixteen week training period a great disappointment befell me and the likes of me. Because we were above six foot in height and weighed less than eleven stones it was deemed that we were physically unsuited to become face workers. It would seem that the ideal face worker should be five feet nine high and five foot six across, social engineering maybe? The shame, all our clan had been underground workers, my father, his father, his father, cousins, brothers, maybe the odd sister, all of them members of that industrial elite, the money, the hours, the social kudos. I was willing to be killed, crippled or rendered lungless, if only I could have carried on the family tradition. Alas, no, so a compromise was made. I would be apprenticed into one or more of the mining trades. In time I would be a blacksmith, welder, farrier, learn the mysteries of rope making and in my spare time make tea for the craftsmen, clean the workshop and not complain if I should be beaten up or sexually abused.
So it went busily on until one dull as dishwater morning in 1964 the foreman came to us and gave us our tasks for the day. He began with the opening, "John, Mick, Alan, you've shown such promise in your metalworking skills that the engineer has seen fit to give you lads the chance of a lifetime." We heard the man's blatherings with some suspicion but not with optimism, he was Alan's father after all. What sort of a chance of a lifetime? Some task to test our newly founded skills? Some project in the mine to stretch our physical and mental capacities? Imagine our disbelief when the lickspittle gaffer's running dog said, "Lads, you're going to help build the Chief Engineer a sailing boat".
I think it may be wise at this juncture to explain some of the social relationships between the miners, the village and the employers that existed during the 1960s and 70s. We seemed to be in a period of some consolidation between the barbarities of the coal owners and the savagery about to be unleashed during the Thatcher years. After nationalisation, conditions in the mines improved, poachers turned to game keepers, the NUM incorporated its powers. Investment in mining was massive, there seemed to be a tacit agreement that, "if it was good for the miners it was good for Britain", and no doubt the miners thought vice versa. In villages such as Kiveton Park with a population of around three thousand, one thousand worked at the mine and seven hundred in mining support industries. The old patrimony seemed to carry on seamlessly. The Dennis family like many more had fled the famine in Ireland during the middle of the 19th century. They had washed up on the shores of this uncompromising land and straightaway signed up to work in one of the most barbaric industries in Europe. Great grandfather John had been a shaft sinker at Kiveton Park, his son John a driver of tunnels. I would be the third and the last John Dennis to work at Kiveton Park Colliery. We lived in low rent houses owned by the NCB. The schools, medical facilities owed their beginnings to the miners, even the churches and chapels were built or renovated by the good will and labour of the workers. We would nowadays be described as a close community.
The hierarchy at the mine itself was only slightly revised from the days of the coal owners. The Colliery Manager could be likened to the captain of a nineteenth century sailing ship, his powers awesome, his responsibilities equally so, described by act of parliament he answered for every life, human or animal, every nut, bolt and cobble of coal, the mine and its environs and to a great degree, the social and economic life of the village in his grasping paws. Directly below him on the ladder to fame and fortune, stood peering up his trouser leg, my boss. The enginewright, to give his job description, would be engineer in charge of the mine. In those days enginewrights had so much room in which to line their pockets and abuse their many powers, but one source of unending conflict between the manager (in charge of overall production) and engineer (in charge of the mode of production) was that machines would be smashed, worn out or sabotaged by the elements in a growing bolshy workforce. From the workers point of view the problem was really simple. It took x number of pounds to buy and maintain a mining machine. It took x number of pounds and two years of valuable time to train a pit pony. The workers earn and maintain their own keep. He or she is not a capital investment. For us the answer was simple. We not only stole the bosses' materials, we stole their time. To the bosses the machine and the pony were of more value than the workers. Also the government had decreed that machines and animals were tax deductable. In those days we knew exactly where we stood.
We all knew the pedigree of our enginewright and we all knew of his predicament in the year of the boat. In 1964 he would have been around sixty four years old, tired and embittered and certainly fraying at the edges. He had married young to the daughter of a second generation colliery manager. He was at that time a lowly machinist, she a lass of great appetite and social conscience. Naturally his ambitions to be an enginewright were fulfilled. Marrying the boss's daughter assured that. In fact in his younger days he was considered a rising star and it would only be a short time before he attained a place on the board of directors, owning several mines in that area. Then for him tragedy. His wheel of fortune and fame developed a flat tyre. It was 1947 and those red-in-tooth and claw socialists went and nationalised the mines. No more would marrying the boss's daughter assure him of a safe passage on his slimy journey from rags to riches. In truth, marrying the boss's daughter scuppered any chance of furthering his career at all. The reason being the reputation of the father-in-law in question. This creature made Josef Stalin look positively avuncular. During his time as Squire of Waleswood and manager of Brookhouse Pit he took his pleasure by sacking any worker who displeased him then evicting them from their homes. Thuggery, buggery and intimidation were all watchwords. But to cap it all he and the mining company owned all the shops and public houses in the village, so by selling them cheap strong beer and relatively expensive food he entrapped the miners and their families into drunkenness, poverty and debt. Even by his contemporaries he was considered an ineffable bastard which must put him in the same league as (fill this space if you know of anyone that wicked who has not been exposed in the full glare of left-wing historians or the mass media).
Thankfully, "the mills of justice may grind slowly but they grind exceedingly small" and the lousy old sod got his punishment in the true and tried English tradition. Firstly, he was given the options of resign or carry on working, sharpening pencils in some obscure office in deepest Doncaster. If he resigned he would be forced to take approximately ten years wages in lieu of lost earnings. His shares in Waleswood Mining Company would be bought from him at premium prices and his pensions would be paid in cash on the day of his resignation. He died a mere 87 years old in his swimming pool on the island of Antigua, some say from a surfeit of rum and rent boys. His days of shame and exile must have given great satisfaction to those many poor and damaged souls he inflicted such gross inhumanities upon. But worse still our poor enginewright was shuffled to the sidelines, there to waste his remaining years, a frustrated Brunel. His wife, now of independent means, would desert him at least twice in the year to do good works in the East End of London or to sojourn with struggling young artists in the steamier regions of Italy. His children despised him, his colleagues pitied him and we made his life as unhappy as he tried to make ours'.
At times of great despondency he would unburden his woes around the pubs and clubs of the villages. It is said that during one of these two-bottle unburdenings he came upon the idea of building a boat that upon his retirement would take him through the canals and rivers of England and thus escape the miseries of mining and the contempt of his family. The spirits guide us in mysterious ways.
Between the Pit Manager and the enginewright there was an old festering conflict. As an ex-lover of the engineman's wife the manager knew well his propensity for drink and theft, but the enginewright knew of the manager's weakness for cooking the figures (which enhanced his bonus) and the fact that bedding another man's wife would not enhance the happiness of that pillar of the local Methodist community, the manager's wife.
The dimensions of that boat would be thus: in length 18 feet, in width 6 feet, the mast 16 feet tall, the hull to be made of supermarine plywood, the fitments and fittings to be hand crafted, the engine to be a two litre Coventry Climax converted from the pit potable fire pump, hydraulics and pipe work gratis from Doughty, the labour and time gratis the NCB. It was to be built in the carpenter's workshop but hidden from prying eyes by a canvas partition.
My tasks from the beginning would be to hand finish all the many copper and brass fitments which would be delivered from the foundry in a rough condition. It's strange how fortune seems to favour the favoured. In this case it manifested itself in the guise of the foreman carpenter, his war service had been spent in the construction of torpedo boats for the British and US Navy. After five years of bending plywood in some Norfolk backwater he could nearly do it blindfold. The sealords work in mysterious ways.
At the start of the project we didn't mind the painstaking and repetitive nature of the work, after all there was a certain thrill in taking part in such a scandal. Then there was the fact that much of the work was done outside production time. This meant working Saturday and Sunday, time and a half and double time respectively. Add to this the fact that if we felt like a lazy hour in the workshop we would take a small work piece, place it in the vice and pretend to file or polish it. The foreman would peer over our shoulders, put his finger at the side of his nose, nod sagely, then slope off to pester some other unfortunate.
But alas the novelty began to subside and maybe the work began to suffer as a consequence, or maybe we were beginning to react to the attitude of the enginewright. He was becoming obsessed with the time the work was taking. He would stride down the workshop, arms waving, spittle splashing, eyes popping. "Two hours to polish a bollard, that's bollocks Dennis!" This hurt. All craftsmen know the adage, "More haste less speed". It's imprinted in the back of our minds like a mantra, so we naturally resent such talk.
After work we'd sit in the pub and talk of the really important things such as money, sex, money, Alan's latest wet dream (they were becoming really bizarre). The things that lad got up to in his sleep would keep a Jungian trick cyclist in work for a lifetime. On the afternoon of the gaffer's outburst about my bollocking bollards, he related his dream of the night before. It seems he was page boy to the mother of the queen. It involved him guiding the penis of the queen mother's horse into her vagina (which was tastefully kept from view by a tartan blanket) while he was being masturbated by the young Princess Anne, naked but for a golden miner's helmet. Bloody hell! Then we'd talk about money again, the advantages of the condom as a device for halting premature ejaculation, the quality of the beer and then finally the boat and how everybody but the bloody enginewright was becoming so disenchanted with the whole bloody project.
Things took an extra turn for the worse a few days later when the enginewright brought his new assistant to the workshops on what could be described as a guided tour, during which he mapped out the pitfalls, snares and traps his prodigy would encounter in his daily dealings with the proletariat. In fact on passing our workbench at which I was putting the final shine onto another (or was it the same?) bollard the old snake said to his new gofer, "Watch that bastard Dennis. He's idle, shifty and he'd steal the coat off the back of a leper." I was most offended, shifty indeed! I'd never been called shifty before. This new guy was of old mining stock but had just graduated from Sheffield University. He had the wit to understand the boat situation but from the onset he had made it clear that he would collect feathers in his cap if by hassling, hustling and bustling he could expedite the completion of the "Marie Celeste" (as the boat had now become known to we three apprentices). To these ends this man would be found prowling the workshops at 6.30 in the morning. Management in its senior forms would never be seen before 9a.m. if the good running of any enterprise is to be assured, workers in all walks of life understand this basic tenant. This guy would appear before we'd finished wiping the sleep from our eyes and say in a loud voice, "Right men, let's show the boss what we can do. Come on, let's get cracking!" Indeed one morning he said to the foreman, "Get the bollard boys off the boat work and onto some fucking pit work. It's a bleeding disgrace this workshop." Imagine the foreman's shame at being usurped by an overweaning toe rag the likes of an assistant engineer. Also the added shame of having his son described as a "bollard boy", this epithet was to remain with Alan for many years. In fact to this day when father and son are seen together the cry will go up: "Here comes Blacksmith Bill and his bollard boy," a remaining stain on a proud working family.
The situation finally came to a head one morning when the assistant discovered the foreman blacksmith trying to fold a piece of canvas into the boot of his car. The assistant with his usual calm and considered approach said, "Right! What do you think you're doing stealing the Gaffer's sailcloth?" The blacksmith replied, "This is not a sail, this is a hammock for my back garden, so fuck off". The assistant stamped his feet, turned pink, turned purple, whipped off his helmet and kicked it across the car park shouting, "Right, that's it. You're sacked, fired, I'm going to have you prosecuted." You may have guessed that by this time everybody called him Mr. Right. But let's not digress. The assistant went to the manager, the foreman of the Union and the rest of us looked like going on strike.
In 1964, my father and the pit manager would be 53-54 years old. They'd both left school at 14 years of age and had started in the pits as pony drivers, their job to lead the pit ponies pulling the tubs on their journey from the coal face to the collecting points. To the pit bottom it was an arduous and dangerous journey. In those days it was a rigourous training for even harder things to come. Their careers had parallels in time and in some ways circumstances. When I look at photographs of my father as a teenager at 14-15 years old I can see a child but eyes are already ageing beyond his time. His body is that of the small Dennis's - around 5' 6"(full grown 5' 9"), big shoulders, thin waist, long arms and those silly tendril-like fingers that we'd all inherit - except for his hands the perfect mining shape. Early in life George, through the influence of his beloved mother learned to and became a talented violin player. The manager at that same age found that most cherished of Yorkshire sports, cricket.
During the 1926 strike father learned hard lessons about the lack of solidarity of the English workers when threatened by the middle classes. In the late twenties he joined the Communist Party. Our manager in the meantime through his ambitions to rise in mining and his contacts in the higher echelons of cricket became a deputy (underground foreman). Father led a local dance band, the manager led Worksop cricket team and was very active in the North Notts Tory party. They both married in the late 1930's. The manager left the Tory Party in 1939 because of the appeasement of the Chamberlain government. Father left the Communist Party in 1941 when Stalin signed the non-aggression treaty with Hitler. In 1964, father at that time was union secretary, enjoying all the benefits that the position accrued to him, one of which was having intelligence on all the dubious doings of his membership at the mine at that time. Mr. Right had hardly finished his tirade in the car park before father was on his way to the manager's office with certain cards to lay on the table and a few kept in reserve up his sleeve. His main argument was really direct and to the point. If any action were taken against the foreman blacksmith he'd be on the phone to the area offices describing the scandal of an engineer who seemed to think he was Noah and his upstart assistant who didn't understand the basic rules of one illegal item for the management meant one for the workers. The manager didn't even alter his countenance, he just waved his pen in the air and said, "George, what do you expect from a young lad straight from college. Let's talk about getting a little bit more effort out of these chaps down in the headings." To father that meant the subject had been settled satisfactorily. Mr. Right was less than satisfied when he was called to the presence later that morning. The information came back to father via the manager's personal secretary, who was allowed by the manager to hand down information to the workers when the occasion suited. The meat of the interview was as follows. "What do you mean stealing canvas? There's enough canvas in the stores to fit out the fucking Spanish Armada. Mind your ways laddie or it's the Scottish coalfields for you".
Young Mr. Right, a well chastened assistant, was very subdued for long into the future, but still given to uncontrollable helmet kicking when primed and fired by the expert wind-up artists.
Let me explain my piece in the jigsaw. For example, as many as fifteen bollards would arrive at the mine from the foundry. The attachments look like the letter "I". They are fixed firmly; thereby ropes can be safely tied off and sales and masts can be made secure. Each small brass object would arrive from the foundry in a rough condition. To make it smooth the sharp edges had to be taken off with a very coarse file. Then marks and gouges had to be taken out by a less coarse file until a smooth file could be used to take out those marks, then metal abrasive cloths and then a polish hard and a polish soft. But every time I looked at the boat I was charmed, it's lines, the work, it was becoming pleasing to the eye and to my mind a pest. For my two friends it may have been worse. The fitting of the engine and the keel would be educational but just as exasperating.
Later that day, showered, needlessly shaved and very thirsty we assembled ourselves at the bar of the Saxon Hotel. There we ordered our beers from one of the few Calvinist barmaids in the county of Yorkshire. She held we youngsters in the deepest contempt saying we were doomed to the fires of hell and damnation due to our drinking, gambling, fornications and foul-mouthed unruly behaviour, then promptly gave us the wrong change (always short) and scream for the landlord if we complained. This woman exercised my curiosity no end. She would wear low cut sweaters hardly hiding her upthrusting breasts, the shortest of mini-skirts, make-up by the kilo and then declaim religion in a manner which would have made Martin Luther King reach for his tape recorder.
In those days we would drink our first two pints standing at the bar (why waste time and energy walking?), order the next round, then find a table away from the jukebox and set about the foul-mouthed repartee which would so inflame the senses of our beloved barmaid. We were thus engaged when in walked father, who with no more ado came up to our table and sat down. "Well lads, I've just come from a chat with the manager and Alan's dad. I think the best solution is for you lads and everybody concerned to get your fingers out and get the bloody thing finished and off the premises as quickly as possible."
I couldn't believe my ears. What was he saying? Rush a job which by my crude estimations would, if dragged out for another three months, earn the people involved at least four hundred pounds in overtime let alone hours fruitful pleasure baiting the bosses? No way daddio! I saw his eyes glint and his shoulder muscles hunch when Mick said, "Bollocks! Whose fucking side are you on? Are you up the manager's arse or something? This is money for old rope and it's going to last as long as we can spin it out." Father turned to me smiling, then as quick as a cobra back to Mick and grabbed him by the throat pulling him over the table and whacking him on the side of the head with his open hand. Mick spun to the floor, mouth open, eyes ablaze and hand reaching for a bottle. Things looked on the verge of serious violence when a voice high on righteousness and indignation rang out, "George Dennis, have you no shame? Striking a boy just out of school, not old enough to vote, let alone see the ways of the Lord. Well, I think it's time you and your Communist kind were hounded out of office and sent back to Russia. And as for you, young Michael, he could no more creep up a gaffer's arse than an elephant's, his bloody head is too big. Now get out the lot of you afore I call the police."
Father stormed out first and we trailed after. This boat business was getting out of hand. As we stood on the terrace of the pub watching father stride away, the words came hissing out of Mike, "if he ever tries anything like that again, I'll fucking have the bastard." Try as I may I couldn't think of any reply that would support him without betraying father. Then Alan said, "Did you see her when she lent over the bar? Did you? Her titties just about fell out, they did. You could see the brown bits. You know the ear holes? Fucking hell, I hope I dream about her tonight. Talk about hard-on." I looked at Mick, we both looked at Alan, shook our heads and headed towards the working men's club. I didn't want to see father just yet.
I arrived home after a couple of subdued pints to find father and mother just getting over one of those rows, the subjects of which tend to rumble on for years between couples who have been married for nearly quarter of a century, in this case, booze, money and the union - mother hated the first, never had enough of the second and resented the third, father loved all three. For the next half hour mother berated the both of us with our shortcomings. These included my moral laxity in not defending father, his propensity for violence, Mike's hypocrisy, him coming from a family that had scabbed during the 1926 general strike and the mortal folly of drinking in the afternoon. When a person like mother took the high moral ground it was wise to sit down, switch off and think of barmaids with big boobs, just hoping she'll finish the tirade before the potato pie became too cold to eat (see Vol. 1 - "The Matriarchs in Mining Villages" for a different perspective of life when the bounds of their reason were overstepped).
About mother. My mother's father had been killed in a mining accident in 1928. Kiveton pit after the defeat of the miners in 1926 was not a good place to work. The miners at Kiveton had been some of the most militant in Yorkshire. Now the bosses had the whip hand and they cracked that whip with increasing brutality. Conditions and pay had degenerated to almost pre-1914 standards. Mother's family hand the story down that the undertaker had to put stones in the coffin to give the illusion of at least a little weight, there being so little of grandad to bury. The manner of his death was a scandal even for those dreadful times. The man in charge of igniting the explosives (the shotfirer) had set six separate sticks of gelignite, these he would fire in succession. This would bring the wall of rock down in a controlled manner instead of firing the charges simultaneously which would lead to unforeseen and chaotic results. The bloody man miscounted, he fired only five, then ordered grandfather forward to remove the fallen rubble. The poor man was standing over No. 6 shot when it exploded, he took the full force of the blast and was never seen again. All that was remaining could easily have been put into a small shopping basket without filling it. Not even his boots were recovered. The shotfirer was demoted and fined a week's wages, grandmother was given '100 and a pension of 4 shillings a week for life, but only if she would accept that her husband's death was due to his own fault. She had five daughters and two sons. The boys, just out of school, went into the mines. The girls, all except one, went into "service". (this was a euphemism used to describe young girls working for low wages in the houses of the middle classes). All her life mother venerated the memory of her father and would become misty-eyed and tearful at the mention of his name. She was twelve years old when he was killed; she has many stories of the hard life.
Due to a surfeit of Sam Smith's bitter, potato pie and a troubled mind I overslept next morning. When I arrived in the carpenter's shop it was to find Alan staring into the fireplace. The blaze was huge and the heat intense. "What the fuck are you burning, Napalm? That's ridiculous!" I was standing about twenty feet away and my overalls were beginning to steam. I could just hear Alan's reply over the roaring of the flames. "It's that cotton waste you used yesterday to soak up that spilled varnish and paraffin. I threw it on the embers, it warmed up, smoked a bit, then WHOOSH! Fucking great, hey?" "Fucking great? Fucking fantastic, that's what!"
It was one of those occasions on which two people have the same idea at the same time and no words need to be spoken, all that's wanted is time and certain trigger words to channel the thought process along similar avenues. In our case the words were Revenge and Blame - how to achieve our revenge and not take the blame. The conflagration subsided as quickly as it had begun, but it was gratifying to note that the wrought irons in front of the fire place still glowed a dull red after the fire had settled to it's usual level. Our plans had to be set aside for the time being when the foreman arrived to give us our jobs for the day. I was to apply the umpteenth coat of varnish, Alan was to assist in assembling the steering gear. The mechanic working on the boat that day was to be George Marsh. His nickname (but not to his face) was Bog Breath.
That morning we ate our sandwiches and drank our tea and tried not to get too close to George's halitosis, we would look at each other and smirk and use phrases which only the two of us would know the secret relevance. Finally old Bog Breath had suffered enough innuendo, turned towards us and shouted, "Are you two shagging each other?"
This would not have mattered too much had he not sprayed us with half chewed lumps of cheese and onion sandwich, mixed and softened with his usual strong black coffee. We quickly straightened our faces, washed our cups and went back to varnishing and tinkering. After work we sat in The Saxon together playing cards and planning how we could utilise this gift of wonderful destruction without being sent to prison for the rest of our teenage years and beyond. We thought of making electric devices which could ignite the varnish, we thought of clockwork devices, we thought of elaborate fuses. Fantasies evolved and disappeared but with each plan the risk outweighed the gain or proved impractical for our limited skills. As we sat, subdued and thoughtful, becoming more frustrated by the minute, in strode father. "Hello lads, I'm looking for volunteers to carry our "Beloved Union" banner in the carnival on Saturday. You three are perfect. You're young and fit and you'll be given free drinks in the beer tent at the end of the march."
After the nastiness of the previous days Alan and Mick were none too keen to comply with father's proposition, but like Paul's vision on the road to Damascus it came to me - "THE CARNIVAL". Every year the management, the church and the chapels put aside their rivalries and sponsored a carnival on the second Saturday in August. This coincided with the religious harvest festival and the return to work of the miners from their annual holidays. Also every year after this carnival day would follow carnival night, naturally. During the daylight hours of carnival most of the enjoyment was focused on the children, the fairground, the fancy dress parade, the games, fathers being pelted by soaking sponges, mothers hiding pieces of rock and broken glass in the sponges and all the things that make a carnival a carnival. But after twilight things would change. In the local church hall many of the famous rock bands of the sixties would raise the emotional temperature to boiling point. Freddy and The Dreamers would create the adolescent nightmare of unrequited love. The Seekers would be lost forever. In pubescent orgasms, as young girls threw their soaking underwear onto the stage, young men would seethe. Gene Vincent would slink onto the stage, clad in shiny black leather, and promise covertly with his index finger to stimulate places in the female anatomy that young Yorkshire miners had yet to discover. We seethed, being the rough-arsed rednecks that we were. Instead of burning down the church and church hall, stuffing Gene Vincent's digit up his own arse and giving The Dreamers and The Searchers a nightmare to remember, we would turn inward and fight each other. The cops loved it. After we had finished kicking the shit out of each other, they would arrive and carry on kicking the shit out of us. What a wonderful decay.
We made the molotov cocktail using a wide-neck milk bottle so that the petrol would splash even if the bottle didn't break. Before the end of the shift on Friday I collected all the varnish-soaked wasted cloth and spread it at the side of the boat. All we needed was Saturday night and luck. The decision as to who should do the job was easy. I was the hardest drinker and the fastest runner and, shit, it was my idea anyway.
During the carnival and on the march through the streets we met the bastards who had given us the hard times with the boat. The Enginewright and his assistant shouted to us as we carried the banner, "Nearest you three have been to work in months. Nice work lads. At least you can follow the band." We smiled. We took part in the games that children of all ages enjoy - drinking, eating, hitting, throwing balls, laughing at others and being laughed at. After a while we forgot our secret agenda and became part of the carnival.
The British are renowned throughout Europe for their inability to deal with alcohol and rightly so. Adults are regarded as children. When buying booze and drinking in public, the times would be strictly enforced. Between 11 'o' clock in the morning and 3 'o' clock in the afternoon you could buy a drink in a pub (then you must rest). Between 6 'o'clock in the evening and 10.30 you could buy a drink in a pub (then you must rest). Thank you Mother State but no thanks. Treat people like children and they behave like children. So it was with us. By 2.30 in the afternoon the consumption of beer had become ferocious. The young girls of our milieu had become emboldened by Babycham and barley wine (a most potent brew devised by a witch and warlock in Norfolk), we young men rowdy and bilious on black puddings, pork pies and warm ale.
The entertainment for the rest of the day was set. As we lounged in the sun, searching for dregs to drink or underwear in which to wander, we became restless at the futility of it all and made our ways home to wash and dress for the evening enchantment.
The off-licence is a peculiar place. It can sell all manner of goods but could only sell booze at the times mentioned above. Thankfully, the owners of these places, and still are, greedy, unscrupulous and totally understanding of the teenage predicament. Therefore, before going into a gig or concert we would fortify ourselves before entering the totally teetotal church hall or equally benign establishment. In those days, under such circumstances, I would drink two or three bottles of Guinness and buy half a bottle of rum to mix with the coke to be bought inside. Alan would buy brandy to give to the girls who had smuggled in Babycham (brandy and Babycham - another potent mixture from Norfolk), Mick would smuggle Bacardi in, drink two-thirds of the bottle, then re-fill it with water and pass it round with largesse (nobody ever suspected him) and so the night progressed.
If I remember correctly the group that headed the bill that night was Wayne Fontana and The My Members, a bunch of fortunate 23 year olds posing as teenagers. Wayne Fontana looked old beyond his years even then, lucky bastard. As I watched I became him, as I picked up the pheromones my mind began to wander again - this was not the plan - WHAT PLAN?
Glad to relate that as the night wore on I became drunker by the minute. The rest of the story was given to me the next day. It would seem that the three of us had agreed to separate and then meet up at the bridge on Hard Lane. We then met at least five people walking back to the next village (Harthill) and had drunken conversations. We then strolled through the pit yard, picked up our molotovs, lit them, threw them through the carpenter's window and wandered as pissed as rats to the end of Pit Lane. By the time the fire alarm was raised we were sat across from the tobacconist's wondering what the fuck all these people could be dashing about at. The next day after the admonishments of mother about drinking till early on a Sunday we met at The Saxon. The first pint is the most important after a night when you can't remember how you arrived home or found your bed. After the first sips I asked Alan, "How did it go?" He answered, "Great! Don't you just love the smell of Sunday dinners cooking?" I said, "Who's got the blame?" He said, "Some bunch of drunken revellers from Harthill. Seems they threw half a bottle of whisky through the joiner's shop window and it caused a flashback from that great fireplace that's always smouldering in there. My comment according to Alan and Mick was, "Fucking waste of good whisky."
John Dennis 1998
Postscript to the photo of JD that fronts this text:
Despite writing copious, often intensely aggravated and disorganised notes which increasingly tended towards free form, the above is the only piece of sustained, and perhaps finished, piece of writing John ever did. Maybe JD's jottings, seemingly unintelligible, were trying to plummet things writing couldn't grasp? Even so -if you knew the man - the style is very much for reading out loud and in order to get the nuances of some of the asides, it's almost essential that John should be there to bring out the intended irony here and there followed, most likely, by that almost obligatory guffaw with the drop of the hard (or soft) stuff about to touch his lips. It's in such a context that various seemingly "straight" comments on nationalization -"red in tooth and claw", the union, etc, should, in the above true story be placed. They are not to be taken at face value unless you are constantly noting that mischievous glint in JD's eye!
John's life was uncompromising in the sense that he never took up any position -no matter how seemingly trivial or petty -that could have interfered with his autonomous perspective although, he would never - with his larger-than-life exuberance - have calculated life in such terms. At his funeral The Wild Rover was sang by some of his mates. John was wild but it was a more relevant wildness than the voyages of former adventurers. He skillfully played with things thrown in his path. Commodities were constantly placed in a state of disarray thus questioning the commodity form. He watched football on TV with the sound off and collected dolls arms for unknown ends. He'd talk to beer glasses. JD's funeral ended with a tape on which he sang "On Ilkley Moor Bahr Taat." Before that there was a drunken, improvised 12 bar blues about a missing chicken he'd spontaneously given to his daughter. It was a way of telling Jenny what had happened to tomorrow's dinner. It was also a permanent disruption of a passively consumed daily life finally forced into a corner and unable to realise what John really wanted: a full blown revolution abolishing commodity production, work, money, external authority and the state.
The following text was included in the early Winter of 2003 after going
through some of JD's notebooks.
The Slow-Motion Suicide of
An agonising personal history among perhaps, hundreds of others,
set deep within the brutal destruction of the mining community
A Finnegans Wake gone raving of a revolutionary miner
John Dennis was finally destroyed by the defeat of the miners strike in 1984-5. It didn't happen immediately as it was a slow, agonising and torturous drip drip drip giving way to blank despair and madness, to work related illness coupled with alcoholism and utter loneliness. The latter was the worst blow. He became a figure drunken and raving on the streets, barred from all shops, clubs and pubs, a veritable freak young and foolish kids threw stones at even when he could hardly walk through ill-health.
"A worker works with his thoughts in turmoil. It's not fair" (a South African building worker around the time of the miners' strike.)
Throughout these agonising last few years during the 1990s and 2000-2, JD wrote numerous tracts and splurges. They were often kind of poetic outpourings full of a mad jumble/cascade of words and word play. Most of them are 'mad' or just this side of madness. They follow, if you like, in that trajectory from Rimbaud's Season in Hell to Antonin Artaud's crazed writings in the Rodez lunatic asylum, to those in the broken atmosphere after the revolutionary upheavals of the late 1960s who wrote 'schizophrenic drivel' as they tried to come to terms with the still-born death of a revolutionary new world they had nurtured so passionately yet so briefly in an intense period there was no going back from. Most of all, JD's ravings must be put in the latter, bitter perspective, as in between the often inchoate ravings are constant references to capitalism and the fact that a determined and powerful group of workers in the UK tried to overthrow this poisonous old world and thus stand as a beacon to all those throughout the world ' hence the quote from the South African building worker.
These writings are not in the spirit of socialist realism beloved of leftists and ultra-leftists as evidence of workers' growing consciousness according to the hymn sheet whereby the subject of material change gains enlightenment from the revolutionary theorists. To be sure, John was friendly with some of the better 'revolutionary' types of his times but it was never tub-thumping like that as more than not, mutual laughter and simple relaxed enjoyment was the essence of these encounters. More than ever, JD's writings are more the outcome ' in no matter how incoherent way ' of the explosive response to the revolutionary implications behind the self-destruction of modern art and poetry. It wasn't consciously recognised like that but it nevertheless worked its way behind his back in that free form letting go and drift which of its own momentum often desperately searches for the praxis that will change forever these horrible conditions we are forced to submit to. In that sense, JD's musical rantings have more to do with Joyce's semi-nonsensical montage though profound in suggestion, marking the finality of the novel in Finnegans Wake than anything a dull as ditch water, literary leftist follower of Bertold Brecht, could ever have imagined. As John said in one of these tempestuous cries of a damned soul: "Let's begin at the end". Finally the pieces of paper JD emptied his diatribe of words on were often then made into paper aeroplanes he then sent whizzing across his slowly evolving charnel house of a sitting (and dying) room.
JD throughout his life was always full of inquisitive thought responses as he applied his own interpretation to TV, book and newspaper. The family toilet always had books piled high along the tiny window ledge as you inevitably picked up and dipped into as you had a crap. They were always really interesting stuff. Thinking like this, especially for a worker who isn't constantly contemplating weasel word arrangement in order to con some gullible idiot, tended to cut through to the nitty gritty even though painful simply because the whole weight of the totality of exploitation in work & liesure becomes that much more impossible to bear. JD knew the condition well constantly returning to his refrain: "No brain, no pain". Once two serious work-related illnesses set in ' bowel colitus and diabetes ' alongside the boozing he found impossible to kick ' that mental anguish springing from sharp analysis plus the unrelenting and increasing physical pain meant his diatribe of notes were flung down at screaming pitch.
First though a little bit of background. Throughout most of his later years at Kiveton Park colliery in South Yorkshire, JD worked as a welder in the workshops near the pit head winding gear where, along with his work mates, he adapted the imported machinery for extracting the coal to the specific conditions underground of the colliery coal seams and tunnels. The workshop was obviously constantly full of noxious fumes and, over the years, it was bound in the best of circumstances to take is physical toll no matter what health and safety precautions one cared to take. JD, needless to say, with his devil-may-care attitude, was none to careful about such things. Increasingly, particularly after the defeat of the miners in 1985, he would have more than a little drink before going to work ' especially if it was a late or night shift. Sometimes he'd take a top-up flask with him and then amid all the acrid welding fumes there'd be that ciggy stuck in his mouth. As he'd often point out, the defeat meant management were nastily on the offensive constantly whittling away at that margin of freedom and conversation that the miners themselves had created before the strike which meant you could have a relatively good time as the craic and banter flowed between work mates. That little flask could take the worst edge of dumb-fuck, vindictive management which also was a major factor in the many flash flood 'ragouts' (small wildcat strikes) that often occurred in the shifts between the defeat and the wholesale pit closures begun in 1993
"Myself is beginning to demolish": (JD 1999)
And then the real horrors. Out of a job, Kiveton Park colliery closed down, followed by an almost instant demolition with only the pit head baths saved by English Heritage (as the miners weren't saved) a worthy piece of architecture set against unworthy people. JD's illness went from bad to worse. Only a decade earlier ' as they had done for a couple of centuries ' the miners had placed their imprint over the whole of South and West Yorkshire. They were respected and looked up to even by fuckhead creeps, rats and opportunists of all description. Now, suddenly they were nothing. Overnight, they had become no people even though they'd often been awarded quite handsome monetary compensation as balm for elimination. But because they were no people this compensation became the means so often for their self-liquidation ' in more ways than one if you get the meaning! Now they had in the palm of their hands the economic lever for complete self-immolation via drugs and drink. It corresponded so often with the immolation of their old homes ' after being quickly moved out and on to another job in another area ' then speedily demolished by building contractors often, at the behest of local government, to clear the area of all memory of an insurgent and humane past. Over the years the clearances got worse. Imagine the horrors on seeing rows of miners houses in flames in the spring of 2003 at Frickley, West Yorks. (Frickley, that most delightfully crazy of insurgent pit communities who instantly on hearing of the proposed pit closure programme in 1993 dumped lorry loads of coal outside the home of the then, Minister for Energy, Michael Heseltine ' and miles away from the coalfields!) Immediately, on seeing this disgusting spectacle ' the pain darting across your heart and that gigantic lump in your throat ' meant you were witnessing the stuff of pogrom; of insult to injury; of the killing fields.
Alas, if it were so easy to say such dramatic things! These killing fields were carried out with such aestheticism, and a heavily disguised subtlety that truth became almost impossible to define. Self-immolation corresponded with the rush to develop former colliery grounds underwritten by low business rates. Californian style prefabricated sometimes themed business parks with their Call Centres and T-Mobile premises together with middle-income housing estates sprang up everywhere. The undeclared aim of this new urbanism is the elimination of all feeling for the areas' industrial past, apart from token emblems like pithead winding wheels cut into a semi-circle and dug into at road junctions like a gibbet to remind people to forget. A piece of sculpture to contemplate and seamlessly in line with the new urban aesthetic.
Most of the new estates, advertised as prestigious housing development, are for middle income personnel, fresh to the locality and related to the economic needs of a recent hi-tech presence. The sales pitch of Estate Agents includes a 'pretty' outlook or the eventual promise of one, as, yet again, the scars of Yorkshire's industrial past are suitably levelled and grassed over. The former mining villages are in close proximity to the economic hub of northern Europe not far across the sea to the east. Gentrification is the name of the game. Gone are the old vast heaped-up marshalling yards and like at nearby Wath-On-Dearne ' only a few years ago designated as "the largest area of dereliction in the UK" - a model country park has been landscaped reminiscent of Regents Park in London.
This then is the grim background to JD's rantings shot through with lucidity and poetic accuracy the more the man became a haunted outcast and total stranger on his own turf. So maybe it's best now to simply quote from a small portion of these generally incomprehensible writings with as spare a comment as possible.
JD outlined some comments on The Ridley Plan worked out more precisely by the Thatcher Government after their retreat on pit closures after the miners' wildcats in 1982 coming so soon after the great urban rebellions of inner city youth in 1981. He called the Plan: "The bluest blue print this side of the drawing for The Titanic" put into place, "so that Capital and the global market would not be seriously threatened again in the UK".
"Margaret Thatcher was the epitome of the uncaring, lousy, bastard politician. A person so corrupt and disgusting that she would surround herself with even worse scum. These people and their party rode rough shod over the shit wits that make up the population of the UK' only to be followed by the Blair clones".
(Increasingly in the 1990s JD hated the rank stupidity of people ' especially those at the sharp end who didn't even begin to get it. Bitterly reacting to the dumbing down spreading like the plague, he clearly saw its impetus coming from the victory of scabs which has all the hatred of the most powerful miners song of all, The Dirty Black Leg Miner, composed during a miners' strike in Northumberland in the late 19th century).
"Small people. Do you understand the meaning of the word, SCAB? For myself, it is anathema. As far as the 'condition humaine' the scab that lives should be cast out, should be killed".
"It's the funeral of the Queen Mother. Over one hundred thousand people filed past her coffin. I don't believe it. It's fucking incredible. These English. They never cease to amaze me. Do they amaze you?"
JD felt that the main reason the Tory Government went to destroy the miners was because of their sense of community ' their spirit of helping each and all ' rather than their potential control over a major energy resource. It was a concrete example of everyday co-operation and humanity that had to be obliterated to make way for the ultra commodification of the individual. He said we needed to explain: "The steady drip feed of temptation and greed, that there is no such thing as a decent, organised society, there's just the individual begging, borrowing and stealing, weakest to the wall and I'm alright Jack, let's pull up the ladder"'bringing about "the destruction by fear and intimidation of a decent benevolent society".
(Two or three times in his raging notes, JD quotes Geoffrey Chaucer, the 13th century English poet, on an utterly selfish individualism grimly and typically noting its merits in one of those arguments he was always having with himself. In a way, you sense he would have loved to have been like this Miller but simply couldn't be).
"Once there was a Miller,
Lived on the River Dee,
He milled and sang from morn till dusk,
No happier man than he,
And if you should ever ask him how it came to be,
He'll tell you,
I care for nobody, No not I, for nobody cares for me."
(I have no idea if this is the correct modern English version of Chaucer as JD would quote these remembered things from off the top of his head).
As an epitaph to the miners' strike he says:
"We were slowly but surely broken (but it was well-signaled) that we would not be able to beat the monster of Capitalism".
" A really blue, blueprint"
"This illustrates our families demise. My wife's physical and mental exactitudes. The collapse of our health, wealth and welfare. My retreat into drink and its ramifications. The steady alienation of our children. Then diabetes, ulcerative colitus for me''..Point out the drugs, the drink, the lack of any real social cohesion. A very sad story indeed when the poor have to steal from the poor"
"There is no place for Me
Or Thee and many such as We
We are without light in this land
Of Grab and Steal
Although we carry the Knife
Of Justice and Revenge"
"This tirade of bile that I put out
This scream of hate: It's what I shout".
In a way that was the point and the contradiction. Having spent all the redundancy - which is the way of the workers - on a spending spree plus booze and then desperate for money to subsidise his habit, JD contemplated mugging and minor hi-jackings after having been banned from most local shops for inept shop lifting as so often is the case when out of your brain. To be sure, he'd harangue people for money and later feel terrible about it. "How far I would crawl to get alcohol into my being". But then ' and sure sign of his great humanity ' John lashes out at the young thugs who are beginning to terrorise the vulnerable ' frightened himself that he'd heard on the street word was out they were going to form a posse ('possy" JD called it). After all he'd already had his windows stoned as well as being stoned in the street. In particular he notes a young brute who beat up a local old lady, stealing her purse and even the fish she'd bought at the fish mongers. She took two weeks to die. In his alcoholic delirium, JD saw himself as this little old lady and sometimes, even the piece of fish. He poignantly himself expressed some of these contradictions:
"I am going out today
And I'm frightened
No easy way for me today
Begging, Borrowing, Stealing
Casting aside my social instincts
The trouble is he despised himself for this because he couldn't be "without feeling". Even though forced into a kind of fuckheadism he couldn't be a fuckhead and that was the poor man's dilemma. As he said at the time: "My shame makes sense only if we admit my addiction". It's signed "The Celtic Revenge" ' most likely meaning the drink more than JD's Irish ancestry although increasingly he saw the latter as playing its part too.
For a brief moment the de-tox clinic worked and for a year or more JD kicked the drink though often hating to go to sleep hoping for an erotic dream and really dreading those involving alcohol. Suddenly in the de-tox at Bassetlaw hospital after treatment for the shakes and diarrhoea, he laments how alcoholism has wreaked the final havoc on his always refreshingly, open-minded, dysfunctional family. Less anguished, the balance comes back into focus and his profundity clearer. In a way though such self-recriminations shows the over-sensitive humanity of the man. More than anything it was the outside brutality of capital that had caused this but inevitably it was taken on board like some personal guilt. As his wife Jenny said recently, the traumatic defeat of the miners is still tearing families apart and causing agonies for kids who weren't even born during the struggle as the pall of the defeat is bequeathed to future generations.
"The hours are filled helping and hindering each others piece of mind. Most have lives outside this place that are in tatters because of one form of addiction or another. It's mostly booze but there are others that are suffering from drugs given mistakenly then abused dreadfully. Addiction is the watchword. It lurks waiting to put its strength against your weakness and once in control it is without mercy. So endeth the first lesson but alas it is true. Standing in this queue awaiting my relief I soon understand that drugs (medicinal) are being used to fight other drugs (recreational) and I'm the piggy in the middle and if I'm not careful I'll soon be pork in the sandwich".
Throughout the course of his various illnesses JD got to know Bassetlaw well. Seven years previously and before the real hell set in, in 1991, at the time of the first Iraq war he has a most amusing story to tell.
"Jen was returning from Rotherham on Friday. Being bounced like a pea in a pod on the top deck of a smoky, sweaty, South Yorks, double-decker bus. To lessen the agony and hasten the passage of time she honed in on a conversation between two females of pensionable age who were sat directly in front of her. The talk went like this: "Well, I'm beginning to feel sorry for him", says woman No 1. "Who Saddam" say's No 2. "Yes, I don't think it's fair, our lot blasting him all our fancy stuff and all he can throw back is spuds, no I don't think it's right". Jen says she nearly bit the filter tip off her fag and was still chuckling when she came through the door (to the hospital). But unless they were doing a con job on Jenny knowing she was evesdropping, then it says something about perceptions and misconceptions even if I'm not sure what. Spuds indeed!"
Of course, the whole true story hinges on the mix up between spuds (colloquial lingo for potatoes) and scuds (the missiles) and just that type of word flow so dear to JD. In the same too brief pages of lucidity he mentions how Nick had sent him a present in hospital. "Nick sent me a dozen red roses to the hospital. The reaction of the nurses is worth comment. First they assumed they were from a woman. Then when I declared they were from a man, looks of puzzlement overcame their faces and the main commment was ummn very nice". JD was also bisexual, a proclivity he enjoyed though never pushing it down your throat as the blurb for a Carry on Miner film would have deployed even though the "ummn" was of the same zing. In a way the dysfunctional household gave off more than a warm welcoming, more of a come and get it if you want it overtone which was never off-putting as casual nakedness and embrace were thrown at you with such sheer affection. Gay scenes at the pit face now lived quite happily alongside the hymn singing now perhaps reconstructed as work song together with the fresh influx of blues and rock.
It was in one of these periods of relative freedom from drink that John wrote his "Story With No Name" about an incidence of creative vandalism at Kiveton Park Colliery which he'd instigated. During the 90s, JD attended a Basic Counselling Course ' swallowing the obligatory PC, especially pro-feminist line ' and for a while it was successful in keeping addiction from the door. But the overall general onslaught was just too great as bit by bit the whole roof caved in to be followed by the increasing nightmare of the man's end.
But then, by the late 1990s, all this was a long time ago as memories of more carefree and assured times became more than clouded over. Terrible expressions of nihilism begin to take over profound in their almost King Lear/Macbeth-like poignancy. Rimbaud, in a Season in Hell, says he played "some fine tricks on madness" but JD's testimony is one so dire that he could no longer do so.
"There is no one to turn to
All the codes become bollocks
From dawn to dusk, nothing.
This prime of nothingness"
" We give up all hope, we lose our appetites for food and the daily round of life. Shrinking into a corner of sadness, life has no joy. Then because we are not eating, our bodies and brains (the same) retreat into malnutrition and so it goes round and around, back and forth, until madness sets in. All hope is lost, all goodness is denied us for we have ceased being of any good. Death in this way is squalid and there is no need it should be so."
JD knew full well where he was heading in his long death throws. All that was left was the whiskey, the pills and the screaming pain getting worse as daily he'd lie in his own diarrhoea more and more losing all sense of himself and even his identity imagining in his illness he'd become all kinds of things and before his electricity was permanently cut-off during the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, that he'd even got the disease himself.
"Oh no I've got foot and mouth
I'll not be killed, I'll be culled"
It was as though misshapen and disintegrated he could no longer separate himself from other events or sentient beings. He really did feel as though he was one of the slaughtered animals with hoofs in the air, as he became one of his dogs as he'd seen himself as the mugged old lady and even her piece of fish. In his writings truly the madness did set in as reality increasingly overlapped with bizarre fantasy. Although his estranged family constantly stepped in paying this and that bill it was all too much as they had little money themselves and, wringing their hands in exasperation and despair, knowing that handing fivers and tenners over to John meant more for the off-licence.
A stone thrown by a malicious young kid at his living room French window facing the back garden causes JD to go to the window where shortly, seeing a man with a shock of grey hair, he welcomes Merlin and various others from the court of King Arthur. Ushering them in after a brief debate with himself he shows them his arms stash from underneath the stairs of "two brownings, six fragmentation grenades and gas grenades with a stun capacity". Thus a long story, set in early medieval times evolves, peopled with phantom figures from Thor to Robin Hood and Little John together with that perhaps inevitable early Wesleyan experience (so typical of the mining community) of pilgrims and hymns meticulously written out and sung all mixed together in a final, unholy brew. Norse sagas and Norsemen enter together with ancient Greenlanders on psychotropic drugs together with Two Crows (a Native American tribal chief) who meet up With Cromwell's Ironsiders assisted by Hilda, the 6th century AD, first Abbess of Whitby in that dramatic town set on the cliffs of the North Yorks Moors. They set out to save the world or rather together with the "Irish" to destroy everything before them in some medieval pillage and slaughter. In and out of this there are the Mongul hordes together with a Saddam who will finally win against the West. Within this unreadable chaos fragments of JD's mind constantly argue and disagree with other slivers of tissue. Truly a Songs Of Maldoror of dementia and utter disconnection but one from which hardly a profound truth can be garnished despite the above precis which makes it sound so interesting.
Nonetheless, here and there the crazed tale snaps into an abiding focus. "Buy the world and Destroy all hope. This bloody scum of the universe can only make our lot worse and worse. Curse them. They are shit at the bottom of life's barrel. They speak shit; it's what they look like. It's what they sound like."
"These fuckers who would say this and that
But we must not speak of money goals and god
Are truly beneath contempt.
They are the thieves of words."
"There is no bloody place for me to go crept under
This quilt on this old settee.
OK you bastards you've won today
But believe me cunt faces, I'll have the last word."
"It's no good being dead, just to make you feel good
Stomping in the peasants' blood."
What more can one say?
Dave W. August 25th 2003
(For more information on the miners' strike of 1984-5 see below on the RAP web)