Jean Gittins is a poet of the miner’s strike. She wrote 5 short poems for a BBC2 documentary in December 1985.
She lived in Kippax and her husband was a miner and her two youngest sons worked at Ledston Luck Colliery. She was an active member of North Yorkshire Women Against Pit Closures and had a collection of poems Striking Stuff published by Bradford’s 1 in 12 Publications Collective in 1986 (ISBN 0 948994 00 2).
In the academic book Digging The Seam: People’s Cultures of the 1984/85 Miner’s Stike (2012) The academic Mike Sanders compares the Chartist mass strike of 1842 to the 84-85 miners’ strike and draws attention to one of the common characteristics of both events – the mass production of poetry. “Poetry and politics are linked,” he writes, “by their transformative potential”.
In 2009 the BBC were looking at the history of the miner’s strike 25 years on, and Jean told them: “I had written some poetry all my life but my family said ‘that won’t earn yer’. Publishing the booklet Kim appeared in was a fund-raising thing when the miners’ funds were sequestrated.
“I find that my poetry has to be inspired by something, I can’t just turn the tap on.
“It might seem odd to say but the strike was the best year of my life and very different to anything I could have expected. Who would have thought I’d be making a speech on the back of a tractor at Hyde Park with faces in the crowd stretching further back than I could see?
“Mine was a mining family including my two youngest sons who were miners. I’m not sure that, even now, some of the miners involved want reminding about the strike.
“People don’t know the severity of it all. If you weren’t involved why would you know? You don’t always know much before getting involved in something and people wouldn’t know what the strike entailed before it started.
“I learnt about other things during the strike that I hadn’t thought about before, like the Irish question, I didn’t know about the struggles in Ireland. Same with the Anti-apartheid struggles.
“I am 72 now, but I would go back, if I could, to 1984-5 that would do me.
“History wasn’t written by people like us and I think it should be.”
This poem is in both the documentary and the collection.
I can’t understand what has happened to Kim
There’s been such a terrible change
When I think of how that girl acted before
I can’t understand such a change
A beautiful hand with the pastry she had
Her sponge cakes were lovely and light
But, now it’s all muesli, and yoghurt, and nuts
While she’s out at meetings each night
We could have gone on, for the rest of our lives
Never knowing, just what she was like
And, she’d have been trapped in our image of her
If it hadn’t have been for the strike.
Katy Shaw says of the poem: “Here, home-life and working-class culture are put in direct competition with an active, participatory social life and new ‘trendy’ health foods; a process of transition which the poem seems to suggest was not borne out of, but speeded up by, the strike. This conflict undoubtedly shaped the lives of the women who lived through it.”
In her 2012 book, Mining the Meaning, Katy Shaw, an expert on miners’ poetry, has examined an archive of 1984 strikers’ poetry that ranges from poems published in anthologies and national newspapers to works published in small presses, as well as many poems scribbled at the back of cereal boxes and beer mats. Shaw says that the strike disempowered workers economically but empowered them linguistically: miners, with the help of benevolent publishers, wrote to raise funds, for instance for the Miners’ Victimization Fund, but mostly to strike a balance against many misconceptions conveyed by the media, which forced them to take a deep look at their action as a collective force, but also as individuals who were finding their own way of making history.