Friday, 9 December 2011

Book - Diary tells story of the miner who became a general

NOTTS miner John Lowe was 52 years of age in March 1984. Riddled with health issues caused by almost 40 years underground, he was off sick from work when the National Coal Board's pit closure programme was announced and the miners' strike erupted.

With the initial pickets by members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from outside the county having tailed off in his absence, he attended the April monthly branch meeting at Clipstone feeling that something needed to be done.

"Twelve Derbyshire lads were outside lobbying," he wrote on that day.

"At one point I stood and asked just how much we were prepared to take, or if we were going to stand up and fight the closure programme.

"My final words were, 'If there are any men left here with red blood in their veins, they'll follow me outside now and stand beside those Derbyshire lads'. The invitation was accepted by 50 men almost immediately."

The dispute was particularly vicious in Notts and parts of the Midlands. With the majority remaining at work, the strikers were treated as lepers, whereas other NUM areas, such as Yorkshire and Durham, were solid in their support for strike action.

Notts' reputation as a "scab county", fashioned when George Spence formed a breakaway mining union following the General Strike of 1926, had returned to haunt it – as John alluded to in his diary notes.

"[Tonight saw] the most disgraceful reaction that I have ever seen: when 'Spencerism' was mentioned as a danger, the result from the other side was one of cheers and shouts.

"When the break-up of the union was brought up, this was openly encouraged again, to cheers. I felt physically sick."

John had been elected chairman of a "rank and file" Clipstone strike committee and was privy to the organisation of the strike in the Notts area as well as at pit level. Neither could be described as straightforward.

The events of 1984-85 politicised him. He was appalled by the treatment of his union and the portrayal of the miners in the media, while feeling it was his duty to fight for the jobs of future generations.

Dennis Skinner MP, the famed "Beast of Bolsover", provides the foreword to a new book of John's experiences – If Spirit Alone Won Battles: The 1984-85 Miners' Strike in Nottinghamshire.

He recalls knowing John as a young man in Clay Cross before encountering him again as an activist during the strike.

"Early in the dispute I did a big meeting at Worksop set up principally to galvanise the local NUM forces in Nottinghamshire," writes Mr Skinner.

"And there was John Lowe – and he wasn't just a member of the crowd! He was asking questions, making speeches… I had to say to someone, 'is that the same fella?' And the reply was yes! It was a revelation to me.

"If I was to be asked whether people could turn into giants, politically and industrially, as a result of a battle with the management and the Government and the police, I would put him in the top ten of those people."

The aggressive policing of the picket line saw many strikers arrested at Clipstone, John among them.

"I stood my ground because of my intention to check the line, a regular practice I have followed right through the dispute," John Lowe wrote in his diary.

"A local constable amongst them was saying, 'Mr Lowe, go back please'.

"I asked repeatedly what I was doing wrong and, if I was causing an obstruction, to tell me how and where. My questions were ignored while the officers continued to jostle me.

"I sat on the grass, telling them I was refusing to move; two grabbed me, one on each side, by the arms and pulled me to my feet.

"I pulled back and one of them must have lost his footing because the one to the left of me fell, pulling me down with him which in turn pulled the one on the right down on top of me.

"What followed then is something of a nightmare: I was conscious of at least three other officers on the floor holding me down; one said 'put the handcuffs on him' and I received a clip to the right side of my jaw followed by a forearm brought viciously down across my throat."

Ultimately charged with obstruction and assault, John's faith in law and order was destroyed forever.

Despite the myriad difficulties, there were moments of hope.

Support for the Clipstone strikers arrived from unexpected sources around the country and beyond: money and goods were sent while children were hosted on holidays. Within the intense fires of hardship, friendships were forged.

Such contacts meant that Christmas 1984 was an uplifting time for their families when it could so easily have broken their will.

"Time for the kids' party finally came around and right from the start the place was bursting at the seams: not only the kids – around 90 – but mums, dads, grandparents and even the ones with no kids.

"Not for one moment did the tempo and enthusiasm slacken and I, for one, was completely knackered by the end. Maggie, you should have been there to see just how beaten we are!"

But in the spring, the fight went away from the NUM. There was a crushing drift back to work which left John and his colleagues hanging on at the start of March.

"This report is the hardest I've ever had to try and write. I feel so full of emotion – anger, frustration, shame, bewilderment. I'm finding great difficulty in putting my thoughts together.

"Mid-afternoon the news came through that the [NUM delegates'] conference had decided narrowly, 98 to 91, that the strike was at an end. Although expected, it came as a body blow, well below the belt. My wife cried tears for me that I couldn't cry for myself; they'll probably come later.

"I feel so proud of her for the support she's given in spite of all the difficulties and heartaches she's suffered. When the history of this dispute is written, the Elsie Lowes of this world will surely stand out above everything: Thatcher pales into insignificance and will never bear mention in the same breath."

John Lowe died in 2005, and his funeral was marked by numerous NUM banners and references. As speeches remembered him, his fellow strikers unashamedly interrupted with cries of "General John" – the moniker they gave to this unlikely hero.

For that is how he is remembered by his colleagues, despite the loss of their industry.

"John Lowe was a big man in Nottinghamshire," Mansfield MP Alan Meale announced at the launch of John's published diaries.

"He came right from nowhere to become a leader of men. He was decent, honourable, a trade unionist first and foremost and a community person. If we follow the principles this man had, there is hope for us all."

If Spirit Alone Won Battles: The 1984-85 Miners' Strike in Nottinghamshire is published by Pen and Sword (£12.99).

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