Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001
As the media marks the death of Margaret Thatcher with blanket television coverage looking back at her time in office some familiar images are brought back to mind. But sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the memories: which of the images am I really recalling from the 1980s? In the case of the images of the 1983/4 miners’ strike, the boundaries between news footage and re-enactment are very blurry in my head. I remember the strike very well; I remember the marches and the benefit gigs, I remember throwing money into collection buckets every day on my way to and from work, probably with a ‘coal not dole’ badge on my coat, and I remember the news reports. At least, I think I do. But there’s a distinct possibility that some of that memory is somewhat second hand. The images of Orgreave that are so clear in my mind come not just from the news reports of the time, shocking though they were, but also from Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the event, filmed by Mike Figgis.
The Battle of Orgreave (clip), filmed by Mike Figgis, 2001
Deller worked with both historical re-enactors and local people – including former mineworkers – to restage the clash; Figgis filmed the event and interviewed some of those – from both sides – who were there on 18 June 1984 when striking mineworkers on the picket line outside British Steel’s coking plant at Orgreave, South Yorkshire clashed with the police.
Deller’s reenactment is interesting not just as an attempt to understand what happened at Orgreave and the on-going implications of the miners’ strike and Margaret Thatcher’s war against the trade unions – and the interviews with people on both sides of that day’s events pepper Figgis’s film are fascinating – but also in referencing the culture of civil war re-eactment that sees thousands regularly spending their weekends re-staging past battles in the English countryside. Here the costumes may be different, and the involvement of local people, including former mineworkers, adds a layer of authenticity impossible to achieve when re-staging battles from centuries ago, but the activity is, essentially, the same.
I’ve never understood the attraction of re-enacting civil war battles; apart from anything else, I prefer my leisure activities to involve fewer costumes* and less mud. In this case though, I get it.
* No costumes at all. I really don’t do dressing up.