I want to share with you, a story, not a true story, but one based in truth. A good online friend of mine put me onto a film [movie] that I had seen once, but completely forgotten about. The film is set in the region of the UK I grew up in the 1980’s and is by a fine up and coming young director called Shane Meadows. The film is very powerful, believable and Paddy Considine plays an excellent roll.
For anyone who is not from the 1980’s East Midlands, this film is maybe just another revenge film, hack and slash flick with nothing much more to offer. The only problem with that is, the undertones of the film, are subtle and all based in truth.
During the 1980’s, Great Britain was in recession. Jobs were hard to come by, house repossession was rife, inflation was high and the prospects for teenagers were bleak. In 1984, we had the infamous miners strike. Margaret Thatcher decided she was going to take on the might of the miners union and Arthur Scargill and it set about a fall in the power that trade unions had at the time. It was a time of great change in this country
I spent my teenage years on the border of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. A beautiful scenic area of our country. The village I lived in was small and loosely connected to 3 other villages close by. The one common denominator was mining. There were originally coal mines in every village. The communities grew from the mining industry and depended on it. When you left school, you either moved away from the area or went to work down the ‘pit’ as they were called.
So that’s set the scene. The film, Dead Mans Shoes, is a reflection of life in and around the mining industry of the time.
This is where we turn away from the actual film and look a little closer at the era, the politics and the area.
I ended up in the area aged 12. Personal circumstances saw me go to live with my father. I settled in well, but it was not long until I found trouble, or it found me. That was nothing new in my life then. The mines were closing, one by one, more and more people moved away to find employment and a better life somewhere else. The village shops began to close, the pubs as well. The villages were becoming glorified retirement homes. The youth clubs closed, our one and only source of entertainment. Then, the right people, at the wrong time moved in. Right for them, wrong for the rest of us. The drug dealers appeared like spectres in the night. One day they weren’t there, the next they were.
Young teenagers with nothing to do made for a ripe market. We could not get enough. We begged, we stole, we borrowed. We needed cigarettes and dope, lots of it. We needed acid to see us through the long boring weekends. We needed booze to have the parties on the wreck [area of open land]. How we got them mattered not. We needed speed, so we could party all weekend, that meant we needed more booze. It became a vicious circle, one that some of us never made it out of. A school pal died, full of acid, he never saw the car. A couple of the older lads got busted and sent down [jailed] but we continued the way we always did. School? that was a laugh. Most of us never bothered after 14, when we chose our ‘options’ the subjects we were going to take exams in. If you watch the film, you will begin to relate to this.
Many of us, the ‘in’ crowd were in over our heads. I became a thief. I would steal anything and everything. I was the main man, the one who found the money to buy the drink, the drugs the cigarettes. You needed something? a new tv? a video recorder [remember Betamax anyone]? clothes? a car? hey, no worries, somehow, I delivered. I gave the cash from this lifestyle to the lads who knew the dealers, they bought the gear, we had a ball. Only after a while, it didn’t do anything for me. It was a habit, a bad one and time was running out.
I got busted doing a shop over one night, did my time in a secure young offenders institution and when I came out, what was there left for me? Nothing. I ended up in foster care. They were in it for the money, nothing else. I was constantly arrested for this and that, always looking for a oppurtunity to steal.
The long-term outlook was beyond bleak. In the film, you get a sense of that I think. Apart from one guy, the rest just never get off the merry-go-round. Thats what it was like. There was no future. We lived day-to-day. The drinking became a part of our life that is like food to you. Drugs saw us escape the monotony of our existence.
Things got so bad, I took to petrol [gasoline] you get a damned good high from old 4 star petrol [not unleaded like we use today].
So just like half the characters in this film, my life was going nowhere fast. The months rolled by and nothing changed. A few more men lost their jobs and moved away. More of my so-called friends got locked up for all kinds of different crimes. One night, I climbed out my bedroom window, met my mate, tricky Dicky [no longer with us] and we nicked a lorry. We drove up and down the motorway for hours before it ran out of juice and we dumped it. Thats how we got our thrills.
Watching that film again, I felt just like Richard, returning to my roots. I didn’t have revenge in mind, I just knew these people, intimately. I was one of these people. Thinking I was someone but really I was no-one. I was scared, but to show fear showed weakness. There was always someone on hand to exploit weakness. Richard dislikes weakness, so do I. But we all have some. Richard dislikes drugs, but for us, it was an addiction.
I was lucky, very lucky. I found a way out. I grabbed it with both hands. I know, if I had stayed there much longer there were two alternatives left to me, death of jail, neither prospect excited me that much. I moved away, slowly I got my life together. I don’t have any regrets. I cannot go back and change anything. It was a chapter in the book of life that is now closed. I don’t smoke anymore, I don’t do drugs anymore and I hardly drink. The odd beer here and there, a mojito or two, that’s my whack jack.
If you should watch that film, try to keep one eye on the undercurrents of real life that is depicted there. It’s not Hollywood, its small communities in Derbyshire that are still like that to this day, I kid you not. The houses you see are what are called prefabs. They were built after WWII due to a crippling housing shortage. They were a temporary fix, designed to have a life span of 20 years. Most of them are still standing today and are still lived in. The house comes in prefabricated sections and are assembled on site. They are terrible places to live. But many elderly and disadvantaged people find themselves living in them.
The vengeance theme of the film is not real, but everything else there is more than real, it all exists, but in a place that most of us would prefer to ignore.
There is a new film hitting our screens about now. The Iron Lady. All about the life and rise to power of Margaret Thatcher. She was known back then as Thatcher Thatcher the milk snatcher. She was Education Secretary before she became Prime Minister and she was responsible for stopping the free milk that young children got everyday, free, at school. Thats the type of person she was.
The 1984 Miners Strike was a complete and utter disaster for this country. Arthur Scargill was leader of the miners union and he called for strike action without a ballot over pay and conditions. The miners came out on strike apart from miners in Nottinghamshire who decided to work on. The picket lines then appeared and each day, miners who wanted to keep working ran the gauntlet of the Flying Pickets just to get to work. The battles between the pickets and the police happened every day during the dispute. Families with decades of tradition in the mining industry were torn apart. I still know of brothers, fathers and sons, who still don’t speak to each other because of the rifts caused by that dispute. I know of men who refused to attend friends funerals, men they knew all their lives, because of that dispute. It was a tradegy. That gives some backdrop to what life was like back then. Unions torn apart, families the same, mass unemployment and poverty like I have never known.
My step father was a miner. So I know a fair amount about mining. Probably what you see in The Iron Lady and what is real will be two different things. My step father was one of the men who worked during that strike. They call them ‘scabs’ and ‘black-legs’ in this country. Men that he worked with for 30 years still call him a scab to this day.
So that’s what life was like back in the 80’s in the East Midlands for us. I for one think that comes across pretty well in the film.As for Thatcher, great leader? I think not. Great woman, probably.
So ends my little sojourn down Memory Lane.