"Some people expect U2 to come on like a political band. . . . Other people see us as prophets. Some see us as pop stars. . . . And we're not any of those things. We're probably all of them. I don't know what we are."
Red Hill Mining Town: The Strike, the Book, the Song
May 10, 2017
Well, I left school at fifteen, and went straight into Red Hill pit. I’ve been there ever since. My dad was a miner at Red Hill all his life, and his father before him, and I think his father before him. So it’s what you might say our family pit like. I’d uncles there too. — Bill Barrymore,* Red Hill Miner
Barrymore’s experience was like countless others in the mining community of the 1980s. Great Britain has a long history of coal mining, dating all the way back to Roman times. At its peak in the 1920s, the industry employed over 1 million workers; by 2015 that number had dwindled to roughly 2,000, as cited by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Just over 30 years ago, a devastating strike crippled many of the coal mining towns.
The 1984 – 1985 Miners’ Strike
In the early 1980s, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a staunch conservative, conceived a plan to grow the economy. Part of that plan was to shut down the coal mines that weren’t producing a respectable return on investment and import energy sources from other countries. According to Guthrie Hutton’s 2005 book Coal Not Dole: Memories of the 1984/85 Miner’s Strike, the proposal would have resulted in the loss of approximately 20,000 jobs.
In response, the National Union of Mineworkers, led by socialist Arthur Scargill, declared a strike, which began March 12, 1984, and didn’t conclude until March 3, 1985.
Impact on Communities
This year-long struggle for resolution had a severe impact on the mining employees. With no jobs to go to — only picket lines to join — many of the men lost their sense of worth. Marriages suffered, financial situations became dismal and the struggle merely to survive became real.
Oral historian Tony Parker had a front-row seat to the tragedy. He had a gift for getting strangers to open up about the most intimate topics, and he used this skill to interview miners and their families who were affected by the strike. The outcome was the book, Red Hill: A Mining Community, originally published in 1986.
Bono read the book and wanted to craft an artistic response to the strike, but not about the politics surrounding it. In U2: Into the Heart he told Niall Stokes, “I’m more interested in the relationship at this point in time because I feel other people are more qualified to comment on the miners’ strike. That enraged me — but I feel more qualified to write about the relationships because I understand them more than what it’s like to work in a pit.”
The result? “Red Hill Mining Town,” released on The Joshua Tree in 1987.
Storytelling by Song
Right out of the gate, in his lyrics, Bono emphasizes that mining’s a family business.
From father to sun the blood runs thin
When one line of work is all your family has known for several generations, it’s difficult to find alternate employment if that industry is jeopardized. Miner Geoff Danson explained to Parker:
Restless from the loss of their daily (or nightly) routines, many of the men relied on their wives to keep their homes functional, for a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos.
The glass is cut, the bottle run dry
Not only did their partners keep dinners on the table and make sure the kids got to school, they went above and beyond for their families’ futures.
In response to the depression their men were suffering and the lack of resources available to their families, several of the miners’ wives mobilized to form the official Women Against Pit Closures campaign. In addition to asking businesses and surrounding communities for monetary and food donations for miners in need, they rallied and marched in protest of the closures.
Pauline Street, wife of a Red Hill miner, told Parker of the confidence she gained being a participant in this movement:
The love and support from their women didn’t go unnoticed. John Potter told Parker about how much he appreciated his wife Moira, and in his spare time away from the mine, he liked to build her things:
In Red Hill Town, see the lights go down on
And the wait was long. Men grew impatient as uncertainty loomed and violence erupted on the picket lines. Miners were arrested for the outbursts; some served time in jail, others paid fines. But all of the punished had to live with a criminal record.
Miner Alan Whitfield told Parker he was arrested for attacking a fellow miner attempting to work during the strike. He hit him with a stick of wood when the man threatened to drive into the picket line. Whitfield was fired as a result of the incident. He had no idea what he was supposed to do for work without a chance at going back to the coal mine. He mused, “Perhaps I could take up a life of crime or something, that seems about the only future for me.”
As Bono wails about love being “slowly stripped away” toward the end of the song, it’s easy to see from Parker’s interviews just how dismal the situation got.
Despite the efforts to keep the mine open following the strike, the lights officially did go down on Red Hill. The National Coal Board closed the pit permanently just three months after Parker spoke with the miners, forcing them to move and pursue work at an active mine or find employment outside the industry.
It should also be noted that the name “Red Hill” is fictional — Parker made it up to protect the residents’ privacy.
As for the song “Red Hill Mining Town,” it too got a new beginning. A fresh mix produced by Steve Lillywhite was released just last month. Additionally, the song will be played live for the first time on the upcoming 30th anniversary tour of the legendary album on which it appears.
*For the privacy of the families involved, all the names of the miners were changed in Parker’s book.
(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2017