In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell famously described a “startling and overwhelming” realisation upon arriving in Barcelona. As a result of the revolution, the city had been transformed into something he had never experienced before: “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”, he wrote.
On the second Saturday of each July, this is what you’ll find in Durham.
Durham City, an island of economic prosperity in a sea of deprivation will be completely transformed by a colourful, joyful procession of some 200,000 people marching with their miners’ and trades union banners. These ornate miners’ banners, which celebrate working-class history, achievements, heroes and values – as well as expressing future aspirations – are accompanied by some of the finest brass bands in the country, playing a mix of traditional and contemporary music.
When the second Durham Miners’ Gala or “Big Meeting” was held in 1872 – the first to march through the city – it sparked fears from the city’s well-to-do inhabitants, who were so troubled about this “invasion” of “their” city that the authorities moved to line the streets with militia men and police. Of course, these fears – borne out of class prejudice – were completely unfounded. Some 60,000 miners and their families marched through the city centre before gathering to hear speeches which emphasised the importance of trade unionism. Within a few years the Gala had grown exponentially, and a Miners’ Service in the Norman Cathedral was incorporated into the ritual of the Gala day. It quickly became the pre-eminent annual event in the labour movement’s calendar, a role which was sustained for almost the entirety of the 20th century.
In the 1980s and 1990s, attendance declined and there was talk in certain quarters that the Gala might not continue. Perhaps, as a result of the of the brutal 1984/5 strike and the devastating pit closure programme, the trauma and pain had left many in the local mining communities unable to celebrate “Durham day”. Politically, it was shunned by the ascendant “New Labour”, which treated working-class traditions with contempt and the Gala became a bastion of an increasingly marginalised “Old Labour.”
But it continued because ultimately, despite the destruction of their industry, the mining communities were not broken. In many of the pit villages, banner groups sprung up which raised funds to restore or replace their community’s miners’ banner. And the Gala evolved, as the procession was opened up to allow various trade unions and community and campaign groups to take part. Now, we are witnessing the unlikely fact that more than 20 years after the closure of the last pit in the County Durham, the Gala attracts crowds not seen since the 1960s – and there is the distinct possibility in the near future the Gala will be addressed by a Labour Prime Minister.
There is no definitive interpretation of what the Gala means to those who attend. Some go to meet up with friends and family. Some to honour the memory of loved ones. Others express their pride in their own community by marching with their colliery banner. Many socialists and trade unionists travel from all over the country to get fired up or feel rejuvenated. No doubt for some, it will be a combination of all these things.
Inevitably, because of what it represents, there have been attempts to dismiss this extraordinary festival as merely an excuse for a booze-up or a futile exercise in nostalgia. But no-one who has attended could come away with such a misguided impression.
So, if you’ve never been before, put the Durham Miners’ Gala on your bucket list. Soak it up for just a few hours. Listen to the brass bands, whether they are playing “Walking on Sunshine” or “Gresford”. Go to the Miners’ Festival Service and witness the banners being blessed in the Cathedral. Watch working-class communities collectively and individually express total pride in who and what they are – and get a little glimpse of what our society could one day become.
In the words of the hymn “These Things Shall Be”, which inspired previous generations in the mining communities: “Every life shall be a song/ When all the earth is paradise.”