The Battle of Orgreave, London, UK
Any rail passengers staring out of the window as they sped through south Yorkshire on June 17th would have had the double-take of their lives: 800 or so miners and policemen, in period jeans and uniforms, could be seen slogging it out in a field as if no one had bothered telling them the miners’ strike of 1984-5 had long been called off.
The sight of the giant Virgin logo behind the battling police and miners dispelled, for a moment, the illusion that we were back in 1984, at a pivotal and emblematic moment in the war between trade unionism and Thatcher’s monetarism, wondering if the pickets might break through the thick blue line of policemen protecting ‘scab’ lorries delivering coal to the coking plant.
The realism of Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (2001) was the product of meticulous military-style planning with one of Britain’s leading battle re-enactors, Howard Giles. Months were spent researching the events of June 18th, 1984 - pouring over court testimonies, oral accounts, contemporary newspaper reports and film footage - in order to reconstruct events as accurately as possible. On the day it seemed no detail was missing, right down to the ‘Rock on Tommy’ ice cream van still selling its wares in the thick of the action, or the comic prelude of miners performing mock inspections of the police front line and applying ‘Coal not Dole’ stickers to their riot visors. But this time round the ‘loose formations’ (Giles’ phrase) of miners were as precisely co-ordinated, via earpieces and stuntmen, as the serried ranks of police.
Around two-thirds of the participants were well-versed in the techniques of this genre of outdoor theatre, having earned their stripes in Viking longboats, Roman legions and trenches in counterfeit campaigns all over Britain. For them what was new and strange about this re-enactment was that it commemorated such a relatively recent event. Had Deller simply stuck to a fairly straight reproduction of the still controversial confrontation, the stakes would have been high enough. The clincher, though, was that a third of the re-enactors were actual inhabitants of Orgreave - not only that, but many had been miners and policemen in the original conflict. In some cases former miners played police, and ex-policemen played miners. This time around, thanks to its organizers, Artangel, it wasn’t just the police getting overtime.
Throughout the event we were reminded that what we were looking at was a representation: the ‘battle’ began with the customary re-enactors’ handshake, and was accompanied throughout by an amplified commentary which explained what was going on and minding parents not to let their kids stroke the furry police dogs. There was even an interval, during which the commentary was replaced by somewhat camp mid-1980s chart toppers (‘Two Tribes’ and ‘I Want to Break Free’ acquired an unexpected political urgency), and spectators milled about a marquee full of archival material on the conflict, or bought a vegan pie or a bedding plant from a few enterprising local stall- holders.
On one level the event combined the innocence of the village fête with an English Heritage event. On another, as with his other social projects, Deller short-circuited our finely tuned irony detectors by introducing aspects of real life into the equation, specifically the deep, unresolved feelings of original participants towards others taking part on the wrong side of the conflict (rumour had it that a small number of the real miners were applying too much gusto to their roles at rehearsals the previous day). For many - participants and spectators alike - this Battle of Orgreave was more flashback than re-enactment. Knowing this made the missiles, the mounted police charges, the beatings, routs and arrests much more than spectacle; it was easy to forget the police’s truncheons were plastic, the miners’ rocks just foam, and that the blood running down some faces was fake. The ability to crack codes of representation counted for little on hearing the heartfelt and humbling battle cry, ‘We’re miners united, we’ll never be defeated’.
Finally, around teatime, the police won, as inevitably in 2001 as in 1984 - 4,000 to 5,000 unprepared miners had no chance against 4,000 to 8,000 trained and co-ordinated police assembled from constabularies all over Britain. When it was all over, everyone paraded back through the battlefield to the sound of a brass band, dads in uniform or 1980s denim played with their kids, ‘miners’ hugged ‘police’ and both sides joined the rest of us from Orgreave and London for a few pints of Stones down the local Treeton Miners’ Welfare.