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Pride & Prejudice

Pride & Prejudice

I think the time has come to share a secret about my past I’ve kept hid­den for far too long.

Back in the 20th Century, when I was still a teen­ager (just) – and a long, long time before I became cyn­ical old queen — I shook a bucket for the miners as a mem­ber of an unlikely lefty group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners dur­ing the Great ‘Coal Not Dole’ NUM Strike of 1984–85.

I had no idea a film had been made about that unlikely out­fit until I happened to see, mouth akimbo, the trailer for Pride online a couple of months back. And if someone had told me before I’d seen it that the story of how some well-meaning gay London lefties reached out to a Welsh min­ing com­munity dur­ing that year-long show­down with Margaret Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment had been made into a big budget com­edy film star­ring Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, I wouldn’t have believed them.

To be hon­est, even after see­ing the Pride film (which opened in select theaters in the U.S. on Sept. 26) with my own eyes at the cinema the other day, I still can’t quite believe it.

I knew many of the char­ac­ters in Pride, some of them very well: feisty, flame-haired, wise-cracking Steph — ‘I’m the Lesbian in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ — (played by Faye Marsay) let home­less, pathetic me stay in her coun­cil flat until I was slightly less home­less and pathetic. And of course, like every­one else, I was in love with the 23-year-old canny Irish Commie Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), albeit mostly from a dis­tance. Largely for the love of Mark, and per­haps a deeply-buried, highly polit­ic­ally incor­rect hope that one day a burly miner might show me his, er, grat­it­ude, I atten­ded meet­ings in a crowded roll-your-own-smoke-filled room above a gay pub in Islington. (Which were usu­ally, like most meet­ings, crush­ingly bor­ing, so I com­pletely understand why the film instead pre­tends that LGSM was just 10 people).

I was unem­ployed, so I had plenty of time to shake a bucket out­side Gays The Word book­shop in Bloomsbury, The Bell pub in Kings Cross and in Camden Market bel­low­ing ‘LESBIANS AND GAYS SUPPORT THE MINERS!!!’ at slightly baffled or alarmed passers-by. Of course this was a form of hope­ful think­ing as much as it was a slo­gan. Even back then, many gay people were very Tory. But in the end, LGSM reportedly col­lec­ted more money for the miners than any other sup­port group in the UK. I doubt though it was thanks to me – I may have had a lot of time on my hands, but I was a very lazy activist.

I remem­ber wit­ness­ing two LGSM mates who weren’t at all lazy being har­assed and unlaw­fully arres­ted by the police while col­lect­ing in Camden. I gave evid­ence against the police in an unlaw­ful arrest case — the court of course acquit­ted the police and found my mates guilty of being gay, lefty and sup­port­ing the miners.

I have a recol­lec­tion of attend­ing some stu­dent event in Manchester on behalf of LGSM at which I gave some kind of speech. And I was, I think, at the Pits & Perverts gig at the Electric Ballroom, shak­ing a bucket again — and very prob­ably at Pride in 1985 where Welsh miners fam­ously led the march.

I also made the trip to Dulais Valley in an LGSM minibus, but I think it was after the strike had ended. I don’t recall much about the trip, save that every­one was lovely. Everyone that is except me. After get­ting back from the miners’ social club, I drunk­enly shagged one of the char­ac­ters in the film on a very creaky bed­room floor belong­ing to the fam­ily that had very kindly put us up. Mortifyingly, every­one crammed into the tiny house knew about it the next day.

If I sound a bit vague about some of the details, it’s because I don’t remem­ber a great deal about that era. In my defense, I’ll say I’m not the only one: Jeff Cole, on whom the young ‘heart of gold’ ‘Jeff’ char­ac­ter (played by Freddie Fox) is based, someone whom I hadn’t spoken to for over 20 years for no other reason than life, as it does, push­ing people apart after push­ing them together very closely for a while, reas­sures me he also can’t remem­ber very much. And he was the offi­cial pho­to­grapher of LGSM, who made the won­der­ful no-budget doc­u­ment­ary about LGSM in 1985 which was part of the inspir­a­tion for Pride. (See below.)

Perhaps I don’t recall much because it was another cen­tury, another millennium, and I was a dif­fer­ent per­son. With ideals and full of — Christ! — earn­est­ness. Maybe none of us should really remem­ber what it was like to be a teen­ager when we’re middle aged. It’s just so unfair on both ver­sions of us.

grey Pride & Prejudice

 

Showing off my Camden hair cut (Russell Square, London 1985)

What do I think of the film? Well, obvi­ously I can’t offer an impar­tial review of it, as I’m far too close to the sub­ject mat­ter — and yet at the same time strangely dis­tanced from it by a faulty memory. In truth, I dreaded going to see it, partly because I thought it was going to be a kind of gay Brassed Off (which I loathed — all that emetic Londoncentric con­des­cen­sion), and partly because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to remem­ber that era. I think many gay lefties and dream­ers from the '80s are suf­fer­ing from PTSD: Post-Thatcher Stress Disorder.

Particularly since, in many ways, and des­pite the naked homo­pho­bia of the 1980s Tory Party, gays on the make were to become the hot pink shock troops of Thatcherite indi­vidu­al­ism. After all, no one believed in the power of money, shop­ping, and per­sonal rein­ven­tion more than they did. The "gay life­style" was to take off in the late '80s, largely repla­cing gay polit­ics in the '90s — and eventu­ally becom­ing a straight aspiration.

Pride, though, played me like a violin outisde a soup kit­chen and had me laugh­ing and blub­bing in all the places it wanted me to. And I recog­nized, in won­der, many of the char­ac­ters in a way that I really didn’t think I would. It was like meet­ing old friends again — in the pomp and splend­our of their/our youth, com­plete with those 1950s style hair­cuts and T-shirts we all had back then. Except that Mark Ashton was even more cha­ris­matic and attract­ive and myth­ical than Ben Schnetzer’s por­trayal of him.

Stephen Beresford’s script does a near-miraculous job of stay­ing true to the both the spirit of the times, and the lead­ing char­ac­ters – bring­ing both alive. It’s incred­ibly well-researched, thanks in no small part to the advis­ory role of Mike Jackson, beanie-wearing LGSM Secretary (played by Joseph Gilgun) — or "the Accrington sod­om­ite" as Mark calls him in the film, through a loud-hailer.

If I have a cri­ti­cism it’s that Pride is at its weak­est in some of its fic­tion­al­ized parts — the use of homo­pho­bia for easy drama (there was never any trouble, in fact, on any of the LGSM vis­its to Wales), and the "sym­path­etic" com­ing out storyline of ‘Joe’ — an inven­ted char­ac­ter — and his stifling middle-class fam­ily, all tap into the clichés of "the big gay movie" that we’ve seen too many times before. I don’t think these devices were really needed — since the LGSM story is not a com­ing out story but rather a story about already out-and-loud gay people going back. But what do I know? The film is a smash hit.

Minor carp­ing aside, I’m happy to accept Pride as my cath­artic memory implant of 1984–5, free­ing me at last from my youth­ful pinko PTSD. It also offers in the end a truth that is more than just sen­ti­mental feel­goodery. Despite the crush­ing defeat of the miners and the (pipe?) dream of social­ism by Margaret Pinochet. Despite Aids — or AIDS!!! as it was then (Mark Ashton died from ‘the gay plague’ in 1987, aged just 26). And des­pite Section 28, the ori­ginal anti ‘gay pro­pa­ganda’ law, intro­duced by the Tories as a way of exploit­ing a tabloid hate campaign.

Two very dif­fer­ent and dis­tant com­munit­ies under siege came together and dis­covered they had a great deal in com­mon, and not just that they both knew — as Mark puts it in the film and as I recall (I think) at the time — what it’s like to be bul­lied by the police, the tabloids and the Government and labelled "the enemy within." After the strike, a grate­ful big butch NUM block vote forced the Labour Party to finally adopt a gay equal­ity pledge which was to help change Britain forever in the fol­low­ing dec­ade when (New) Labour swept back into power.

And as the film sug­gests, in an echo per­haps of Billy Eliot, miners learned how to dance to disco instead of nurs­ing a pint watch­ing the ladies, while their wives learned how to take on the law and polit­ics instead of mak­ing sand­wiches. The Victorian sexual divi­sion of labour and lov­ing on which many work­ing class com­munit­ies had been based was begin­ning to break down. This was a pro­cess that was only accel­er­ated over the next dec­ade or so by the loss of ‘male’ heavy industry jobs — like min­ing — and the cre­ation of "fem­in­ine" ser­vice industry jobs (often part time and poorly paid — and non-unionised). Although Thatcher laid waste – quite delib­er­ately – to much of South Wales, the North and Scotland, a new gen­er­a­tion of young men and women would adapt to the brave new post-industrial, and argu­ably post-heterosexual world they found them­selves grow­ing up in. Laughable as it may seem, Geordie Shore is the tanned, bleached, pumped proof of this.

Pride is a timely reminder that the revolu­tion in the way our soci­ety thinks about and treats gender and sexu­al­ity came from the left and its ideals of solid­ar­ity – not just the atom­ising nature of con­sumer­ism and indi­vidu­al­ism. And cer­tainly not by the design of our first woman Prime Minister with her "Victorian val­ues." Thatcher fan-boy David Cameron’s intro­duc­tion of same sex mar­riage was inten­ded as a rewrit­ing of his­tory, a brazen co-option of all the heavy-lifting vic­tor­ies for gay equal­ity by the left in the pre­vi­ous years in the teeth of vehe­ment oppos­i­tion by his own "nasty party" and its many allies in the press. (And by him per­son­ally: only a dec­ade ago Cameron voted twice against the repeal of Section 28 — the second time in a free vote.)

If Mark Ashton were alive today he’d prob­ably remind us of that him­self. He might also add, with char­ac­ter­istic hon­esty and real­ism, that the reason why Pride can be such a smash hit now and regarded with such fond nos­tal­gia by many people who prob­ably sup­por­ted Thatcher at the time is because the miners, the organ­ised work­ing class and ulti­mately social­ism as a polit­ical force were his­tor­ic­ally defeated in the 1980s and no longer rep­res­ent a threat. And the gays got married.

But then his­tory is made out of strange, tragi-comic para­doxes, which in the 20th Century we used to call "dia­lectics." No won­der some of us can’t remem­ber some of our per­sonal ones properly.

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