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.
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.