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They Tore Down The Kremlin-- and I wasn't there.
September 20, 2009.
Macdonald John Enoch Stainsby.
I guess I should first explain why I am writing this article. It would not be at all inaccurate to say I'm trying to channel incredibly powerful emotions that have surfaced as a result of a recent short visit to Maerdy, south Wales in the Rhondda Valley. My family roots trace back to the town known as “Little Moscow” from the 1920's on. I have long known of our ties to this community but not the depth of those connections or what impact on me these ties would have.
I began my own personal journey in life that took me to revolutionary conclusions by necessity beginning when I was in high school but not becoming the path that I would take with my life until my early 20's, roughly 13 years ago. My reasons for moving towards the revolutionary transformation of society had almost nothing to do with our family history but were based on my own rational conclusions based on the state of the world. To this day when someone asks me why I'm a self-described revolutionary I still want to reply: “Look around you. Why aren't you?”
I knew we were from Maerdy, and that this was a union town. I was brought up without any discussion of the idea that one never crosses a picket line. Scabs are the scum of the earth. I knew of the matriarch of our family Kate (my great-grandmother) , and had spent more than a few enjoyable evenings listening to my mother or my uncle as they got lost telling stories of an amazing woman it was my great loss to not know, even though she died when I was 4- having made it to 97 years of age. I thought I knew, I thought I got it.
I work in social justice, I demand a better world, an end to exploitation, war, environmental destruction and any forms of oppression that reduce our dignity as human beings. This is my own personal rock upon which I stand and have long stood. I was in London, England to engage in the struggle against the death and exploitation of so many levels being wrought by the tar sands developments in Alberta. To visit Maerdy made sense-- for family, and to close a circle and pay tribute to those who have blazed our family trail of dignity.
Wandering home, for the first time in my almost 34 years, had tremendous importance and not just a tad bit of build up when I had learned about the village that bore Enochs and Williams', a village that has survived on solidarity and coal miners who knew how to fight-- and why. I had no idea what I was to learn, and what I would find in my heart at the end of the visit.
I arrived off the train from Cardiff and was in Aberdare, where Maerdy was over the mountain in the next valley-- the Rhondda Fach (“Little Rhondda”). I knew the mines had closed, that a new depression on much the same scale as several time periods in the past-- though now without even the promise that it would end one day and people would return to work. I have heard of the aimlessness, the unemployment, drug use and more. I loved my family history but had no illusions. History might be romantic, I thought, but reality is another matter.
Literally just before I left Aberdare I was finally able to track down my third cousin, a woman in her sixties I've never known but who had met both my mother and uncle when they had made their separate trips home in the past. I told her where I was coming from, and that I was curious about the history of the place. Not much for politics, she answered my questions and even from a place of not massive involvement but with a basic statement of belief in the values that had been fought for in the many years before. She also spoke of how during the massive clashes between miners and the UK government all over the isles in 84-85 that Maerdy never truly needed a single flying picket. Despite Thatcher's literal attempt to break the communities of miners by starving them to death, 100% of the miners in Maerdy supported the strike at the outset and not one in the over a year broke the strike. A scab would not have a long comfort zone in Maerdy. A self-described apolitical cousin said this to me with pride. I was starting to feel things I have never known in my life.
I was shown a place near where the Collieries 3 & 4 had been located until the final closure of number 4 in 1990. There is a bridge there, built and dedicated to commemorate the death in combat of a miner who had fought in 1937 to stop Franco's advance in Spain. The dedication reads:
“This bridge is dedicated to the memory of Frankie Owen of Pentre Road, Maerdy. Killed in action at Brunette in July 1937 fighting fascism with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
I had barely just met my cousin, so I was moderately embarrassed as I started to well up with tears. I mean, what's up with all of this? Didn't I sortof know this already? Not really.
A couple of hours later I left to go off on my own, and went to the local pub to see what would happen when I spoke to locals there. Mid Afternoon on a Friday, let's just see. I entered the pub and stood there, a very unpretentious place that I was glad to see, my sort of public house in any town or village. I was approached right off by a man who asked where I was from, and I answered that I was from Canada but my roots were in Maerdy. He lit up with delight.
“Maerdy? Well, come with me.” and put his arm around my shoulders. He asked some questions to figure out who I was related to, and we were able to put a face to my lineage. He took me to a large table of men, in their 40's and 50's. Nearly if not all former miners, he was delighted to welcome me 'home'. We all chatted a bit-- Linda had already warned me that in the village that anyone who met me would want to know all about my story. I explained what little I knew of Maerdy's miners history and my existing sense of pride in that. He put his arm around my shoulders again.
“Let me show you some things,” he said. He took me around the pub to several framed photographs from the last miners strike-- as I told you, where not one miner broke the ranks. His sense of pride as he showed the men and women engaged in battle, marching through the small road of Maerdy, of the women's strike committee, of the National Union of Miners crest, was palpable. The community had lost the mines, the jobs were long over but no one here forgets. I was again becoming speechless. I mentioned to another man that I wanted to know where to go in town to get my own little Welsh flag. He paused, looked at me and smiled. He said
“You'll have a flag before you have to leave here, trust me.” I went off to learn how to play pool on what seemed to me an absurdly small table, when the woman from behind the bar came out and spoke to me.
“So you're from Maerdy?”
“Yes, my family left a long time ago, but we never forget.” She grabbed the Welsh flag on the wall, pulled it down and handed it to me. I told her that meant a great deal to me. I had been welcomed home.
I later walked to the location of my great-grandparents home, at 31 Wood street. It was as gone as the Colliery; the road now ends at 28. No matter, it was one more place that was familiar in a way I didn't get before. The police were always vicious with strikers, including in the 1980's where workers were killed on the flying pickets elsewhere in UK-controlled coal mines. But my cousin Linda showed me a book from the 20's, a list of men charged by the government for “subversive activities”. Almost every man in the village in that time was arrested and had charges. The charges were for “inciting crowds at every opportunity,” “agitation to violence” and my favourite “Being a particularly low sort”. Family members records were listed there as well. The circle of my current place in the world was closing.
The next day one of my dearest friends joined me in Maerdy, she now lives in London. We were standing near the welcome sign to Maerdy when a man stopped to talk with us. He lit up when it became clear I was proud of the working class militant traditions. He had never been a miner, instead working construction when the mines were open. He explained the town as one where after many hours of work were over, that his friends would go to the pub and spend their time talking politics, work and struggle. He said it frustrated him at the time, but now he misses it. At one point during the conversation I mentioned that a relative of mine had been one of the primary organizers of the NUM for the communists decades before. He stopped, and his eyes opened wide and he demanded to shake my hand. “People in Maerdy still hold this in such regard that he seemed honored to meet _me_?” I thought. I again didn't know what much else to say. People in Maerdy hate Thatcher more than the devil-- some things are timeless in their beauty.
This man we were talking to mentioned the tearing down of the the Maerdy Workingmens Hall, built in 1905 by by the union and run for all Maerdy, through strikes, dances, weddings and more for many, many decades. A massive structure that towered over the town, it had often affectionately been called “The Kremlin”. It had only been torn down the previous March. I found a poem that read, in part:
“Stars from all around the world, played on that wonderful stage, Packed out to the rafters, on the dancefloor people engaged.
Romances born, and break-ups too, those walls saw many a drama, And even in the miners strike, it became our Panorama.” 1
The next day we went to spend some time talking with my two other cousins, Barbara and Gordon Williams. After a little while, Barbara began to tell tales of life during strikes, some from the 80's and other stories that had been passed on to both of them from their elders of the strife of the 20's and 30's. She burned with anger as she recalled workers not having enough food while Maggie Thatcher spoke of the miners as “the enemy within” during the strike-- where not one Maerdy miner crossed the line. She lit up and smiled at the mere mention of Paul Robeson, telling me his songs tugged deeply at her heart. (Robeson wrote and starred in a film about the mighty Rhondda, called "Proud Valley") She spoke with passion, and not a whit of rhetoric as she recounted how people from all over did what they could to make certain the miners-- who Thatcher was determined to starve into submission-- had enough food to make it another day. Some days families were going hungry but not complaining. Women in Maerdy would figure out who and they would wake up to a basket of food on the doorstep. When food was available, anyhow.
Every story was about solidarity, from all over the world (though Barbara never used the word). I will only recount one. She spoke of a phone call she got as the secretary of the women's committee of the strike. It was a women's organization from Oxford who began right off asking her questions. How many children are there in Maerdy? How many boys? Girls? What are their ages? Barbara asked the caller why she was being asked all these detailed questions that she certainly could not answer on the spot. The response came that they knew people without enough food would definitely not have enough to get the children of the village each a Christmas present. The day came, a few before Christmas and the kids were handed their presents and opened them. One little boy took his and wandered around inside 'the Kremlin', clutching his gift to his chest, unopened. Barbara asked:
“Why don't you open your present?” The boy answered her.
“My daddy can't get me a present, so if I don't keep this one until Christmas morning I won't have anything to open.” Barbara recounted that she started to cry then, and I wanted to in her living room on the spot. I told them both how emotional this was all making me, and why-- based on my view of the world long before I went home to learn more of where I came from. I had to tell them how ridiculously proud, humbled and amazed I was at this village-- the village that fought, that never forgets. Gordon got me a series of pictures, one to take home to my mum. I eventually had to pry myself out of their living room.
My great grandmother Kate and my great grandfather John, both Enoch's, left “So her boys wouldn't have to go down into the pits”. She had been part of illegal strikes to form the NUM in the beginning, but left in 1911. Before, Kate and John were still in the Valley for the battles called the “Tonypandy Riots” of 1910 and 1911. The figurehead on the other side for England was Winston Churchill who sent in the fucking military for the still private mines, to enforce the scab scum. Blacklegs didn't have a long life expectancy. I hope, for any scabs who died, they were buried in unmarked graves. I'm sorry, I do.
She didn't want us to work in the underground, breathing the dust that took so many wasted early lives in a town where all the hills were black and the coal dust always swirled through the air. However, she never let her kids forget, and they have done the same right down to me. We are from the blood and guts Welsh coal miners community of the Rhondda Valley, in the most famous little coal mining village in the world of Maerdy. Little Moscow, our home. She left so we could live different lives. We never forgot, and we never will. We have all gone back, and it won't be the last time for me-- that I am absolutely certain of. The struggles of the miners gave me everything. Everything I have I owe to this community-- almost to a person heroes. There is also a real lesson in why struggle: It's a matter of life or death. We cannot afford to sit idly by and let asking the boss nicely, hoping the war mongers see the light, expecting oil companies to 'get it' to be at all a part of the struggle. When people do that, the bosses and their friends will kill us. With the economy and the planet in the shape that it is in, that has never been more true than now. As Karl Marx said to his daughter when asked “What is life”, the answer is “Life- is struggle”.
I also realize how, getting out while we could, to save my grandfather ("wee Jackie" to others when speaking to my uncle as recently as the 70's) from black lung, cancer, all the diseases this life gave-- is why I can write this. I didn't get that before, and I feel frankly almost ashamed of it. The community of Maerdy in many ways is on some of their worst days yet. Not one word of regret from any woman or man I spoke to exists, however. Anger for the Labour betrayals, the Trade Union Congress sell-out, certainly. It is clear to me what happens to a community that is all for one extractive industry. Coal destroyed the Valley, wrecked the lives of the workers, ruined the rivers and now has left-- with a smattering of green and trees and even birds only now returning to a valley where less than 20 years ago the mines breathed into the air.
I think on what is happening in the tar sands and what happened to Maerdy. I think of how Maerdy was sacrificed for big coal, and how a community like Fort Chipewyan is on the block for the dirtiest industrial development yet. I think of the boys, men and women whose lives were cut short in my home, and I think of how-- despite the relentless attempts to crush them-- solidarity was what won the unions the incredible pride and dignity to this day, the dignity which outlasts the miners fame and bosses wealth of Little Moscow.
I think of the betrayals of the TUC and 'Not-Yet-New' Labour, how their backroom 'deals' were cut and the NUM was ultimately defeated. Apparently, Ian McGregor (the “American Butcher of British Industry”--a Thatcher appointed head of the British Coal Board during the 84-85 strike) “confided to his diary that in 1985 he was regularly meeting Norman Willis, General Secretary of the TUC, at his Belgrave flat where 'I made the tea and poured the whisky.'”2 It isn't long from looking around the scenes at tar sands resistance before seeing who has taken backroom deals before, who likes to sit at the table with the representatives of tar sands operations and government, without us there-- and who like to claim to be “friends” of our struggle, of Fort Chipewyan, of justice. I think on previous betrayals in recent years by the same players-- in the Great Bear Rainforest, for example.
When little is going on, they like to attend the same functions, parties and more. They are cordial, nice human beings. Their positions seem if not outright positive, at least benign. But when push comes to shove? They sneak away, cannot wait to distance themselves from 'radicals', disavow any real solidarity and instead cozy up to power. They promise that there can be such a thing as a victory for the owners and for us all.
Even the language of the turncoat changes. The term 'us' will be used by the betrayers to mean 'everyone', including the ceo's and the various levels of government. They not only wilt before power, they openly begin to identify with it. Then they seek 'commonality'.
Now, in North America, this 'commonality' is to include massive breakneck pace natural gas development. Some have already lined up with industry, promoting the massive escalation of fossil fuel development as a 'transition fuel', and tossing aside any concerns for communities, water systems and social justice. They are dropping concerns about open pit mines and openly calling for privatized river systems. They want private water. Then the mines will buy it up, for power and waste. Will we let them?
All of these things have but two connecting 'logics'. On the one hand, social justice is no longer of concern because solidarity among all issues cannot co-exist with being bankrolled by large industry and teamwork with the masters of capital. Yet for them, this is natural because we should only seek reforms. Capitalism is understood as the natural order of things, and to suggest otherwise will never enter their minds.
Second, with a belief that capital accumulation and industrial growth is normal, comes the need to wed development and false but feel-good solutions to climate change. And in this tale of betrayal one can find quite a list: Nuclear, hydro, water privatization, natural gas and increasing silence on open cast mines-- open pits that kill ninety percent of jobs and destroy entire regions forever. They promote carbon credits that commodify the very air, and they hawk carbon taxes that both create green elite funding windfalls while scraping out the pockets of rural workers and others who cannot afford to pay for the crimes of industry.
And then they meet in the backrooms, and they cut deals. They have a lot of money. They use it to silence the rest of us.
I think of the folly of finite resource extraction and the promises that must have been made in the 1870's to Maerdy and all the villages in the Valleys. Jobs forever. Never going to run out. Good for everyone. I think of my visit to Maerdy in September. All the mines gone, the hills all grass covered slag heaps. I think of all the lives cut short, and the fact that the jobs are no more. I remember my cousin getting excited because we saw a bird, and that they are starting to come back-- a little bit. The water is running almost clean in the river at the foot of the valley, where the mines were-- a river once thick with black coal dust just like the workers lungs.
I looked around the community, and thought about how incredibly lucky I am to be associated with this rich history, much less welcomed 'back' instantly. I think of the darkness that was seen through with the power of solidarity, of collective action, and I think of my family that remained. I have so much to be thankful for on so many levels, and I long ago knew I would live my life in struggle. But now I feel like I have such as amazing path to walk in I almost wonder if there is any way to do it justice. I think of how badly I wanted to talk to my great-grandmother Kate:
Thank you, I owe you almost everything. I will fight for the world free of exploitation, hunger, hatred and war as long as any scrap of fight exists in my body. I can do nothing else to honor what you have bequeathed to us- to me- than that, and forever if Maerdy calls my word is that I will answer. I get it now. I'm sorry it took so long, but I will fight-- if I ever meant anything, I mean that. Your pride is in me, and my humble best to take that struggle is all I can do. I love you, and I am so painfully proud to be attached to you, to Maerdy and to one of the most blood and guts communities I've ever seen in my life. This place is a part of me? My God, that is remarkable. I am one of the luckiest people in the world, my roots are in the Rhondda Fach, Maerdy, the coal fields of south Wales-- a place of such inspiration. And it's mine, a place where I too can take pride in my place in the universe, a homeland that was stolen and does not steal-- and that fought for dignity, not to conquer. My hometown, my family.
Kate, I remember, I will never forget and I will honor you and my ancestors every time we continue the battles. I will speak of our home as often as I can and I will do so with more pride than I can handle.
And mum? I love you. I've never been more proud to be your son. And that, that says a lot.
From Maerdy, I will take a fight for real justice to the tar sands, and I will give it my life-- as my family and our home taught us all. If coal did that to us, our lessons are to see it as it happens again-- and shut down the tar sands destruction and their bloody oil in its tracks. If I've learned anything from Kate and from Maerdy, I've learned that. I think a little more on how solidarity worked, and how it can again.
One, it must be bottom up and collective and be prepared to face down those that try to betray from places of power. Not just government, but like "New Labour" and the TUC we must fight those who are ostensibly our allies as they wish to sell us all out from afar.
Two, every fight in the whole struggle is the same fight; when one region says no, another gets stronger. Together, we can win-- if the maps of their plans--from pipelines, to refineries and ports and more-- are a map of all of our allies on all of Turtle Island. And it is Turtle Island, let us be clear on that.
I'm a little while before I can visit Vancouver, where my mum is. But if I had my choice? I'd be sitting beside her and talking for days, yes that's what I would rather be doing now than anything else in this world. Except maybe sitting with her somewhere in Maerdy. At 31 Wood Street, with mum's grandma.
Ddiolch 'ch achos yn darllen,
Macdonald John Enoch Stainsby.
The hardships were many, poverty, deprivation and worse--
Workers exploitation an ever present curse.
The tragedies were many, the mines took their toll--
so many lives were wasted in that driving quest for coal--
They worked and laboured in the dark bowels of earth,
And from them came leaders mindful of their worth--
leaders who fought with sincerity and might,
with passion and grit they marched towards the light--
(clip from "Maerdy" by Mary Howard)
1) Christine Black Jones, Aberdere Blog.
Dominion Weblogs compiles the weblogs of Dominion editors and writers. The topics discussed are wide-ranging, but Canadian Foreign Policy, grassroots politics, and independent media are chief among them.