A Gala to go down in history
Monday 10th July 2017
The mood was buoyant and banners were held high at Durham at the weekend. PETER LAZENBY reports
THEY came in their tens of thousands. The 133rd Durham Miners’ Gala was a celebration, not just of the culture and solidarity of the region’s former coal mining communities, but also of the changed political climate since Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party shattered the hopes of Theresa May and the Tories of achieving a landslide majority in June’s general election, leaving them with an enfeebled government dependent on the right-wing fringe Democratic Unionist Party to cling to power.
The mood at the Gala on Saturday reflected new confidence — and new hope — for the future.
Trade union banners were marched down the traditional route from Durham’s historic market place, past the County Hotel, where speakers and guests looked on from the balcony. Many banners were led by bands. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets, applauding each banner and band.
There was a change from tradition. Each band usually pauses to play a “party piece” beneath the balcony before moving on followed by banners and supporters the quarter mile to the field where the Gala — the “Big Meeting” — is held.
So huge has the march become that organisers from the Durham Miners’ Association had limited the performance of party pieces to every other band, to cut down on the time spent.
The march began at 8.30am. The platform speakers and guests filed into place on the platform overlooking the Gala field at 12.30.
As they did so the banners, bands and supporters were still arriving, four hours after the march had begun — and they kept pouring in as the speeches began. An hour later they were still arriving.
The field was packed with people — more than in any recent year, and last year there were an estimated 150,000.
The speakers were rousing. Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack spoke movingly of his members’ actions in going into Grenfell Tower to rescue residents from the conflagration. His speech brought the crowd to its feet.
Tributes were paid to the late Durham Miners’ Association general secretary Dave Hopper, who died one week after last year’s Gala.
Hopper had been the driving force, along with the late DMA president Dave Guy, in keeping the Gala going after the last pit in the Durham coalfield closed in 1993 — 24 years ago. And still the Gala grows.
Jeremy Corbyn was given a rapturous welcome. When the speeches were over the celebrations continued.
Three banners with their bands were marched from the gala field to Durham Cathedral, an uphill walk in blazing sunshine. These were newly created banners representing former mining communities — Pelton Fell, Trimdon Colliery and South Moor.
Newly discovered or recreated banners are blessed by the Bishop of Durham after their first appearance at the Gala.
The banners are marched into the historic cathedral, the rafters echoing to the sound of the brass bands.
Back on the Gala field, the other banners and bands were being marched off with as much ceremony as they had arrived.
As they reached the County Hotel the crowd had not thinned, still densely lining the street.
Guests were on the balcony again and many bands — perhaps those which had not played on the march to the field — paused to play below, some prompting singing by the crowd.
Imagine 2,000 or more voices joining in with the chorus of Don’t Look Back in Anger with the words “Oh, Sally can wait.”
The Tursdale banner carried the iconic image of a police cavalry officer swinging a baton at photographer Leslie Bolton — a scene from the police attack at Orgreave.
But the creator of the banner had also introduced the image of a miner, protecting a baby in his arms, as an additional target for the baton.
The tops of several pit lodge banners were decked with black ribbon, mining communities’ traditional way of mourning a death. In this case they were mourning Hopper.
Tributes had been paid to Hopper by speakers at the Gala field. But the mood on the street as the banners and bands returned was light-hearted.
One mining banner was led by five very young children — aged maybe four to 10. They were dressed in the traditional orange overalls worn by miners, their faces and overalls besmirched with dirt. They wore protective miners’ helmets.
Beneath the balcony they danced to a tune played by the band. The banner-carriers “danced” their banner up and down in rhythm.
By now Jeremy Corbyn was back on the balcony. He began to dance and clap. There were cheers.
Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign marchers were applauded, as were the International Brigades and others.
There were banners from other unions and campaigns.
The non-mining banners, and the political placards carried by some marchers, brought applause and sometimes laughter.
One group carried a huge, signed birthday card saying: “Happy Birthday NHS” which was cheered by the crowd.
One marcher, wearing a Theresa May mask, carried a placard saying “Minority of Malevolence”.
Corbyn’s presence back on the balcony inevitably led to spontaneous outbursts of the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” sing-song chant which first manifested itself during a rock concert at Tranmere Rovers football ground before the general election.
The last banners and bands passed the County Hotel, they wended their way through the densely packed crowds which thronged the streets, heading for the dozens of coaches which had brought them to Durham for Europe’s biggest annual celebration of the labour and trade union movement.