THE hair – what’s left of it – is silvery white and there may well be a few more wrinkles creasing both their weary brows.
Yet the 30 years that have passed since Billy Davidson and David Costello stood on an angry picket line and fought with all their hearts to save their pits and hundreds of jobs seem to have passed in no time at all.
As they recall the March day in 1984 when miners the length of the country stood tall at the start of what would become perhaps the most bitter of all industrial disputes, those turbulent feelings of determination and anger, pride and loyalty are only a thought away.
For Billy, it’s stew. To this day, he admits with a soft groan, he can barely bear to look at the stuff. Worse, if that stew has happened to make its way on to his plate via a tin can . . .
“Don’t get me wrong, it was quality stuff,” he shudders, remembering the thousands of tins of beef stew that arrived at local miners’ strike centres and beyond from comrades in France keen to support their British cousins in any way they could. “But it was stew for lunch, stew for dinner, stew for lunch – it went on for months!”
Billy remembers packages of warm winter clothes that arrived from Russia and East Germany, delivered to the McDonald Road Library in Edinburgh and sent to strike centres where men who normally would be deep underground sat behind desks as temporary bookkeepers and “social workers”, listening to men’s harrowing tales of hardship and handing out cash from the strike fund, plus stew and socks to desperate families.
“Some families really needed help, some were able to get by because the wife worked. But the hardest hit of all were the single men who had nothing,” remembers Billy, 65, a Monktonhall colliery engineer and secretary of the strike centre in Prestonpans at the time. “They were almost being starved back to work.”
Evidence of the grim 12 months when miners stood shoulder to shoulder – with a few exceptions – and took on the full force of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, is all around him and fellow former union official David at Prestonpans Community Centre.
There, poignant images captured during the dispute – which began on March 12, 1984, as Monktonhall and Bilston Glen miners joined colleagues across the country in a fight to prevent widespread pit closures – are gathered for a 30th anniversary exhibition alongside meticulously kept records from the strike committee and other bits of memorabilia.
Tomorrow night, the focus shifts to Prestonpans Labour Club, in Kirk Street, for a carefully balanced evening of reflection for those now long gone and proud celebration, as a brutal episode in the history of British industry is recalled by those who lived through it. Later in May, hundreds will pack Danderhall Miners Club for an already sold-out gathering of stirring music and emotive speeches which recall the lows – and a few highs – that kept miners united.
David, 71, was an engineer at Newbattle Central Workshops in Newtongrange in 1984, working alongside 300 men whose job was to keep vital coal-cutting machines and mining equipment going. He believes the 30th anniversary events have already revived some of the camaraderie that existed on the picket lines and the community spirit which kept miners and their families almost totally united while police and even soldiers were ordered to line up in a bid to break them.
“Mining communities are quite distinct,” he reflects. “When you’re down a pit, you depend on everyone around you. You’re not an individual, you’re part of a team. It’s dangerous, it’s work a lot of people won’t do, it’s not a great job but men were prepared to do it.
“Prestonpans, Tranent, Wallyford . . . at 6am every morning there were queues of men at every bus stop waiting to go to work. Same for the backshift and the nightshift. Shopkeepers relied on these men spending their money, the clubs and bars and dance bands who entertained us . . . they were all part of it.”
David, who went on to serve as an East Lothian councillor, and Billy always knew they were fighting much more than the National Coal Board’s initial claim that around 20 inefficient and dying pits were to close. And while NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s rallying call that their entire industry was under threat from a government intent on crushing the power of the unions was decried by some, they had seen with their own eyes how management was halting development at their pits.
Like David, former chairman of the NUM at Monktonhall Alex Bennett, 66, now Midlothian councillor for Dalkeith and Danderhall, was one of hundreds of miners across the country branded a criminal after being arrested during the dispute.
“They took the local police away and replaced them with ‘Maggie’s Boot Boys’,” he says, remembering picket line tussles that erupted as striking miners clashed with ‘scabs’, one-time friends, even brothers, who refused to join the strike. “I was arrested at Bilston Glen. It was early, there was some pushing and shoving. They said I was trying to incite a riot and eventually I was charged with breach of the peace, found guilty – of course – and fined £100.
“Afterwards I was blacklisted for three years. I couldn’t work because the coal board wouldn’t release my papers. But we weren’t criminals. We were men fighting to save our jobs.”