Pit Dragon: how an alternative picket-line stopped the coal lorries

Ragged Trousered Cabaret's Patric Cunnane, Lawrence Wess & Geoff Dixon at another miners’ benefit on 26 September 1984

Strange thing, synchronicity. Within a few weeks of starting the Archive Coordinator role, I received an out-of-the-blue email from Jeff Howarth of TUC Library Collections: could I throw any light on Pit Dragon, an organisation behind various days of picket-line entertainment during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5? Apples and Snakes had apparently been involved in one of their sessions, supplying poets for the wonderfully named Melt Thatcher Down picket at Neasden Power Station in February ’85. This was news to me. I’d already made a start on cataloguing our early activities, and thought I had ’85 covered. But, as has been mentioned elsewhere in this blog, our early records are far from complete. Jeff helpfully scanned the flyer for me. I was excited to see that another organisation contributing to the event had been Ragged Trousered Cabaret – run then, as now, by Patric Cunnane. Patric – a mainstay of several early A&S shows – is a man of great poetic power and impressive recall, but would he remember that heady day on the NW10 frontline? Would he heck…

Margaret Thatcher was a disaster for the country, setting out to destroy unions and strip rights from unprotected workers. The dismantling of the Wages Council begun by Thatcher and completed by John Major left vulnerable workers without any means of fighting low wages. The situation wasn’t reversed until Labour introduced the National Minimum Wage in 1999. Miners, steelworkers, print workers, seafarers, teachers and health workers all had their battles with Thatcherism. During the eighties, Britain’s once proud industrial base  suffered massive decline and the morale of health and education workers hit rock bottom. Thousands rioted against the poll tax.  Unemployment during the decade rose to four million.

However, conflict breeds reaction.  The burgeoning alternative poetry, comedy and music scene, taking much of its energy from punk, sided with striking miners and other struggling workers. They knew this was a battle we all had to fight.  And so it was that in the freezing early hours of Monday 11 February 1985 an extraordinary open-air performance began taking shape outside Neasden Power Station in London.

Pit Dragon brought together more than 50 acts booked by Apples & Snakes, Alternative Arts, Cast New Variety and my own organisation, Ragged Trousered Cabaret.  We set up several stages outside the power station to prevent the entry of coal lorries. Without coal Neasden couldn’t function.  The lorries would return the next day but we were sending a powerful message that the cultural community and its audience supported the miners.

At 6am I arrived with members of the RTC collective.  It was snowing hard and the snow was settling deep on the ground. My colleagues Geoff Dixon, Frank Syratt, Lawrence Wess and Pete Murry wondered how many would brave the wintry weather so early on a Monday morning. We gave each other a big group hug.

Gradually hundreds of people began amassing at the entrance to the power station, stamping their feet to keep warm and creating an extraordinary feeling of unity and solidarity. They were typical Londoners – all age groups and ethnicities. Perhaps a few had brought warming flasks to stave off the bitter cold. Lawrence was MC for the RTC stage and at 7am I was the first poet to perform.  Encouraged by huge cheers, I launched into ‘Gone Fishing’, a satirical poem about desperately seeking a job. The stage was a precarious arrangement of boards with no PA – I used a megaphone to reach the back of the ‘room’.

Poet Emile Sercombe remembers feeling ‘bloody cold’. His set included ‘Brian and Terry’, a hilarious tragicomedy set in a pub, which he still performs today. Its theme of conflagration was entirely appropriate to the power station setting. 

Our stage included music comedy duo Skint Video, known for their ability to warm up any crowd with their sharply satirical political songs, often based on popular tunes. Female trio Sensible Footwear had everyone singing with their feminist take on Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)’.  The Falklands War was recent history, and the comedy act Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society portrayed two Argentine soldiers urging the audience to forget the past by handing round corned beef sandwiches. (This didn’t always go down well at vegetarian venues!)

Acts on other stages included the fine comic Jenny Lecoat. She explained to men in the audience that using a diaphragm was like putting a coat hanger inside and opening it. Harry Enfield appeared as one half of Dusty and Dick. Their characterisation of 1930s radio presenters would later be put to good use by Harry in a popular TV ad.

Cold, exhilarated and happy, we were in the pub by late lunchtime. The snow had stopped and the sun was shining.  Rarely did a pint feel so well deserved. Brian Mulligan and Steve Gribbins of Skint Video joined us to review the extraordinary event that had just taken place – poets, comics and musicians of London and further afield had come together and carried out a successful industrial action. The police hadn’t tried to stop us and some had even struggled to suppress their evident enjoyment of the performances. 

Sadly the great strike of 1984-5 was on its last legs. In March the miners undertook a dignified return to work, led by their colliery bands.  The printers were next in the firing line and so it went on until Thatcher’s own cabinet turned on her. Her flame was quenched forever but I like to think the fire sparked by Pit Dragon still burns brightly in thousands of hearts. 

Also present was the redoubtable Maggie Pinhorn of Alternative Arts:

It was effing freezing at 5am – thick snow on the ground and everyone in their wellies. We were revving up to doing our International Women’s Day Show at the Hackney Empire so quite a lot of women performers were there, including Jo Brand … Roland Muldoon arrived with thermos flasks of hot coffee to keep the spirits up. We were also doing quite a bit to support the miners at our street theatre in Covent Garden, with the miners’ wives selling handmade toys from our stall, and choirs and brass bands visiting us on a regular basis all to raise funds. Quite a few street performers were there … There were also performers who were touring with Red Wedge. It was quite a turnout. It was a long time ago but I’ll never forget the feeling of solidarity amongst us all and how cold it was.

Thanks to Patric and Maggie for sharing their memories of the day we helped to Melt Thatcher Down. Now, is there anything we can do about the present incumbent..?


Comments about this page

  • This is really fascinating!

    By Kirsten Luckins (13/09/2017)

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