Miners side with the enemy as Battle of Orgreave becomes art

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The Independent Culture

Chants of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out" were heard in South Yorkshire yesterday when hundreds of former miners re-enacted the notorious "Battle of Orgreave" as a piece of performance art.

Miners mostly played miners, but a few were persuaded to play police in an eerily convincing replay of one of the 1984-85 pit strike's most terrifying confrontations between miners, armed with stones, and police officers, decked out in riot gear, wielding truncheons and accompanied by alsatian dogs.

Another slogan, dredged from the past by the miners turned actors, drew a poignant response from the local audience. "The miners united, will never be defeated," shouted the men. "How wrong they were," said one of the spectators, Sue Robinson, as the police charged forward on horseback.

Jeremy Deller, the conceptual artist behind the re-enactment, watched televised scenes of the real-life battle at the coking plant near Sheffield when he was 15 years old.

For the past three years he and the arts group ArtAngel have been planning its reconstruction. His main desire was that it should be authentic enough to impress the local people for whom the events of 17 years ago were, as one local adviser put it, "burnt into the community consciousness".

Sonny Pickering, a flying picket at Orgreave on 18 June 1984, and a former "bodyguard" to the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill, said only the cold weather spoilt an otherwise true and moving reconstruction. "I remember a red hot day," he said. "We knew the day was going to be different. There were so many police officers and so many dogs. And then the Met [Metropolitan Police] arrived and you always knew you had shit on your hands when the Met arrived."

Yesterday 350 miners and 450 police did battle. On the day itself 3,000 miners and 5,000 police fought it out.

The police were vicious that day, remembered Mr Pickering. But he also recalled managing to dismantle a stone wall for missiles and then moving on to empty the local scrap metal yard. "We were lucky no one was killed," he said. Mr Pickering was supposed to playing a policeman yesterday but at the last minute he and Steve Bray, another former miner, were asked to stay in the miners' ranks to "police" their own comrades. Rehearsals had revealed a tendency among a minority to over-enthusiastic acting. "It's the police uniform, you see," explained Mr Bray. "Some are going in a little heavy with their punches."

Although the atmosphere before the performance seemed jovial, Mr Pickering said the experience had rekindled some very bitter memories. Only one person in the audience questioned the value of "raking up" the past. For most, the afternoon seemed cathartic, although a few people said that they could not bear to watch because the real event had been so vicious and upsetting.

"It was the aftermath that was awful," said Jo Overton, watching the battle and remembering the strife, the strike-breaking "scabs" and the lasting distrust between police and pickets. "Friends became enemies, families broke up and neighbours turned against each other."

The two protagonists in the miners' strike ­ Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher ­ were not there yesterday, but they still dominated discussion. Mr Scargill, who was at Orgreave in 1984, was invited but did not show. Perhaps he was busy. Perhaps he is aware that even among Yorkshire miners opinion is bitterly divided on how he ran the strike. Mr Scargill was played by a professional actor. Baroness Thatcher was not invited, and was not represented in the performance, but no one present has forgotten her.

"She was so tunnelled," said Ms Overton, whose father was a miner. "In Yorkshire, British Steel and the National Coal Board were our lives and she closed them." Glyn Robinson and his wife, Sue, were there in large part for their grandson Joe, aged nine. "I didn't know anything about this battle," said Joe, excitedly. "I didn't know it had happened." His grandparents believe Baroness Thatcher ruined their area and the country. For them, yesterday's performance, filmed by Channel 4 for inclusion in a documentary by Mike Figgis about the strike, was both moving and worthwhile. "People need to remember to keep them on their toes," Mrs Robinson said. "And Joe has to know what happened. Then he can make up his own mind."