In 1972, during one of a long series of skirmishes between the National Union of Mineworkers and Conservative governments, a Communist leader of the South Wales miners, Dai Francis, trying to organise flying pickets, had a call from Arthur Scargill.
According to Francis's son Hywel, Scargill said: "Look, Dai, we need pickets up at Saltley, in Birmingham ... tomorrow, Saturday." Dai paused. "But Wales are playing Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park." Scargill replied: "But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley."
Yes, no doubt about it, Scargill was always a figure of ludicrous comic appeal. With his hair, posturing, humourlessness and fantasies of power, he was a figure Dickens might have relished. Most of all, there was his office. We have Kim Howells as witness for that: "This big painting of Arthur on the back of a lorry in this Leninist pose ... urging the working class to overthrow the oppressors. I thought that anyone who can put a painting like that behind his desk is nuts."
Scargill wasn't nuts but he was puffed up with ludicrous self-confidence – Mrs Thatcher was wise never to give him the kudos of a face-to-face meeting. Now, with the 25th anniversary of the last miners' strike, Scargill is being wheeled out to reflect on this major episode. Before, however, anyone starts treating him as some sort of wise elder, we might like to remind ourselves of the culture around him.
Remember that during the 1972 strike, the NUM officials came out of negotiations and said they'd run out of things to demand, everything having been agreed. Dai Francis said they might as well return to work, since "we haven't got any more concessions to ask for". "Yes," the Kentish delegation replied, "but just give us a bit more time and we can think of something."
Scargill's account of the 1984 strike, published over the weekend, is a statement of quite astonishing self-delusion. He believes that the miners' success in a smaller strike of 1981 could have been repeated, when in fact Mrs Thatcher withdrew on that occasion, waiting her moment to challenge.
He goes on insisting that no ballot on strike action was necessary, since a democratic vote not to take a strike ballot at a conference on 19 April was decisive – come on, do you believe in democracy for your members or not?
Amazingly, he still insists that the strike was on the verge of triumph in November when he and his members were betrayed by NACODS, other unions and so on. Anyone who remembers the trickle of returning miners turning into a flood towards the end will remember the sheer self-delusion of this belief. About the single most striking failure of the strike, Scargill's tactically catastrophic decision to call a strike in May with coal stocks at a historic high, he has nothing to say.
Could it happen again? Certainly, the erosion of trade union rights has gone too far, and the revelation of the circulation of blacklists among employers in Britain is genuinely shocking. But any revival of respect for the vain potentates of late-1970s and early-1980s trade unions should be firmly resisted. In this disastrous economic climate, siren voices are demanding protection for British workers. The closed shop and the truly destructive strike can't be far behind.
Scargill said at the weekend that the 1984 strike was "a truly historic fight that gave birth to the magnificent Women Against Pit Closures and the miners' support groups." Let's leave its sad legacy at that, shall we?
Bringing a little Sparkle back to a dying format
Miss Jessica Sparkle has been forced to withdraw from the Miss University London beauty pageant, despite winning Heythrop College's heat.
The organisers of the pageant pointed out that Miss Sparkle was actually a man, Christopher Hayden-Hayes, and invited the runner up to take Miss Sparkle's place. Miss Sparkle claims that there is nothing in the rules of the contest to say that the entrants have to be women.
My first response to this enchanting story was this: London University tolerates beauty contests? Since when? When I was a student, a contest like that would have been protested and egged out of existence. But secondly, one remembers that the idea of beauty promoted by these repulsive contests has always based itself on the elaborate appearance of drag queens. This has been recognised ever since Andrew Logan organised the first Alternative Miss World in Hackney in 1972, an event won by Patrick Steed as Miss Yorkshire.
The idea that 36 years later, we are still having to point out how demeaning something called Miss University London is fills one with despair. Not Jessica Sparkle, though, whose behaviour is a complete scream and a delight.
Thrilling for Fallada fans, despite a fallacy
As long as I can remember, I've been asking publishers with an interest in foreign fiction to translate the German author Hans Fallada, a novelist I've always loved.
And now, thrillingly, Penguin have put the authority of the translator Michael Hofmann behind Jeder Stirbt Für Sich Allein, his heartbreaking tale of futile resistance in Nazi Berlin, and called it Alone in Berlin. He's a unique novelist, a writer of great sweetness and charm whom historical circumstances forced to take an interest in violent historical turmoil.
I look forward to a reissue of my favourite among his novels, the transfixing Kleiner Mann – Was Nun?, or Little Man – What Now?. But why has it taken so long for so famous and noble a novel as this new publication to reach an English-speaking public? The subject could hardly be more dramatic: the treatment is Fallada at his most confident and direct.
Perhaps the clue is the surprisingly parochial flavour of Penguin's marketing: they have felt obliged to describe this novel, which can hardly ever have been out of print in German since 1947, as "rediscovered", by which, as James Buchan points out, they evidently mean "translated into English". Next, please: Kurt Tucholsky.Reuse content