The English Civil War: Part II
Jeremy Deller, 2002
On 18 June 1984 I was watching the evening news and saw footage of a picket at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire in which thousands of men were chased up a field by mounted police. It seemed a civil war between the North and the South of the country was taking place in all but name. The image of this pursuit up the hill stuck in my mind and for years I wanted to find out what exactly happened on that day with a view to re-enacting or commemorating it in some way. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the strike, like a civil war, had a traumatically divisive effect at all levels of life in the UK. Families were torn apart because of divided loyalties, the union movement was split on its willingness to support the National Union of Mineworkers, the print media especially contributed to the polarization of the arguments to the point where there appeared to be little space for a middle ground. So in all but name it became an ideological and industrial battle between the two sections of British* society.
When I started to undertake research, the consequences of the confrontation took on a much larger historical perspective. It was a day that had been anticipated and planned for by the then government, even before it came to power. After over a year of archive reading, listening and interviewing many of those involved the re-enactment finally did take place on, or as close to as possible, the original site, with over 800 participants.
Many of these participants were former miners (and a few former policemen) who were reliving events from 1984 that they themselves took part in. The rest were members of Battle re-enactment societies from all over the country.
I wanted to involve members of these societies for mainly two reasons: first of all, they are well trained in recreating combat and in obeying orders. More importantly, I wanted the re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave to become part of the lineage of decisive battles in English History.
I was also interested in the term ‘living history’ that is frequently used in relation to re-enactments, and I thought it would be interesting for re-enactors to work alongside veterans of a recent confrontation, who are an embodiment of the term.
Also as an artist I was interested in how far an idea could be taken, especially one that is on the face of it a contradiction in terms, ‘a recreation of something that was essentially chaos’.
I would never have undertaken the project if people locally felt it was unnecessary or in poor taste, As it was, we encountered support from the outset because there seemed to be an instinctive understanding of what the re-enactment was about. I was not interested in a nostalgic interpretation of the strike.
Over a thousand people were involved in the project, either through taking part, filming or helping with the research. I would personally like to thank everyone who has shown faith in the project or was at least willing to give it a go.
* I apologise for the fact that the title The Battle of Orgreave does not acknowledge the miners in Scotland and Wales who took part in the strike but it was a title that seemed to stick, even when I first thought of the re-enactment eight years ago.
This is an edited version of the foreword from Jeremy Deller’s 2002 book The English Civil War: Part II, published by Artangel and available from Cornerhouse.