June and July are peak festival season in the UK. Whether we’re talking traditional county shows, extravagant food fairs or music fests such as Glastonbury, we Brits certainly seem to enjoy a bit of commingling once the sun pokes its head out from behind the clouds – or even if it doesn’t actually.
Maybe it’s something to do with those long summer days with their 15 to 16 hours of unfettered sunlight that compels us all to go out and about so much – before it all fades to a memory again over the winter months and we’re lucky to see eight hours.
Whatever the cause though, some of my fondest memories of these seasonal festivities relate to the “Big Meeting” in my home town of Durham, which is known officially as Miners’ Gala (pronounced Gayler) and is now hitting the ripe old age of 145.
Whether it was meeting up with friends at the Racecourse and making myself sick on the funfair rides or seeing my first punk on Silver Street with my brother and Irish grandma, I always loved it. It was heartfelt fun and frolics and everyone went, whether they were of mining stock or not.
By the way, just for the record, my first punk was a perfect specimen of the kind you’d see years later on those tourist-y postcards – green Mohican, red tartan bondage trousers held together with safety pins and nose chain-to-ear piercings. And the 10 year-old me looked on transfixed as he pushed his way against the vast flow of human traffic. Which was all very symbolic, thinking about it. “Don’t look,” my grandma said as if she thought it might encourage him in his “boldness”. But I did anyway.
As for Big Meeting itself, it was traditionally always held on the second Saturday of July. First staged in 1871 by the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), which still puts it on to this day, it quickly developed into the largest unofficial trade union gathering in the UK – hence the name, “Big Meeting”.
At its peak, the occasion attracted over 300,000 people, nearly five times more than the population of Durham City itself. And even though the last pit in the county closed in 1994, it still manages to pull in a very respectable 100,000 or so, presumably as some kind of nostalgia or heritage event – although I must admit that I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to partake of its faded glory.
And who knows if I’ll get the chance again now. David Hopper, a hard leftie and good marra (a local term for friend) of divisive Labour Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who he shared a platform with at the last Big Meeting, died of a heart attack only a week after the event.
But it was he who, as DMA secretary in charge of sorting out compensation for former pitmen, had organised the do for years. And it was he who more or less singlehandedly kept it going even after the pits went, creating “The Friends of the Durham Miners’ Gala” fund in a bid to secure its future.
But it was also Hopper who, controversially, uninvited a tranche of north-eastern Labour MPs to the official reception this year, branding those who had backed the Parliamentary vote of no confidence in Corbyn a few weeks earlier as “traitors”. They were also banned from sharing the traditional balcony at the County Hotel in Old Elvet, a place of honour from which union leaders, local dignitaries and Labour bigwigs had always waved to the miners as they marched past with their banners on the way to the Racecourse.
Each pit village had a banner stitched lovingly by the women and, in the old days, it was paraded through the streets the night before the big day with the colliery brass band in accompaniment. Next morning, bright and early, the miners and their families – which was most of the village – would march behind said banner on their way into Durham, some of them half-cut and dancing despite the hour.
All the shops boarded up their windows, not only because of the crowds but also because of the drunks. The pubs were open from early morning till late at night and no traffic was allowed through the City.
It was a big day out and when it started, it was one of the few holidays that people got. The women would bake for days to have a picnic ready for the family, and they’d all spend their time at the Racecourse, which is actually one of the University’s sports grounds.
By the afternoon, the men would be down by the riverside milling around the podiums listening to the political speeches, while the women stayed with the children on the bank above enjoying the funfair, candy floss and good bit crack (good conversation, for the uninitiated). It was noisy, organised and eventful chaos, but all your mates would be there and you wouldn’t miss it for the world.
After the speeches, four or five specially chosen bands and banners would then march up to the Cathedral, our very own UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the Miners’ Service at 3pm. But the day went on well into the night too.
So we’ll see what happens now that David Hopper’s gone. Because without him, it could well be the end of a quite remarkable era.