Shirebrook is the kind the of place where everyone greets you in the street and the brass band plays in the park on a Saturday, teenagers preen in the town square for want of other places to flirt, and the library is bustling with people taking advantage of free internet – perhaps because they don’t have access at home.
In the mid-1980s this was sometimes called “the Belfast of England”. Miners split over whether or not to strike and the community divided around them. More recently, the tensions have been about another iconic issue. When Sports Direct set up its headquarters on the edge of town, they employed thousands of Eastern European agency workers, in notoriously shocking conditions. But the first thing to say about civil society in this East Midlands town is that society is, on the whole, very civil. People, are very friendly: more like a rural village than the weathered industrial architecture would imply.
I visited as part of Civil Society Futures, the independent inquiry into how civil society can flourish in a fast-changing world, and I spent most of the time chatting to three groups in particular: the Shirebrook Miners’ Welfare Band, a social enterprise called Rhubarb Farm, and the Shirebrook Model Village Residents’ Association. I also spent some time wandering around the library, leisure centre and the town in general, chatting to people. Here are some things I learned.
The Remembrance Day parade is the only community event that’s growing
After the Shirebrook Model Village Residents’ Association meeting, there was much discussion about how hard they found it to get locals to come to their events. Despite free bouncy castles and face painting and food, most people wouldn’t show up to the gatherings they organised; to any events, that is, apart from the annual Remembrance Day parade. That, they told me, is growing each year.
It’s not, I don’t think, just Shirebrook. Look at the vast attendance at the Tower of London poppy installation in 2014, the foundation and growth of Armed Forces Day and the parades at Wooten Basset. Why is all of this happening?
You can come up with a number of theories: it coincides neatly with the death of the last generation which remembers the First World War, and also to the loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan. While military recruitment statistics by area are surprisingly hard to come by there is certainly an extent to which Blair’s wars were fought by the children of the miners’ strikes. Or perhaps this is a function of the austerity patriotism of a declining empire; the desire to rally round the flag in a ship which many feel to be sinking?
In 2013, Tannock, Burgess and Moles at the University of Cardiff conducted a study into militarism in another former mining area: the Welsh Valleys. In it, they said:
“While communities in the south Wales valleys have a long tradition of military work, they have seen a resurgence over the past decade of military presence and militarism that has been driven by the convergence of several factors: the rise of the US-led global war on terror; the attempts by the British government to re-shape civil and military relations, in response to public opposition to British participation in the US-led war on terror; the process of Welsh devolution and the promotion of Welsh economic development agendas and Welsh nationalism across Wales; and the continuing economic struggles of the south Wales valleys.”
They also talk about the need to understand the “everyday geographies of militarization”, and point to Vron Ware’s analysis that the Blair/Brown government ushered in, in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a “radical new programme of outreach with civil society”. And, while, of course, Welsh devolution isn’t a factor in Shirebrook, it does seem that many of the other factors – and in particular long term unemployment and poverty – apply as much here as they do to the Welsh valleys.
The military, the mines and the churches
There’s another way to look at this. Some of the most important pieces of civil society infrastructure seemed to come from the legacies of three institutions: the military, the mines and the churches. In Shirebrook itself, many of the clubs and societies – including the brass band – were based out of the miners’ welfare building. A number of people talked about how the closure of the British Legion building had been a big problem for the community: it had been another important building for them. Likewise, in neighbouring Warsop, the ex-servicemen’s club was one of the few civil society spaces I came across. And while many people talked about how integration with the Polish community had improved in recent years, one woman put that down to the work of the Christian Centre, who provide a number of services, including food banks and are, as she put it ‘very non-judgemental’, and ‘bringing everyone together’.
While the closure of the mines was a massive event that people talk about, the changes in the other institutions are also worth considering: we’re now at the point where not only has everyone who fought in WWI gone, but most of the generation who fought in WWII have also passed away (you now have to be ninety to have been 18 at the end of the war). The woman who ran the bar in the miners’ welfare commented that, as one generation of pensioners thins out, the next doesn’t come to drink there with the same frequency. Partly I suspect this is because the boundaries of community have shifted radically as these two vital institutions have, respectively, changed, and disappeared.
Similarly, the drastic changes in religiosity are also a vital question: if religious institutions are so important to building community, who will replace them as faith slowly dwindles?
Civil society groups have been key to rebuilding community in civic space
Rhubarb Farm is a two-acre plot with chickens, fruit and veg, all tended to by people with a range of long term needs, including children excluded from school, those with learning difficulties, addiction problems, people with mental health issues, and people referred by the job centre and the probation service. It’s on a plot which used to be miners’ allotments, but which, mostly, people stopped using after the mines shut.
The farm has a policy of not drawing firm lines between staff, volunteers and beneficiaries – there are no employee uniforms for example – and it does important work. Partly, of course, this is about the individuals involved: one older man talked about the depression of sitting at home every day after he was signed off work sick, and how the farm had given him a sense of purpose again. Another, who suffers from alcoholism, has been off the drink for a few weeks now, with the support of friends at the farm.
But it’s also about the institutions which community life are built around, now that the main employer has gone (and the new one seems uninterested). The farm now organises an annual fair, attended by thousands of locals. As one man said to me, “the closing of the mines smashed this community apart. It’s projects like this that are pulling it back together.”
Trans politics isn’t the preserve of the elite
Rhubarb Farm has grown out of a community of ex-miners and their offspring. Their training courses so far this year have included an adult literacy project, tractor training for staff, and transgender awareness.
There is a lazy habit of assuming that comprehension of LGBT issues is a luxury that working class people don’t have time for. That’s not true.
The brass band still sits at the heart of the community
I arrived at the miners’ welfare building up a dark side-street at around a quarter to ten. In the window were posters advertising English language classes, and encouraging people working in the Sports’ Direct warehouse to join Unite. Inside, the friendly woman behind the empty bar showed me up the right corridor and pointed to a door, which muffled that warm sound of gently honed brass caressed with careful breaths.
I visited the band because, in our initial online research, we found them involved in almost everything which happened in the community. And that was certainly my impression too: when Rhubarb Farm talked about their annual fair, they quickly mentioned that the band played there. When the residents’ association talked about Remembrance Day, the band was key to proceedings. But very few of the players were from Shirebrook itself. The conductor, Colum O’Shae, for example, lives in nearby Mansfield and works in Nottingham.
The band members – including O’Shae – were younger than I expected. Or, rather, more multi-generational. Sat rehearsing in their strip-lit hall, they made the sort of music which banishes screens and commands your full attention.
More than one of the band members talked about the film “Brassed Off”, perhaps as the best way to explain brass banding to an outsider. And they talked about the memorable quote: “if the pit goes, the band will go with it”. But, in the case of the Shirebrook band, the pit has gone, but they are still very much here.
That certainly isn’t true of every brass band. As Colum O’Shae, the musical director, put it, “some have survived, some have not – most have not”. According to one band member, thousands of bands have disappeared over the last thirty years. And for those who have survived, this has been achieved by helping each other out, and by moving with the times – including recruiting members from outside the area.
Facebook has helped facilitate this process: often, they’ll need a substitute to play a particular instrument. And where finding one used to be a slow process of advertising in a weekly magazine, these days, they pop their request in the right Facebook group, and someone will get back straight away.
Cuts and culture war
A key part of brass banding is that everyone gets an instrument for free – meaning no one is priced out of playing. “We’re fiercely protective of that”, says the lead horn player. She works as a music teacher and has found that “as funding has been cut, kids weren’t allowed an instrument if they couldn’t afford to pay for one. And, it’s sort of killing our future orchestral players, our future band players, and it’s so wrong. So I’m fiercely protective of the fact that we can provide instruments.”
A full brass band has 25 players, and the cost of instruments for all of them can add up to £100,000. So keeping them in stock – ensuring that price is never a barrier to joining – is a major cost.
In the wake of the European referendum, much has been written about the suggestion that England is slipping into an American style culture war, with struggles like LGBT liberation, feminism and, more than anything, race and migration, becoming more significant than economic issues. To help us get to grips with this idea, we need the help of someone else from a mining community.
In his marvellous 1958 essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’, Welsh thinker Raymond Williams wrote:
“Culture is ordinary. That is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, in arts and learning. The making of a society is the findings of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact and discovery, writing themselves into the land… We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life, the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers insist on one or other of these meanings. I insist on both, and the importance of their conjuncture”.
If Williams is right, and I think he is, then we can’t take the idea of cultural conflict in England seriously unless we look at culture in the sense of ‘the arts’ alongside the broader concept of culture as in ‘a way of life’. It seems to me that the real culture war isn’t really about LGBT rights or migration (not that these aren’t important questions in their own right), but about the way in which much working class culture is treated in modern England. And while this is true of the ‘way of life’ meaning of culture, it is most easily identified through the ‘arts’ meaning.
It is in this context that the wonderful creative traditions of much of working class England – from unique regional dishes to brass bands – are treated like the coal under the ground: either commodified and sold to the world with little benefit to those where it came from, or ignored, underfunded, sneered at by much of the urban middle class, and left to die. Like the towers of former mines, whole cultures are being put out to rust.
Often, like many problems, this cultural corrosion is blamed on migration. But, whilst one minor issue the band raised was that they have struggled to recruit from the Polish community, most of what they talked about related more to funding. In large part, this was because of the closure of the mine and the fact that Sports Direct isn’t willing to sponsor the band in the way that mines often did. But the problem they articulated about their own lives can be summed up in one statistic:
In the year 2012/13, the East Midlands received £2.50 of arts council funding per capita. The equivalent figure for the West Midlands was around three times as much, and for London, was eight times as much, at £20 per person.
Civil society groups have retreated from politics
While people were happy to talk about the implications of specific policies and events on their particular experiences, they generally steered clear of talking about things which are explicitly political. As one band member put it “politics is something we manage”, while another talked about how, in the past, the whole community supported Labour and so the band could be more explicitly political. But now, members have a range of different views, and so rarely take part in events they would see as explicitly political. Much has been written about how the Brexit referendum supposedly divided communities, but for this community group, the situation was summed up by a Winnie the Pooh Cartoon, in which Pooh and Piglet discover that they have voted differently in the referendum, but resolve that they are still friends.
You can find the full spectrum of views on immigration in one meeting… and they’re all friends.
The folk in the Residents’ Association were much happier to chat politics than the brass band, but perhaps the main thing they revealed is that the community isn’t nearly as divided as some of the media narrative would have us believe. Among the people there were some who voted Leave for wonky carrots and someone who voted Remain. And there were people who approached the question of immigration in all manner of different ways, with one man gently encouraging his friends not to talk about Polish people as ‘them’.
As one member put it to me after the meeting “we don’t all agree, but we try to come to a consensus.”
Their number one concern was potholes
In a housing estate known best for being at the front line of immigration in the UK, the first issue that people raised, and the one they were most passionate about, was pot holes. Specifically, in the back lanes between their houses, where the council aren’t responsible.
For me, this highlighted two things. First, the problem has emerged because each home is individually responsible for the stretch of road that it backs onto. But the road is a commons – everyone uses it, and the people who use it most (those with cars) aren’t necessarily those responsible for the stretch where the holes emerge.
Anyone who has come across the Nobel winning economist Elinor Ostrom will tell you that such partitioning of commons – portioning out individual responsibility for a collective good – is likely to lead to potholes. But this tendency to try to partition commons has a long and disastrous history in England, going back to the enclosure acts. Since then, English society seems to have got worse and worse at understanding and managing commons – from the air we breath to the fish stocks in our seas to, yes, the lanes out the back of our houses.
But, secondly, it was also a reminder that the basic practical concerns are pretty similar everywhere.
A lot of the frustration about migration is a consequence of austerity
When people first raised immigration as an issue, they talked about “HMOs” – houses in multiple occupancy – and practical problems like an employment agency they said was connected to Sports’ Direct cramming lots of people into the same house. This, they said, caused practical problems relating to things like people not knowing when to put the rubbish out, and surges in the number of people needing the local GP.
Of course, there’s another way to see these problems: the taxes which the new workers were paying weren’t being used to ensure that they had the services they needed.
None of the groups I visited had any Eastern European people in them
A large percentage of the population of Shirebrook is Polish. And yet none of the groups I spoke to had any Polish people involved (or, at least, none on the days I was there). All saw this as a problem, but none of the people I spoke to in them knew what could be done about it. The Residents’ Association in particular were keen to get more advice on how to involve the Polish migrant community in their work, and felt they didn’t know where that might come from. Similarly, everything I have said above is missing their perspective.
Walking through the Shirebrook model village, I spent a few moments talking to people in the street: an older woman who couldn’t speak English, only Polish. She was followed by a man of around eighteen, who told me that nothing changes in Shirebrook, that it’s always been great and that’s how it stays.
He’s right. This East Midlands town, like many others, has been cast aside by a society and an economic system which see it and its culture as disposable. It has become home to thousands of new people, who moved in the hope of a better life and work in harsh conditions to try and secure it. And yet the town itself still has a square full of playful teenagers. It still has the sorts of back alleys where locals will greet you as though you’ve lived there your whole life. It still has its brass band and the aging miners in the welfare still make sure that you know how to get home safely when you leave at night.
People in neighbouring towns mock Shirebrook. More than one asked me why I was bothering to go there. The answer of course is in the question itself. Those places about which people are rude tend to be those which have survived through the biggest changes of the last thirty years. And that means we have much to learn from them.