Last week a book arrived in our office via the hands of It’s Nice That director Alex Bec. He told us all it was created by Craig Oldham, who he had just seen give a brilliant talk about the creation of the publication. It’s called In Loving Memory of Work, and it is a spectacularly well-designed, excitingly and refreshingly well-informed book documenting the UK miners’ strike between 1984 and 1985. For something so long, violent and shocking that happened in recent history, I’ve sometimes felt that the miners’ strike hasn’t really been talked about as much as it should have been. But I can see why: it’s hard to get to grips with something that horrible happening to so many people and so nearby.
In Loving Memory of Work stands on the side of the miners. It’s a visual record of what they fought for day after day, month after month, and the ripple effect the passion for the strike had all over the country. The design is powerful, unabashed, garish, strong and unapologetic. Each page contains a story even more well-written and intriguing than the last. With Craig openly having very personal connections to the strikes, this book of his is nothing short of a labour of love. Here he is on making a book that is about 20 years overdue, but well worth the wait.
"In Loving Memory of Work is about the collective creativity of working class people, people who dealt with their experiences and struggle creatively as a means of expression, and that's a vital part of this particular period of history, and of humanity."Craig Oldham
I’ve rarely seen a book that is so full of passion about one subject. It’s almost raw. How do you feel about it now you can hold it in your hands? Will you be able to put the topic to rest for now?
It’s always a difficult moment once you receive the final thing after working on it for so long. I’m always aware of the thought that you’re never the same person who sets the goals by the time you reach them, so consequently I try to work hard and fast so that way there’s at least a sense of achievement and joy in achieving the tasks you set yourself. But in this case, the passion has been with me, or at least around me for as long as I can remember, and I think it will remain that way even now the book is finished so to speak. And I’m glad that the passion comes through in the book, and even better if it’s raw. I’m not really interested in presenting a balanced or “fair” view when it comes to this topic, because balanced and fair were never considered by Thatcher’s government in their handling of the lives of the working class. I have an opinion and I’m proud to represent that.
Who do you really want to read this book?
That’s a tough one. Part of me was really concerned about the reaction from the people who actually fought in the strike. My primary concern was always to do them justice and represent their point of view. I wasn’t there, but I feel as close to it as you possibly could be being born after the formal end. So I want those people to read it and enjoy the book. But equally, this is a reappraisal of work that’s been purposefully ignored and is a celebration of working class people.
Design is such a middle class profession, so I really want young designers who may know little or nothing about this subject to pick it up as a design book and then hopefully take from it a desire to create meaningful work. The first thing you need is something to say. Establish that idea, and the form will present itself. I want young designers to be encouraged by the book, that they can create no matter what their background. Just as the countless thousands of miners and miners’ families did.
"Design is such a middle class profession, so I really want young designers, who may know little or nothing about this subject, to pick it up as a design book and then hopefully take from it a desire to create meaningful work."Craig Oldham
Why did you think a book was the best way of telling this story?
There’s still a trust in books that holds. Once it’s a book, it earns a level of gravitas, and this subject deserves that. Of course there are lots of books on the mining strike, but not one was out there like this, that told the dissent and struggle. There are books on the media bias, the political siege, the hardship, the humour, the general history, but there’s a superb level of creativity present in this topic that’s so far been untouched in the context of design and visual culture. If it were a website, it wouldn’t be the same, it would undermine the topic and in my opinion somewhat trivialise it. Films have been made, documentaries created, but I didn’t want it to become entertainment either. So a book felt the natural representation. Plus designers love books.
Do you think that if something like the pit closures happened now the youth of today would act in a similar way as the punks did back in the 1980s? Something in me tells me there wouldn’t even be anything as bold as Arthur SKArgill’s Christmas Party!
No, it wouldn’t. The rise of the false individual has eradicated that. I’m not saying that there won’t be reactions from the youth, but I think that there’s no longer the strength or singularity of fight left in society. For example, the miners knew their enemy: it was the boss. That figure that they could fight. With the amount of information around today, we know it’s not as simple as that, that the enemy is much more dispersed and I think this has allowed for apathy instead of agitation. We don’t see the point as much now because we struggle to distil it. You will always get great visual dissent from struggle, you will always get reaction to oppression, but it will be a different kind to that of the strike.
"You will always get great visual dissent from struggle, you will always get reaction to oppression."Craig Oldham
Tell us about Lesley Boulton, that iconic image, and what you research led you to discover about her?
The Boulton Image (by John Harris) became the miners’ Che Guevara effectively, so I knew about it from day dot. It was the sole image that represented their treatment by the police, not just at Orgreave, but at numerous picket lines. The media were increasingly hostile and were misrepresenting the miners and fabricating stories to back the government line. This image broke through all that, and the miners had proof that everything they were saying they were experiencing was true.
From there, it went wild. The miners, in a true punk way, took the image and ran with it and it was used on almost everything they could create. Being involved with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign helped me get in contact with Lesley. The chairman, Joe Rollin, again a friend, put me in touch with Lesley and we talked at length about the experience of the image and the time and many things. It’s fascinating really, as Lesley feels that because of the notoriety of the image, she no longer feels like it’s her in the picture. Also, we spoke to John who took the picture and it felt interesting to write a piece that married the two sides of such a powerful image. The image is studied widely in history books now, and that proves its power.
The archive of outsider art, banners, posters, magazine clippings and fliers in this book is unbelievable. How important do you think design is when it comes to an important era in history?
Design is a means not an end. Posters on political or social struggle aren’t collected by museums for their design, but for their content. The struggle is much more important than the design. So first and foremost that’s of primary concern, and that’s no different in the book. But that’s not to say design isn’t useful or important: there’s still a job to do to convey a point of view and so it becomes a necessary part of the communication. But in terms of their importance relative to the struggle, that just depends how you interpret, learn, or document your own history.
Those visually inclined will represent their history as such. I’m a designer and I surround myself with visual things that mean something to me, but they could just as easily be textbooks, or music or whatever. It’s just a different way of doing it. In Loving Memory of Work is about the collective creativity of working class people, people who dealt with their experiences and struggle creatively as a means of expression, and that’s a vital part of this particular period of history, and of humanity.
"Design is a means not an end. Posters on political or social struggle aren't collected by museums for their design, but for their content. The struggle is much more important than the design."Craig Oldham
I know you were born just at the end of the strike. This may be too personal a question, but if you were a miner in your 20s mid-strike, how do you think you would have felt and reacted towards the decisions made by the government at the time?
It wouldn’t have been a choice, it would be only one reaction. I would have done what my parents and grandparents did, and fought to protect my community and my livelihood. I’m proud of my mum, dad, grandad, and all the families that did exactly what I would have done were I there at the time.