Chasing the Dragon: creative community responses to the crisis in the South Wales coalfield

edited by: Phil Cope, Pat Hill, Simon Jones and Jenny Turner.

Prologue: Learning from Defeat?

New initiatives for the Valleys.

Much has happened in the South Wales Valleys in the decade since the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers following the year-long strike of 1984-85 and much of it has been unwelcome: the creation of a growing class of what has been called “socially excluded” people – excluded from work, education and training; the virtual disappearance of the coal industry; the continuing problem of unemployment particularly amongst young people; the social and cultural isolation of council housing estates; the rise of a drug culture and racism; and the growing importance of part-time, low-paid, non-union work, mainly for women. All these are serious socio-economic problems which have become endemic in the last decade. And yet this publication, compiled by community activists associated with the Valleys’ Initiative for Adult Education, bears witness to a collectivist resilience, indeed a collectivist renewal, which has taken place in spite of the great odds stacked against us.

It is now commonplace to hear people reflecting on this period in terms of a search for “resources of hope”. The writer Raymond Williams many times, particularly in his poignant but inspirational essay “Mining the Meaning” (New Socialist, March 1985), referred to the eternal qualities of solidarity and community which have been so woven into the rich fabric of valleys’ history. Added to this has been the sense of being in a new era with the demise of coal as a major employer, potentially sounding the death knell of a patriarchal society, and in its wake we welcome the emergence of “new” social movements – green, peace and women – in the 1980s, particularly. They afford us new ways of thinking about the ways we organise our work, our leisure, our childcare, our learning, our whole way of living – in other words, our culture.

Is it not a strange paradox that we appear to learn more from our defeats than our victories? If that is so, then our so-called defeats can be transformed into positive experiences if we see them as episodes in a process of collective lifelong learning.

Another paradox is that in the great pantheon of labour history in the South Wales Valleys “great men” have personified, almost substituted for the social movements which have changed society: Mabon for “The Fed”, Lewis Jones for the Unemployed, Arthur Horner for the NUM, Lord Heycock in Local Government, Aneurin Bevan for the Health Service. In our own times, we recognise not “great men” but those community-based initiatives which have characterised and shaped our present and hopefully our future, whether it be the Tower Colliery employees’ buyout, Penrhys Church, the Community University of the Valleys, Valley and Vale Community Arts, the Valleys’ Women’s Roadshow or the multitude of other organisations which have emerged in our times.

What resources of hope, then, can we draw from the experiences so eloquently and passionately described in this volume? Firstly, there is the recognition that our greatest wealth is our people – especially young people – and the skills they possess or potentially possess. Secondly, the vitality and energy of the community and voluntary sectors have been, as always in our history, a revelation. Beyond this there has been the growing importance of women, as community activists and in a significant way as major contributors to the labour market. And finally, we have a growing understanding in the valleys that, as we enter the new information age, it is quality education and training throughout life, in or out of work, that is the prerequisite for a stable and just society.

It is not a return to coal or large manufacturing industries that is a likely panacea to our problems – welcome as this news may be in the Dulais Valley and the Rhondda Fach – but the growth of publicly funded quality learning and broad cultural opportunities in schools, villages and towns, accessible to all ages throughout the valleys. It is this investment in people that is needed in a genuine democratic partnership with valley communities and all communities throughout Europe which are undergoing rapid social and economic transformation.

These then, are some of the hopes and aspirations outlined in the chapters which follow: they are but a tiny glimpse of life, work and struggle by people and communities in the last decade in what was once called the South Wales Coalfield but is still proudly called The Valleys. We should all celebrate and learn from their collective achievement.

Director of Adult Continuing Education
University of Wales College, Swansea.