Craig Oldham: In Loving Memory Of Work, Pt2.

Craig Oldham: In Loving Memory Of Work, Pt2.

In Loving Memory Of Work by Craig Oldham presents a visual record of Britain’s longest ever industrial dispute: the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike. The book, published by Oldham’s own imprint (Unified Theory of Everything) marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ return to work. Bringing together political graphics and cultural ephemera alongside first-hand testimonies, it’s a celebration of the creativity of the working class, as well as a re-appraisal of the collective aesthetic of one of most important social & political events in recent history. Moving, witty and at times shocking, In Loving Memory of Work explores the immediate effects of the strike, while vividly demonstrating its continuing cultural (and political) relevance.

Earlier in the week we took a close look at some of the arresting images featured in the book. For this second post we had a proper chat with mastermind Craig Oldham, to get answers to some of our questions…

FFF: Looking back on any historical work can feel a bit removed or diluted, like sifting through collections of punk flyers from the comfort of your sofa in 2015. You talk about the book as a reappraisal, and even a celebration, of the ’84-’85 For UK miners’ strike work thats been wilfully ignored since – how do you think the work in the book has been received this time around by new audiences in a context so removed to that of the mid 80’s when it was produced? 

CO: It’s difficult to say, as the book itself is still new. Books need time to settle and find their place; their success isn’t that it gets picked-up off the shelf and bought, it’s that it continues to be picked up by the person who owns it, passed around, shared and such, sometimes years afterwards. But the immediate feedback I’ve had about the book has been overwhelming, and to an extent this definition of success has been happening (I’ve had emails from people all over the country who’ve been bought a copy, or have been passed one, and felt compelled to get in touch). In that respect it’s been a success, and for me personally, I’m proud to have made it—which for me is a success.

FFF: You remain vocal about justice for those you feel were wronged in the Thatcher era – and I know you are still passionate about UK politics – which has again been generating headlines with the recent elections. What part do you think graphic design can play in this arena for our generation and those to come? (…and are there any other protest pieces you admire from other struggles?)

CO: Graphic Design has a role to play, and that can be a really influential one, but ultimately it’s the ideas in the politics which are most potent. Design is a means and not an end, so we will always need content to exist, never mind perform well, but when the two play together well it can be a potent weapon. The only shame is that works both ways—you can use that power for bad as well as good. I remember many political campaigns growing up and have always been fascinated by them, by that visual argument and exchange of blows. And this interest has led me to study that area of design a lot and I’ve ended up collecting a lot of pieces from various struggles, but the thing I admire the most is that the good ones are still potent today.

I remember the first time I saw the And babies anti-Vietnam poster by the Art Workers Coalition and I thought it was unbelievably powerful. Of course, I wasn’t around at the time of the Vietnam War but it was still incredibly shocking and it resonated with me. I’ve always felt that way about the work of Emory Douglas too, that it lives beyond it’s time. Whether that resonance comes from the notion that the themes, ideas, and conflicts are still present and felt today, and so the design still functions and cuts-through, I don’t know, quite possibly, but I feel that’s a great weapon for any person who feels oppression or injustice. And that’s the role it can play.

FFF: The process of achieving that iconic dust-jacket cover was trickier than many might imagine (as you detailed here) and was a very personal endeavour to honour your families mining legacy. Are you satisfied creatively with the book? 

CO: I wouldn’t use the word satisfied, as I see the book as a sense of duty, that it has a job to do and that work is on-going. But in terms of a piece of design, it’s always important to me to find relative originality in the work you do and in your design process. Originality can come from any part of the creative spectrum: the design, the writing, the curation, or in this case the production; and so it’s important to be holistically aware of the opportunities in a piece. Those opportunities come from the most vital part of a design, as I mentioned, it’s content, which you have to always be relative to. When designing the book it was imperative for me to make sure it represented the people fighting for the miners, and be a product of them and for them, embedded in their time and made in their spirit.

Naturally using coal fit, but given that you can’t get hold of much mined UK coal today, and using Columbian coal (for example) wouldn’t have exactly been relative, we had to look at other ideas to make it happen. So we took the coal from the now closed site of Barnsley Main Colliery, which both my father and grandfather worked down at various periods. This made the idea relative, but of course it also added a personal layer to it and more of a story. Being able to make that happen did more than satisfy.

FFF: Liaison is the typeface you designed and used throughout the book, based on the placards of the LCDTU visible in many of the demonstrations of the day. Its industrial and angular geometry is both harsh and distinct – and is my favourite part of the book. Can you tell us a bit more about how you selected and developed the typeface?

CO: Similar to the coal dust thought, every part of the design has, for me, to have a reason for being and has to be able to declare why it’s used and have purpose. Including the fonts. Again, I wanted to use typefaces that were used or available at the time throughout the book, but I also wanted to it feel contemporary. I’d seen the Liaison placards pop up a few times in my research and was always struck by their clarity—they look a bit weird, pointy and industrial, and in simple black and white I was drawn to them. I initially re-drew three placards for use in the book, but once I’d got them big and on the page that was it, it just had to be made.

There was a bit of artistic license as we only had limited information of the DNA of the face, but together with Aaron Skipper we created the full font. The hairline glyphs added that bit of a contemporary feel and like the initial placards, Liaison the font still feels pointy, industrial, and of course a bit weird. We also created a second font, Ferrymoor, which is inspired by the characters sewn into the rear of a NUM trade union banner. Much like Liaison, it’s distinct, harsh and quirky, and together they are a couple of my favourite parts of the book too, both absolutely rooted in the subject and the time. To pinch another’s words to describe my reasoning behind doing it was coined by Van Wyck Brooks, an American critic in the 1920‘s, who encouraged the “usable past” and for me Liaison is exactly that.

FFF: The Boulton Image by John Harris is probably the most recognisable piece in the book, familiar to many who perhaps know little about the circumstances of its creation, what can you tell us about it and its importance to the protests at the time?

CO: Giving context is always difficult to historical examination, especially when we generally tow to the ‘history is written by the victors’ line. For years the miners’ and their supporters have been victimised, accused and presented wrongly through bias lenses, but it was like that during the strike also. The media, pretty much on the whole, splurged out whatever Thatcher wanted them to. Murdoch was one of her closest allies, and many of the heads of the newspapers and broadcasting bodies were later knighted or honoured in the aftermath (no prizes for guessing who nominated or proposed their honours). The general public were told the miners were liars, thugs, enemies of their country, images of bloody picket’s heads, serious injury to protesters and the aftermath of conflict were all ‘the miners’ fault. So when the miners rebutted with stories of police brutality and injustice, aka the truth, they were simply ignored or mistrusted due to the colossal government media machine working against them. Until the Harris / Boulton image.

Taken during the infamous Battle of Orgreave, the image presented the miners with a shed of proof that what they were saying all along was true. That not only the miners were being abused, but working class women also. It wasn’t used by almost all of the mainstream media in the direct aftermath of the event, but to the miners the image became their Ché. It was mass produced and held aloft everywhere possible thereafter. It gave them hope. The image is studied widely now and is rightly iconic—for it represents everything civilized society has been established to prevent—but it’s power may be in the fact that no one knows where its negative is… a crucial part for any prosecution, and proof.

FFF: What do you know anything about the designers or creators of the work featured? Did you manage to track any down, were they professionals? Was it difficult to find attribution info?

CO: There are so so many designers and creators that of course it’s difficult to know a lot about all of them. But the ones I did meet were exceptional people, and on the whole, none of them were designers. Charlie Cibour (whom I’ve mentioned in the selection images) fought daily for his job, picketing and creating. Whilst the most of his endeavours were graffiti, his work (although I’m not sure he’d call it that) has a rawness and honesty to it that I truly believe you can only get being involved in struggle so much. A designer couldn’t better this with a ‘commission’ or request unless fundamentally involved and committed—it’s the idea in its purest form. A bit like Alan Fletcher’s Ham and Eggs: “The pig is committed but the chicken is merely involved”.

There were professionals involved of course, designers like Sid Brown, a legend in political work who designed and illustrated for the Morning Star,  sadly no longer with us; Alan Hardman: a political cartoonist albeit self-taught; and Paul Morton: a graphic designer who created work during the strike and even picketed despite not being a miner. Getting material was a slog, but I think given my association with my community and my dad and grandad in a sense lending their validity, it became easier the more I got. Which sounds a stupid thing to say, but it’s the age old first being the hardest adage coming true. Also, museums and organisations like the Working Class Movement Library and of course the National Union of Mineworkers were fundamental in supporting the book with their collections.

FFF: What are your favourite piece/s featured in the book, and why? 

CO: That’s difficult. Very difficult, as I personally see the body of work as a collective creativity—just like the miners themselves I guess. But I love the graffiti section for the reasons I said before, its purity, and the NUM banners for the iconography and history represented through visual means. But if you’re forcing my hand I’d say the Maggie note or the Maggie V.

FFF: The book is a beautiful homage to, and extension of, the aesthetics of the protest work within its pages, so clearly producing such a sensitively handled work was within your abilities. Did you worry at any point that you might struggle to put together a cohesive and all-encompassing / comprehensive look at the work of that era, or be able to produce a compelling story that makes sense of it all?

CO: Of course—I was perpetually terrified. My major worry was that the end result would somehow not represent the people I was doing it for, or in someway it might let them down. It wasn’t until Anne Scargill (co-founder of Women Against Pit Closures) said she was proud of me upon seeing the book, and Aggie Currie (another WAPC activist) cried at the launch, moved by the film and her story in the book, that I felt that worry lift. The book was received well by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and has raised  thousands thus far to support calls for an full public enquiry, in doing so and working with them over the short but colourful 18 months start-to-finish, it has truly made their cause my own.

In Loving Memory of Work: A visual record of the UK miners’ strike 1984-85 by Craig Oldham is available now, published by Unified Theory of Everything. Proceeds from the book will go towards the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.

Luke Tonge