The Battle of Orgreave 25 years on: Memory, counter-memory, re-enactment and translation

The Battle of Orgreave 25 years on:Memory, countermemory, re-enactment and translation

List of Abbreviations

TOT –Benjamin, W. (1921) ‘The Task of the Translator’, trans. Zohn, H. in (ed) Bullock, M. and Jennings, M. W., Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume One: 1913-1926,London: Belknap press of Harvard University

Memory, countermemory, re-enactment and translation

Thomas Maxwell Shore

‘I wish to god that I was never at Orgreave that day’

Mac McLoughlin, former miner who policed at the battle of Orgreave

Confronting the ruins of the Orgreave coking plant will forever remain a place that immediately evokes symbolic images of violent confrontations between picketing miners and police in the summer of June 1984. Indeed, what we now refer to as The Battle of Orgreave can be visualised through collective memory as a site where British socialism took its last unified stance against the Thatcherite state. Orgreave – a small suburban village that lies to the south-east of Sheffield – reminds of an imagined lost world, where the tradition of industrial work and the nostalgic sense of community associated with it were once so predominant (Taylor et al, 1996). I stand next to the disused railway bridge on Highfield Lane, unable to comprehend that this landscape was indeed the site of this traumatic historical event – when much of the landscape that surrounds it speaks of absence (La Capra, 1999).

It must be said that The Battle of Orgreave is deeply embedded within my own personal narrative. I occasionally pass through Orgreave myself: sitting on a train from Kiveton Bridge to Sheffield staring out the window towards the poppy fields. Imagining what it must have been like for those pickets who risked their lives by running across this very railway line. I am reminded of what occurred during the Miners’ Strike by my working class parents. Both of whom, worked voluntarily at a local Working Men’s Club in Sheffield during this time; and gave a great deal of their own time and support to the pickets and the local community. As a child, I fondly remember parading the family home wearing a flat cap given to me by my parents, adorned with numerous Miners’ Strike badges from all the events they had attended. I recited the place-names on the badges ‘Wentworth’ ‘North Selby’ ‘Babbington’ although I had no notion of what the badges symbolised; or where these places might be. I remember being unsure about what the ‘NUM’ might mean – a cryptic acronym from my childhood that I now know stands for ‘The National Union of Mineworkers’. I don’t really want to go into detail about the ways that the strike is engrained into my own childhood, but it is important to note my own postionality within the narrative of the Miners’ Strike, as well as, the memories of childhood that are crucial to our understanding of memory (Rose, 1997).

I write at a moment in time when plans to redevelop the 741 acre site into a housing and retail complex are already at an advanced stage. As Doreen Massey writes in her book For Space (2005) Orgreave is not just a place with a ‘buried history’, but a place where memories and history is ‘still being made, now. Something more mobile than is implied by an archaeological dig down through the surfaces of the space of today. Something more temporal than the notion of space as a collage of historical periods’ (p.118 – my italics). UK Coal – who are currently financing this 140 million pound scheme – plan to rename the derelict Orgreave coal fields ‘Waverley’ in a vain attempt to rid the land of its original name and all it stood for politically (see figure one). Witnessing this rapid transition of the coal fields first hand – reminds me of how Marshall Berman must have felt back in the early 1950s. At a time when Berman’s Bronx in New York and ‘the way he knew it’ was fully exposed to forces of modernity; as an ever growing:

‘destruction not merely of ‘traditional’ and ‘pre-modern’ institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself’ (1982.p. 295)

In this light, the ‘Waverley’ development therefore can only be ever read as a present attempt to envelope the tragic history of the Orgreave site. This ‘shredding of the past’ via creative destruction; says ‘what it wishes to say – yet it hides a great deal more: being it political, military and ultimately fascist in character’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p.143; Huyssen, 2003). Despite this redevelopment Orgreave for some will remain a place where time has become crystallised by a haunting past creating ‘a new time marked by an endless and absolute present’ (Dubow, 2008, p.2). In his book Real Cities (2005) Steve Pile recognises that this present haunting stems from the living, and where feelings of frustration and guilt transcend ‘the smooth flow of a singular history […] (as) fractured and fragmented times of traumatic events as they seek to possess and haunt the present’ (p.148). It is a site where modernity is torn between the past, the present and the future; and, ‘where the ordinary violences of everyday life are simply lived through’ (ibid. p.155). A present that excludes ‘the experience of all people who have abandoned the lessons of the event, who have returned to ordinary life, who have said ‘it was an illusion’, it was our brilliant youth but now we have to do business’ (Badiou, 2007, p.10).

Ironically, this plan to create a brand new ‘super community’ seems contrary to the loss and devastation experienced by hundreds of pit villages in and around Great Britain since the strike (Erikson, 1995). Importantly, none of the current plans refer to Orgreave coking plant as the site of an important historical event nor do they include any plans to memorialise the site with a monument. One could argue that such a memorial in Sheffield that recognised the collective sacrifices of the picketing miner would stick out like a sore thumb. The vast majority of monuments in Sheffield – like the ‘Teeming’ statue designed by sculptor Ronald Bell built as the centrepiece of the Meadowhall Shopping Centre – play with solidifying notions of working class nostalgia and masculinity that act to solely glorify the act of work itself, and not the radical trade unionism that went hand in hand with it (Taylor and Jamieson, 1997).

Orgreave will soon become a place that will resemble nothing more than an identikit suburban housing project complete with improved drainage facilities and retail space (see figure two). Here, I am not suggesting for one moment that by regenerating this land we lose sight of memory, merely that ‘the dialectic of presence and absence (lie) at the heart of the representation of the past’ (Ricoeur, 2004, p.414).This characterisation of The Battle of Orgreave as ‘historical event’ and Orgreave as a ‘historical evental site’ evokes much of Alain Badiou’s path breaking in his book Being and Event; who asks us consider what is meant by the words ‘The Battle of Orgreave’? For Badiou, this means creating ‘a one out of everything’; all that is formed, and continues to form Great Britain during and after the Miners’ Strike. It is here where you will find the inherent contradictions of both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ memories. In the sound of colliery brass bands, the mid afternoon game of football between the pickets, the strike badges that were once wore with pride, but also, in the slow death of British manufacturing, the price of coal (not dole!), the ‘scab’, the emerging police state, the picket whose brother fought in the Falklands, and whose friend was a policeman etc. Essentially, what we are left with is a singular multiple of multiplicities, an abnormal collage of counter-apposing memories that sway ‘on the edge of the void’ (Badiou, 2007, p.179) a multiple whose multiplicities reach a point where The Battle of Orgreave itself becomes a symbolic image of the Miners’ Strike itself, and more generally, the failure of British left. According to Badiou, it is critically important that we also understand how ‘Orgreave’ presents itself as an event; and that the event is only recognised through ‘interpretative intervention […] as the arrival of non-being, the arrival amidst the visible of the invisible’ (ibid. p.181).

Significantly, it was through this interpretative intervention of ‘living history’ that was crucial to Jeremy Deller’s conception of re-enacting The Battle of Orgreave (Correia, 2006). This historical re-enactment in 2001 marked the first mindful attempt to memorialise the event using a mixture of ‘conversations between artists, veterans of the Miners’ strike, re-enactment specialists, the audiences of the work and its art historical context’ (ibid. p.93-94). In the Channel Four documentary that accompanied ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ – directed by Deller alongside Mike Figgis – veterans from coal mining communities in Barnsley were used to add an extra element of authenticity lacking from more conventional historical re-enactments (Holloway and Hubbard, 2001). This idea that the artist-ethnographer translates the ‘original event’ from a past into a present in some way recalls Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation. Benjamin as we know, obsessed over modernity’s crisis of perception, and questions surrounding attention and shock, he disliked the way that modernity placed knowledges into the hands of the observer turning to ‘Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory for a way out of what he saw as the ‘standardised and denatured’ perception of the masses’ (Crary, 2004, p.459). Here, I want to propose that Benjamin’s concept of translation is also crucial to the understanding of conceptual works of art that draw upon ‘living memory’ through the re-enactment of ‘the event’ focussing upon the complex relationship between remembering and re-enacting The Battle of Orgreave. By exploring the mimetic quality of Deller’s translation of ‘the past through the use of art in the present’; in a way that scratches the surface of these complex and unsettling questions by weaving in and out of memory in a way understood by Benjamin (Pile, 2005, Correia, 2006).

In his published article The Task of the Translator (1921), Benjamin argues that no translation of ‘the original’ should be ‘intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience’ (p.253). He brilliantly exposes the impossibility of accurately recreating a mimetic picture of the ‘moment’ a realisation that hangs over any translator like a ghostly shadow. Here, the translator must work their way through this impossibility paying close attention to the fragments that ‘must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another’ (TOT, p.260). Benjamin also visualised translation as a form in which the translator ‘must go back to the original, for the laws governing the translation lie within the original’ (TOT, p.254). In a later piece Excavation and Memory (1932) unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime, it is interesting to note that this theory on translation as a form reflects much of his thinking on memory also:

‘memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather is a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil’ (p. 576)

For Deller, translation would therefore be bound by this ‘fidelity’ that Benjamin spoke of; offering the viewer and participant only a partial re-enactment of the event (TOT, p.260; Kitamura, 2005). The re-enactment acted like a time machine where by the veterans relived the trauma and intense camaraderie of the ‘original event’, where each multiplicity that Badiou speaks of is re-multiplied and re-calculated – reproducing some of original magic but not all. However, what the re-enactment does offer us is a multitude of insights into ‘living histories and memories’ through a variety of performed optical lenses ‘in which mimesis and reality are united’ (Kitamura 2005: Correia, 2006, p.105). Moreover, Deller’s critical eye saw this historical event though the living as ‘a strategy of turning the spectacle of the city inside out through countermemory and counteritineraries […] incarnated (by) a refusal of the imposed present, and in reclaiming fragments of a demolished past’ (Crary, 2004, p. 464). An approach that chimes perfectly well with Nietzsche’s On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life who outlines the need for a critical grasp of the past that works above and beyond the monumental and antiquarian modes of historicism where ‘man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past’ (Nietzsche, 1983, p.75).

Around 200 veterans from South Yorkshire volunteered to take part in the re-enactment as well as a small number of veteran police officers and ambulance men. Many of the South Yorkshire veterans were particularly annoyed that Deller had asked a number of Nottingham miners who had ‘scabbed’ during the strike to participate. This outlines the immense political tensions that still surround memorialising the Miners’ Strike in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. This inclusion of those who have lived through the historical event bypasses the nagging doubt of not knowing ‘what life in the past felt like to those who lived then’ (Goodacre and Baldwin, 2002, p.59). Following extensive research into the Miners’ Strike, Deller enlisted the help of Howard Giles re-enactment director who helped to explain the recreation to willing participants in a function room in Barnsley. A show of hands illustrated that the majority of the participants were veterans who had fought at Orgreave. It is important to recognise that many of the volunteers who did not fight at Orgreave attended the re-enactment in honour of those ‘lads who aren’t with us today’ as one veteran put it. Giles was keen to promote the veterans own re-collections of the past via a two way communication process that constantly referred back to the veterans for reflexivity throughout the project (ibid. p.51). The veterans spoke at great detail about there own ‘flashbulb’ memories, who they were with, what they saw that day etc. In an interview for the documentary Tony Benn talks candidly about how the BBC ‘inadvertently’ edited the original footage of the battle in a way that suggested that the pickets had started the ‘riot’ when the opposite was true (for detailed accounts see Masterman 1984). This outlined Deller’s commitment in ‘readdressing the balance’ of falsified media coverage which added extra weight to the ‘true’ mimetical reproduction of time and space. This ensured that the re-enactment would be staged as close to the original coking plant as it was physically possible, and, by choosing to recreate the battle on the same date as the original. As Zerubavel (2003) argues, Orgreave acts as a mnemonic site that establishes a relationship between memory and place, merging together the ‘historical “then” and the calendrical “now”’ (p.47) – even though the veterans themselves and the mnemonic landscape may have gone through dramatic transitions as I have discussed previously. Deller’s use of time here is also very interesting; it ruptures the simplistic leap from living memory to historicism through the experience of veterans during the re-enactment (Ricoeur, 2004). A time understood by Foucault (1986) where a single ‘real present’ of the heterotopia, can be juxtaposed by several different pasts ‘that are in themselves incompatible’ (p.25).

The veterans were ‘warned’ by Giles during the rehearsals that the re-enactment was a ‘recreation and not a re-fight’ which brought howls of laughter from inside the function room, but underlined an important point. This placed great emphasis upon the veterans by asking them to tread across this very fine line between simulated violence and the ‘real thing’ (Correia, 2006, p.106). As Kitamura (2005) identifies the relational aesthetics of the ‘non-event’ as she refers to it, blurs the lines of spontaneity and control:

‘this enduring tension between opening and closing, between the continued evocation of the ‘real’ event and the more rigid declaration of the ‘non-event’. The historical event endures through that very tension, through the paradoxical combination of continued viability and historical legibility’ (p.4)

In fact, the only way that the veterans could counter this complexity was by making light of the situation. One veteran joked on the day of the re-enactment ‘that yesterday (the rehearsal) was only a bit of fun – but today is for real’ another added ‘fuck 160 quid we are going for it!’ With this in mind it is easy to see why a Benjaminian reading is important by making this distinction between original and translation, and why Deller chose to present the re-enactment via a mimetic translation that in a way presses past and present against another.

The veterans were supplemented by re-enactment specialists from The Sealed Knot and the English Civil War Society. Far from just making up the numbers, these ‘professional re-enactors’ were positioned ‘face to face with the people they were pretending to be. In doing so, Deller demonstrated that the past and present are intertwined and that, in order to fully understand the intricacies of the past, re-enactment performances must go beyond simulacra to include critical engagement’ (Correia, 2006, p.103). Deller’s vision as a conceptual artist made it perfectly clear that the re-enactment would not be about ‘healing old wounds’. This meant that the recreation would entail a certain element of trauma for both the veterans and professionals. During the rehearsals the re-enactors practised the short shield formations and intimidation tactics that were first used by British police at Orgreave (East et al, 1985). For many of the veterans the sound of the truncheons crashing against the plastic shields brought back a very clear auditory memory. As van der Kolk and van der Hart (1995) explain traumatic memory is ‘evoked under particular conditions. It occurs automatically in situations which are reminiscent of the original traumatic situation’ (p.163). Conversely, many of the veterans described the re-enactment as a positive experience giving a voice to a particular type of subaltern narrative by confronting their own pasts and traumas; returning to the same piece of soil that Benjamin described and paying their dues. By replicating the vitriolic cries of ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out’ the re-enactors participated in a collective form of auditory catharsis – that becomes ‘impossible to read out of the context of a kind of Eighties British nostalgia – and was central to the historical processing of the event’ (Kitamura, 2005, p.6). The professionals’ were particularly apprehensive prior to the event – which perhaps owes itself to the grossly inaccurate depiction of the pickets by the media. This outlined that the re-enactment was also about challenging the professionals ‘original memories’ of the Miner’s strike through countermemory.

Deller’s very original idea of re-enactment-as-countermemory mirrors much of the countermemorial artwork found in Germany. As Young (1993) identifies like many of the countermonuments found in German cities – by artists like Gerz, Hoheisel and Radermacher – Deller does away with the conventional and static forms of public memorial art in favour of something more fluid, extending awareness as well as memory (p.28). It is clear that countermemory is used to present an active critique of an imagined national cohesion canonised by the emerging heritage industry in Britain. Where twentieth century memory production tends to be primarily concerned ‘with heroism and success in war in the twentieth century […] (such) images of war promoted national British solidarity and emphasised the resilience of the British constitution as well as triumph on the battle field’ (Deighton, 2002, p. 100). Deller was keen to let the veteran miners experience countermemory first hand by ‘swapping roles’ and participate as policemen. The veterans who did dress up as ‘the enemy’ felt particularly awkward in the police uniforms as there close friends ran at them. This in a way allowed the miners to re-frame their original memories of Orgreave via a dramatically different embodied experience. Yates (1966) makes a similar classification with his distinction between ‘natural memories’ that which is engrained into our minds and ‘artificial memories’ that is strengthened or conformed by training’ (p.5).

Having mentioned at great length how mimesis addresses ideas surrounding memory, I want to finish this discussion by suggesting that although Deller’s work is an affective way of representing the past; the redevelopment of the land surrounding the Orgreave coking plant marks a symbolic forgetting. A forgetting that is marked by the realisation that any attempt at memorialisation would not do full justice to the complexity of the issues that were at stake during the Miners’ Strike (Young, 1992). And by producing new memories through re-enactment we must recognise that by embarking upon this journey that we do not lose sight of the fact that our natural memories that Yates refers to are transformed irrevocably, or, for Badiou what makes being ‘which authorises being, what is called being’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 435). By consequence, the veteran’s memory of Orgreave becomes normalized – something that Badiou suggests can happen to any evental site (ibid. p.176). The internet also marks an extension of this normalisation where this future of memory is being played out behind computer screens on a daily basis. This abstract democratic space is where pickets have produced a whole plethora of websites dedicated to the Miners’ Strike. Of course, the future of these ‘abstract spaces of memory’ depends largely upon the technology that preserves it (Huyssen, 2003, p.26).


Badiou, A. and Critchley, S. (2005) Democracy and disappointment: Alain Badiou/ Simon Critchley: Ours is not a terrible situation, Slought Foundation conference, Philadelphia, November 15th 2007. Internet audio file (

Badiou, A. (2007) Being and event. trans. Feltham, O. London, Continuum

Benjamin, W. (1921) ‘The Task of the Translator’, trans. Zohn, H. in (ed) Bullock, M. and Jennings, M. W., Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume One: 1913-1926, London: Belknap press of Harvard University, 253-263

Benjamin, W. (1932) ‘Excavation and Memory’, trans. Livingstone, R. in (ed) Eiland, H. Smith, G. and Jennings, M. W., Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume Two Part Two: 1931-1934, London: Belknap press of Harvard University, 576

Berman, M. (1982) All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity, London, Verso

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Erikson, K. (1995) ‘Notes on trauma and community’ in (ed) Caruth, C., Trauma: explorations in memory, London: The John Hopkins University Press, 183-199

Foucault, M. (1986) ‘Of other spaces’, Diacritics, 16 (1), 22-27

Goodacre, B. and Baldwin, B. (2002) Living the past: reconstruction, recreation re-enactment and education at museums and historical sites, London: Middlesex University Press

Holloway, L. and Hubbard, P. (2001) People and place: the extraordinary geographies of everyday life, Harlow: Prentice Hall

Huyssen, A. (2003) Present pasts: urban palimpsests and the politics of memory, Stanford, Stanford University Press

Kitamura, K. (2005) ‘Recreating chaos: Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave’, Unpublished paper (available at the Australian National University

La Capra, D. (1999) ‘Trauma, absence, loss’, Critical inquiry, 25 (4), 696-727

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The production of space. trans. Nicholson-Smith, D. Oxford: Blackwell

Massey, D. (2005) For space. London: Sage

Masterman, L. (1984) ‘The battle of Orgreave’ in (ed) Masterman, L., Television mythologies: Stars, shows, and signs, London: Routledge, 99-109

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Van der Kolk, B.A. and Van der Hart, O. (1995) ‘The intrusive past: the flexibility of memory and the engraving of trauma’ in (ed) Caruth, C., Trauma: explorations in memory, London: The John Hopkins University Press, 158-187

Yates, F.A. (1966) The art of memory, London: Routledge

Young, J.E. (1992) ‘The counter-monument: memory against itself in Germany today’ in (ed) Mitchell, J.T., Art in the public sphere, London: The University of Chicago Press, 49-78

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Zerubavel, E. (2004) Time maps: collective memory and the social shape of the past, London: The University of Chicago Press

4 responses to “The Battle of Orgreave 25 years on: Memory, counter-memory, re-enactment and translation

  1. I write to mention that I have just produced a tapestry of a size 61″ x 48″ called “the Battle of Orgreave”(unfortunately not in time for the 25) that features this memorable encounter in the style of the Bayeaux tapestry.
    Why? because i believe it is arguably as important a battle as “the Battle of Hastings”
    I feel it was the final death knoll of the Industrial revolution,and the divide that was called between public and police has never been repaired,of course forced open wider by other events
    As a young man Orgreave was signifiicant to me ,and i wasnt even there, it was the warning light coming on that this was the end of industrial Britain.
    I share the view that mine is merely a second hand translation of events ,and those events or memories dont belong to me ,but in my own way it impacted me so i feel compelled to produce some art of events of my time.
    If your happy to give some time ,your view sir,would be appreciated

    • thomasmaxwellshore

      Thank you for your comments and mention about your art work. It sounds very interesting. Where is the tapestry to be shown?

      Orgreave as you say is more relevant to our generation than all those “historical” battles taught in schools put together.

      Memories are very personal and its great that your art reflects what is and still will be a hugely significant political struggle.

      My view is that Orgreave is something that Britain wants to forget about but can’t.

      Indeed, it remains a blot on the conscious of everything the police have done since 1984-85.

      The paper was a response to Orgreave at a time when we have seen symbolic forgetting of everything to do with the event.

  2. Pingback: MediaActivist » Blog Archive » How the Left Helped the Media Marginalise Miliband

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