Review of The Happy Lands (directed by Robert Rae, 2013; a Theatre Workshop Scotland production).
This remarkable film is set in an East Fife pit village during the 1926 general strike and the lock-out of mineworkers that followed. It depicts communism as understood and practiced in a working class community. The story was put together by, and re-enacted by, present-day East Fifers, in many cases grandchildren and great-grandchildren of 1926 strikers.
The Happy Lands is an amazing product of collective memory. Meetings were held in the former mining communities; people’s memories, handed down through the generations, were gathered, discussed and compared to written records; and the script was shaped collaboratively. About a thousand volunteers helped on the film – and make up most of the cast, which includes just a handful of professional actors.
The result is no piece of amateur dramatics but a vivid, moving, high-quality feature that speaks to the 21st century. The action starts in May 1926, when a plan by the government and mine owners to cut the wages of 1 million coal miners triggered the UK’s only ever general strike, called by the Trades Union Congress – and wound up nine days later with no concessions gained. During the seven-month lock-out that followed, the mineworkers – whose labour was so important a foundation for British capital’s industrial might – were isolated and forced back to work, having abandoned national pay negotiations.
The Happy Lands views these events through the villagers’ eyes. We see a community suffering what in many senses was a catastrophic defeat, but emerging stronger. I say “emerging stronger”, not in the sense that well-fed union officials tell you without a hint of irony that “we got where we are today” because of their forefathers’ sacrifices. I mean that the community itself retained its own views of the world, its traditions, its coherence – much of which fed into subsequent mineworkers’ struggles in Fife during the strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85. The Happy Lands itself is the most recent link in the chain.
The collective memories on which the film rests are fallible, like all memories. The story at times feels sugar-coated. People’s commitment to the common cause was, I imagine, more multi-layered and sometimes less noble – which does not mean any less decisive, when the chips were down – than we see on screen. The internal clashes of politics, personalities and power that go on in every community are often fiercer and more bitter – and probably involve more swearing and shouting – than those in the film.
But The Happy Lands is exciting and important, to my mind, because it shows how communism took shape, not in the minds of a few activists, but in a substantial section of the working class. We see the reach, and the limits, of that.
Communities such as this were regarded by themselves, and by their neighbours, as communist – and East Fife is one of the few areas of the UK, along with some places in South Wales and, more briefly, parts of east London, where this could be said. “Little Moscows” may have been common enough in Spain, Italy or France, but on our islands were few and far between. East Fife from the 1920s onwards repeatedly elected Communist party members to parliament, to local council seats, and – as the film shows – as lay magistrates. The leading characters in the film proudly identify themselves as communists, and are depicted as representative of the whole village.
This communism, as remembered by the strikers’ descendants who made the film, is first and foremost one of community. That community’s solidarity – expressed not only in resistance to the mine owners and the state, but in the development of its own forms of organisation, and moral and political principles – stands above all. The community lives through the lock-out by collectively gathering and distributing food supplies, collectively stealing from the rich and helping the poor, and collectively helping the weak and meting out punishment to traitors.
Carhill is not only assaulted by the state in the shape of soldiers, police and privately-organised auxiliaries, but also abandoned by such institutions as the parish council poor relief system. In response, the community – through its strike committee, soup kitchen and less formal networks – pushes the state, and the church, to the margins. The mine owners are given free rein to evict families; miners and non-miners alike protect the victims. It is this autonomy, and the dignity it engendered, that caused Fifers to call such villages as Carhill “the happy lands” – which gives the film its title.
The relationship of community to family takes centre stage. Collective responsibility is taken for child care and nursing, as well as food provision. But women are not playing auxiliary roles here: they are political leaders. It is the women’s representative who convinces the key mass meeting in May 1926 that the time for confrontation has arrived. In this, as in its comfortable embrace of communism, The Happy Lands is miles ahead of much of what passes for “labour movement tradition”.
Carhill’s communism, then, is shown to be more about community defiance of the capitalist owners and autonomy from the state than about narrow political principle. Collective action and decision is celebrated as an achievement in itself, not as a means to some “political” end, e.g. election of a Labour government, defence of the Soviet Union, or whatever.
The East Fifers who made the film do not tell us about their forebears’ vision of a new society, which the identity “communist” surely implied. In 1926, I imagine that that vision was surely linked, at least partly, to impressions – formed from travellers’ accounts, reports and rumours – about the still-young Soviet Union. But characters in the film do not talk about their hopes or dreams for the future. There is a logic here: people with scabs to fight, and families to feed, might not have time to sit around pondering egalitarian utopias. In the film makers’ version at least, East Fife’s communism was in 1926 more about the embattled, hemmed-in happy lands of the present than about the possible, unlimited happy lands of the future. The challenge for all of us is to take their stories as a starting-point of the movement from one to the other.
The first world war is a big political issue in the film. Early on, a young man tells a mass meeting that he lost two brothers in the trenches. One key character had returned from the slaughter with a medal, for saving a wounded man. Treated as heroes for defending our country, we are mistreated as traitors for defending our own, he says at a crucial moment. Margaret Thatcher’s denunciation of the miners in 1984 as “the enemy within” is ringing in our ears.
In the film makers’ view, their forebears went into the 1926 conflict in some sense as patriots, loyal not to the British empire and its rapacious elites but to some vaguer idea of nation or community. This is a historical issue worth exploring. How the East Fifers related to the “Red Clydesiders” who fought class battles during the first world war, and the Glasgow communist John Maclean who urged a war against war, remains unclear. The film shows that in 1926, Carhill’s patriotism comes under pressure, and breaks, as the state moves against it.
In a key scene, the villagers go to see the hugely popular music-hall singer and former miner Harry Lauder (played brilliantly by Allan Stewart). When Lauder hails the British victory over Germany and asks war veterans in the audience to stand, he takes the audience with him: some are uncomfortable, but all cheer. It is when he starts to criticise coalfield “agitators” that a huge chunk of the audience – including some of the film’s central characters – walk out. This drama in the music hall is interspersed with scenes of the physical assault on strikers by soldiers, police and auxiliary thugs.
The Happy Lands depicts communism as a working-class bastion in the hostile territory of early 20th century British capitalism, collectively developing its own will independently of, and in defiance of, the state. Hopefully, the film will be part of the search for the happy lands of the 21st century; part of a discussion about what communism means for working class communities now, most of which are so much more mobile, less physically cohesive, and less settled than those of East Fife in 1926; and part of shaping new communist movements that go beyond collectivity, autonomy and solidarity and find ways of reshaping our lives beyond capitalism. GL.
■ The Happy Lands is available to rent (£4.49) or buy as a DVD (£13.75) via the Happy Lands web site. Theatre Workshop Scotland has arranged showings with union branches and other supporters (I saw it at one of these) … although the money-driven film business has not found its way to putting the film on general release yet. (Note. The film has subtitles, for those who struggle with the Fife accent and dialect.)
The Happy Lands Facebook page – please “like” it!
The photo at the top is of a soup kitchen in Walsall, in the English midlands, during the 1926 strike. The one below is a picket line in Tyldesley, Lancashire.