Designer Craig Oldham's new book, In Loving Memory of Work, is a visual record of the UK miners' strike that began on March 6 1984 and continued for an entire year. The project also has a physical connection to the pits – the lettering on its wrap-around cover is printed with coal dust. Here, Oldham tells us about the process...
The miners' strike of the mid-1980s was a pivotal moment in British social and political life. It also produced a vast amount of protest graphics from miners and their supporters. Oldham, who comes from a mining family, has collected together images of hundreds of these artefacts – from union banners and posters, badges and flyers, to cartoons and photographs from the time.
As much as In Loving Memory of Work surveys the creative output of this particular time, it is also a highly personal project (and is reviewed in the next issue of CR). Oldham's father Mick was arrested by the South Yorkshire police during the strikes and his family and friends would go on to tell countless stories of the time as the author was growing up (Oldham was born weeks after the end of the strike).
And to reinforce the link between the contents of the book and the coal pits, the book features a limited edition dust-jacket printed using coal dust taken from the old site of Barnsley Main Colliery in South Yorkshire (a film of the whole process is also embedded at the bottom of this post.) Oldham says that the desired effect was textural, with black on black providing a more subtle and understated way in to the book.
"I felt the words were powerful enough to evoke the idea of the book," says Oldham, who is one half of Manchester-based studio, The Oldham Goddard Experience, "but the added layer of the coal dust once you realised there was something different, then touched it, or watched the sparkle when it catches that bit of light, was all that was required really. Just to start that story."
"The book isn't about lamenting the loss of the miners or their industry," he continues, "it's primarily a reappraisal of a body of collective work that's been wilfully ignored and unrepresented for so long, and a celebration of this.
"It felt like a natural way to tell that story by taking the very substance of coal from a dead and ignored place, at Barnsley Main Colliery (below), closed in the early nineties, and giving it a new form and a new presentation and use."
But obtaining some coal from the site proved rather difficult. "By the nature of the outcome of the strike, UK coal is pretty hard to get hold of – most of it is sold overseas – and especially in the relatively low quantities that we required," Oldham explains.
"In the end, the quickest way to the coal came after my Dad sort of just said 'I'll get you some'. A week later I had two soap-powder boxes full of gravel-like coal. He'd just gone to the 'muck stacks' and picked it." Muck stacks, Oldham explains, are the mounds of waste material dug up in order to get to the mine-worthy coal seam – the material contains coal but it's mixed in with other bits of earth.
"We had to wash it by hand and dry it out, it was winter when we picked the coal," Oldham says. "I did a load in the oven on baking trays, but my dad, who fancies himself a bit of a creative too – he likes to hard-boil his eggs in the kettle! – put a load in a pillow case and then put it in the tumble dryer. Ironically, his came out the richest in colour ... so who knows?!
"Then we had to effectively grind it up to get the dust. After losing all patience with a pestle and mortar we went for brute force and just bought a lump hammer and went to town, sieving the mess into containers. This is a fossil fuel, and it's pretty tough ... just a few steps down from diamond when you think about it! And it absolutely battered the silk screens as it tore them and ripped them after a while it was so sharp and hard."
Oldham says he was influenced by various incarnations of the 'dusting' process - from Andy Warhol's 'diamond dusting' and artist Darren Coffield's images made from coal, to the school technique of using Pritt Stik and glitter. "Originally we simply tried to replicate that, only using coal dust," he says, "screening an adhesive then, by hand, pouring and sieving the coal."
While a number of screen-printers were intrigued by the idea, Oldham explains, problems arose when the results weren't able to yield a good line on the edges of the typography and also dirtied the stock.
"After a bit of thinking, we had the hack-esque thought of manipulating the process used to print glitter onto greetings cards," says Oldham. "In theory, replace the glitter with the coal-dust and job done. In theory, of course. The catch being we were effectively screen printing, and this idea presented the pretty interesting combination of heated machinery being fed a combustable material. Fun times."
Exposing the design on the coarsest mesh on the screen available, Oldham and team started to mix the dust with the adhesive before print, then, effectively, treating it as an ink and screenprinting all the covers. But the first set – on GFSmith Colourplan Ebony – came out grey in colour, he explains.
The adhesive – like PVA glue – was drying white in the places where pockets of air were appearing in the coal dust."We tried envelope gum, different glues, switching the machine to UV instead of waterbased drying ... the works, but nothing was getting it like I wanted," Oldham continues.
"In the end the closest we could get was the first run, but it needed to be darker. I remembered when I printed my last book, The Democratic Lecture, we'd had similar issues trying to get the perfect bound spine fluorescent green, and in the end all we had to do was mix powder paint in the glue before applying, and as the glue dried clear it kept the colour.
"So, we effectively pre-died the adhesive black using a water-based black paint (which we ran out to Hobbycraft to buy on the day!) mixed in the coal dust again and ran it. And it bloody worked."
"Looking back it all sounds a bit hands-on, but to work with a material that three generations of my family had worked with was, I think, at least retrospectively, a really personal thing for me, that I'm glad I could do and do it in my way, as a designer.
"It feels like my way of respecting and rewarding my father's and Grandfather's really hard work, and that in a small way it wasn't for nothing. David John Douglass, a prominent figure in the mining community and activist on their part, once said that 'Miners have a hard job, they have to fight the earth for a living' and I respect that now more than ever."
To buy In Loving Memory of Work (£29.99), visit inlovingmemoryofwork.com. All proceeds go to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. A video of the printing process outlined in this article is below. The book is reviewed in the next issue of CR.
A note on the type: The book is set throughout using a bespoke typeface, Liaison, which was inspired by the Liaison Committee For The Defence Of The Trade Union (LCDTU) placards distributed and used at various demonstrations during the strike, most notably during the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Brighton, September 1984, six months into the dispute.
Creative Director: Craig Oldham
Filmed and Photographed by Josh Exell
Assisted by Hannah Rea
Edited by Luke Exell
Poem by Pete Currie (ex-Armthorpe miner)
Read by Michael Justice
Features Mick Oldham (ex-Barnsley miner)