Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RAVES!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 04/03/06

Steel In The Blood

Back in the late 1950s, the singer and activist Ewan MacColl and the radio producer Charles Parker put together the famous Radio Ballads, in which the words and experiences of different communities were set to music in documentary form. These programmes, broadcast on the BBC at intervals between 1958 and 1964, are rightly regarded as classics of broadcasting.

Now, a new series has appeared, with John Tams as the musical director, and John Leonard as producer. The first one was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 last Monday evening.

It was of particular interest to me, because it was about the steel-making communities of South Yorkshire. I was born, brought up, and still live in a former steel-making community in north Wales, and my father, several of his brothers and members of my mother's family all worked at Brymbo Steelworks. Indeed, so did my mother; she worked in the forge during World War II when, despite steel-making being a 'reserved occupation', many of the men from the Works went into the armed forces.

It was in our genes, it was in our blood. It was in our air as well, mind. For about fifty weeks a year, the sounds, sights and smells were ever present; often jarring, sometimes irritating, but always in a way reassuring; it meant that there was work. Only during the two-week shutdown for maintenance in late July and early August each year did the place fall silent, and the air lose its faint (and sometimes not-so-faint) russet haze.

It couldn't last of course, and in the late 1980s the works was taken over by a bunch of asset-strippers who refused to invest in the Works, and used the consequences of that decision as an excuse to close the place down, which happened in the autumn of 1990. Foreign competition was cited as another reason where, through that magical stupidity called 'free-market economics', it was considered better (and somehow more moral) to import steel which had been made by low-paid unprotected workers in eastern Europe and Asia, rather than keep our own works going, even though the place had never made a loss and was the origin of the finest special steels in the world.

We still live with the consequences today. Virtually none of the twelve hundred or more jobs lost at that time has been replaced, and the steelworks site itself is only now being made ready for re-use, mostly for housing which local people can hardly afford.

That's why I can't recommend the first of the new Radio Ballads too highly.

You can find out more about the new series here.