MP Dennis Skinner on his Clay Cross Childhood
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:02 13 December 2017
David Marley meets the long-serving member of parliament Dennis Skinner: 'The Beast of Bolsover', and chats about politics, pits, poultry and photographs
I HAVE heard Dennis Skinner speak many times before. His words have a knack of hanging around in your head, hours after they are spoken.
Forty-odd years ago, when he was a newly elected member of parliament in his political prime and I was an infant perched on my grandfather’s shoulders at a trade union rally in the north-east of England, I pinned my ears back to listen to his words for the first time. Even though I was a speckle in a sea-of-one-hundred-thousand-faces at the Durham Miners’ Gala that day, it is impossible not to remember the occasion and his passionate address.
Now, with over 47 years of political capital under his parliamentary belt, it would be easy for him to relax into the role of the mellowed elder statesman, a gift that comes with such political service. But Skinner remains as uncompromising as ever. And his opinions continue to attract considerable public attention wherever and whenever he speaks.
In the past few weeks tens of thousands of people have logged on to the internet to watch a Youtube video clip of his barnstorming speech at this year’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton. And only this autumn a film about his life and politics was released in cinemas across England. The Nature of the Beast – which is a spin on Skinner’s nickname: ‘The Beast of Bolsover’ – continues to pack cinema screenings since its launch at Derby’s Quad this September.
His memorable, unscripted parliamentary one-liners still set the news agenda – with his annual teasing of Black Rod during the State Opening of Parliament becoming something of a must-see national institution. This year’s contribution of ‘Get your skates on, first race is half-past two’, in witty reflection that the Queen’s Speech clashed with Royal Ascot, seemed to capture perfectly the popular mood of the day and it was reported by most national newspapers and political commentators.
Skinner continues to spend more time in the chamber of the House of Commons than any other Member of Parliament. His incorruptible outlook on politics – which means he has never accepted a ministerial office or any form of patronage during his long service – is cherished as a badge of honour.
His brusque speaking style has occasionally got him into political hot water with parliamentary officials but he remains unapologetic, unchanged and undiluted. Even though his place of work has evolved over the years – from the gritty coalfields of Clay Cross and Chesterfield to the comfortable green benches of Parliament in London – he remains true to his working class traditions.
Skinner’s set-in-stone political beliefs sit in contented tribute to his childhood experiences of growing up in north-east industrial Derbyshire. He continues to have a unique ability to connect with the people he represents and only this year he was re-elected to Parliament for the 13th time in a row, making him one of the longest serving MPs in the UK.
With the rise in popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Skinner appears to be enjoying something of a political renaissance – with many younger voters regarding him as a truly authentic figure, guided by unbending principles and values. Over the years I’ve bumped into him at political events and rallies on many occasions but I have never got round to arranging an interview with him.
Determined to put this right, and mindful of his octogenarian status, I telephoned the House of Commons to see if I could fix a chat with one of Derbyshire’s most well-known and iconic parliamentarians. Expecting a delayed response or a protective receptionist to thwart my enquiry, I was put in a spin when the politician himself picked up my call. ‘This is Dennis – how can I help you?’ replied the softly spoken voice down the telephone line.
I quickly set out the gist of a proposed interview for Derbyshire Life & Countryside magazine: a chance to look back at his long political service, an insight into his passion for the people he represents, and his childhood memories of growing up in the county he loves so much – plus lots more besides. Worryingly there’s an uncomfortably long silence on the telephone – and I am concerned we may have lost the connection on the line.
The delay comes to a friendly end. ‘That’s the really nice, glossy magazine about Derbyshire – isn’t it? Well, I’d love to do that, thank you,’ he says with great warmth. And with that we arrange a date and time to get together and for photographs to be taken.
We agree to meet in the southern-tip of his Bolsover constituency – at The Hub, a purpose-built facility located in South Normanton which boasts a doctors’ surgery, a library and a coffee shop, all under one roof.
It is easy to spot Dennis in the car park, as he leaps out of his electric-powered vehicle – he is, after all, wearing his customary trade-mark turquoise shirt, red tie and checked sports jacket. To fill the silence during the short walk to the coffee shop I share my first memory of him, when he spoke at the Miners’ Gala during my childhood.
‘That must have been 1978,’ he says with pinpoint accuracy. ‘It was the first time I spoke from the platform of the Durham Miners’ Gala, and I was standing next to Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister of the day.’
He guides me to the entrance of the coffee shop, weaving past parked cars and crossing slab-stoned obstacles on the pathway, at some pace – all evidence of a well-spent childhood when he dominated the schoolboy cross-country championship circuit in north-east Derbyshire. We find a quiet corner for a cup of tea and a chat. It only takes a few brief moments before other diners turn their heads to nod in approval towards the man who has faithfully safeguarded their interests in Parliament for almost five decades.
‘I’ve worked down the pit with so many of the people in this room,’ he says proudly. ‘It is my duty to make sure they are well represented in London – after all I was born in this constituency and I am one of them.’
Born in 1932 in the mining town of Clay Cross, near Chesterfield, he was the third of nine children. ‘I was brought into this world by a wonderful woman called Nurse Cratchley. She had already delivered five other members of the Skinner family and she was a treasure in our pit community,’ he explains.
Skinner’s father was a coal miner, as was his grandfather before. ‘Most of the people on our street knew someone who worked in the pits and that ensured we never lost our place in the world,’ he explains.
During the General Strike of 1926, his father – a staunch trade-unionist – was barred from working in the mines and money was hard to find. ‘My father managed to get some work as a highway construction man, working on the creation of a new cycle path which went from the Royal Oak at Old Tupton to the next junction at New Tupton,’ he says. ‘We had to make money wherever we could. I remember we were allowed to keep poultry and one of my first memories was going up to the allotments – which looked out on to the A61 road – to sell hens to local people. I recall the head teacher of the local girls’ school, Miss Kirkham, asking my father for a couple of chickens whenever she had company visiting her. In the end he had a good number of customers.’
It was during these challenging financial times that Skinner’s political outlook on life was forged. ‘I learned my political lessons from a very young age,’ he proclaims. ‘My first political education began at Christmas time when I was only about five years old. I remember saying to my father: “Santa Claus doesn’t come down our chimney much” – and my father responded by saying: “That’s because he is an economic Santa and he tends only to go down chimneys where they have a pound or two spare” – and that was that.’
Despite these hardships he excelled in his formal schooling and education. He was a quick learner with an eye for detail. As a six-year-old he could recite the times tables backwards and took great fun in quoting poetry with an almost photographic memory. In 1942, during the worst years of the Second World War, he passed the 11-plus examinations, and with it won a scholarship to attend Tupton Hall Grammar School.
By the age of 16 he was destined for a pathway towards further education but to the surprise of many, he made the decision to do down the mines with the boys and men he had grown up with. ‘I didn’t think too much of it at the time, it just seemed the right thing to do,’ he says. In 1949, he picked up his miner’s helmet and lamp and walked to Parkhouse colliery, near Clay Cross, to begin his first shift in the pit. He went on to work there until the colliery closed in 1962 – before moving to Glapwell colliery, near Chesterfield.
‘When I started working in the pits in 1949 there were over 45 collieries near or in my constituency – everyone had a personal connection to the mines. It was a special time for me – we all worked so well together. Solidarity is so important when you worked in the pit; and we all depended on each other,’ he explains.
‘When your shift ended most miners got something to eat and then, after a day being trapped underground, took the opportunity to enjoy the natural world – spending time cycling, walking and discovering the beauty of Derbyshire.’
As a boy he holidayed in Ashover with his parents but after starting work he began to explore the county on his own. ‘Living on the eastern edge of the industrial belt of Derbyshire, I have never been more than a hop, step or a jump from beautiful places such as Matlock,’ he says.
He also enjoyed taking part in community-based holidays with other miners. ‘The Derbyshire Miners’ Union owned holiday parks in Lincolnshire and Wales – with each pit in the area being assigned a week to go and enjoy a holiday. It was great.’
Outdoor exercise was critical to Skinner’s philosophy to good, healthy living. He was a keen sportsman and became a championship-winning runner who regularly competed in local events throughout the county. ‘I loved sports and athletics – and by the late 1950s I helped to organise a big sporting event in Clay Cross each year,’ he explains. The Clay Cross Sports’ Day drew audiences of over 7,000 people in its day, with international runners attending the event. ‘It was a great day out for all those people who came,’ he says.
Skinner’s ability to bring people together started to get noticed. He was a talented and gifted organiser. ‘I enjoyed promoting the town of Clay Cross and telling others about the wonderful place it was.’
Like so many of his friends at the time, he began to play an active role in local politics and it was natural for him to join the Labour Party in 1956 – which was to be the first step in a political journey that would ultimately take him to Parliament many years later. By 1962 he became the youngest-ever elected vice president of the Derbyshire area of the National Union of Mineworkers. Two years later he was selected as its president.
By the mid-1960s he had also been elected as a member of Derbyshire County Council, and by the late 1960s his colleagues in the National Union of Mineworkers encouraged him to attend an industrial relations and politics course run by the University of Sheffield. In 1967 he went on to study political theory in Oxford at Ruskin College.
‘The miners thought it would be a very good idea if I went to college to study politics and I am very grateful for their assistance in getting me started at that time,’ he says with great affection.
Soon after this the local mining community decided that they wanted Skinner to be the Labour Party candidate for the safe Labour seat of Bolsover in the forthcoming general election. ‘I never asked to be put forward – they wanted me,’ he recalls. ‘You have to remember that the pit was the centre of life in our town. At the time there were 12 pits in the constituency and it seemed only right that the seat was represented by someone who understood what was involved in working down the pit.’
After the election was called in 1970, Skinner was elected to parliament with a majority of over 20,000 votes. ‘It was a great honour to represent the place I grew up in.’
Since his first election he has not strayed from his core socialist values. ‘I have always been in the same place – I’ve never wafted in the wind,’ he says with pride. ‘I have a set of principles that I have always stuck to – sometimes they have given me a headache or two, but I have never veered from them.’
He remains humbled by the support he has received from his local community. This appreciation runs hand in hand with the political longevity he has enjoyed in return. ‘When I first started out in politics I never would have imagined I would still be doing it now – but I guess I was born into a Derbyshire family that gave me a good political start to life,’ he reflects.
With almost five decades of service it is perhaps inevitable that others will hint at a potential political retirement – but Dennis still does not want to think about that. ‘There are lots of jobs I would struggle with now; such as heavy manual work. But as long as I have a good memory and can recall events, I believe I am in a very good place to continue to represent my local area.’
Skinner has always taken his parliamentary duties very seriously. Throughout his time in the House of Commons he has never enjoyed the subsidised benefits of the bar culture. ‘My decision not to drink in Parliament is not an evangelical one – it is a practical choice,’ he says. ‘I simply don’t believe anyone should be drinking and working at the same time. You need a clear head to work – ask any former miner, it was never a good idea to drink in the welfare then go for a shift down the pit. And that has stayed with me.’
He confesses to not being a fan of modern technology and communications. He has never sent an email – and has no intention of doing so in the future.
‘I don’t like them – and they aren’t official legal correspondence. I get them printed out and I prefer to respond by telephone or letter. Only last week I helped a man with a cycling problem, and we chatted it through on the phone, which was much better.’
There have been occasions when his political progress has been thwarted by illness. In 1999 he had surgery to remove a tumour on his bladder and in 2003 he spent time in hospital recovering from a double heart bypass operation. ‘I’ve been so very lucky with my health – the National Health Service has saved my life on at least a couple of occasions; and I am very grateful to them,’ he says with appreciation.
He misses riding his bicycle, a personal fitness pleasure he had to give up after the bypass operation, but enjoys walking in the parks of London and keeping a weather-eye on the changing seasons and nature. ‘During breaks in sessions I get out and about. It is a good way to keep fit; and I enjoy collecting tasty chestnuts from places such as Hyde Park and Regent’s Park,’ he says. ‘The nuts are so much bigger down south than up here in Derbyshire – but then again it is a bit warmer down in London.’
Contentment can always be found amongst the people he serves in his beloved constituency. ‘I love to keep an eye on the mining heritage in the local area. Visiting Pleasley Pit and Country Park is wonderful,’ he says. Twenty-five years ago a group of miners from the old Pleasley colliery worked together to save the last remaining head stocks and winding wheel in the county. ‘It is a great place to see industrial archaeology and mining history, all set in a nature reserve – and they do a really good value breakfast there, too!’
A cornerstone of Skinner’s outlook remains the importance of family and shared times with close friends. Last year he melted the hearts of the nation when he discussed the challenges of looking after a loved one with dementia on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 lunchtime show. His mother was affected by dementia and Dennis spoke openly of the impact it had on him and his family. ‘My mother had it towards the end of her life – and in the end she didn’t even recognise me,’ he says. ‘But when I sang to her she came back to life and she joined in. The songs I sang to her were the ones she enjoyed when she prepared our meals at home, and those she hummed to when she ironed and washed our clothes.’
Dennis still spends time visiting older people in his constituency and confesses to enjoying putting his accomplished show-tune voice into action and singing to an audience or two. ‘I believe there is a clear link between the rhythm of music and memory – singing is a good way to stimulate the brain; I encourage everyone to give it a go!’
He loves to spend time with his wider family – and the Skinners continue to play a role in local government and politics in the area. ‘Two of my brothers served on local councils for many years – and my younger brother is an elected councillor with North East Derbyshire Council,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry, the Skinners are keeping the red flag flying over Derbyshire.’ He remains proud of the achievements of his children, who all went to university and now have successful careers. ‘It was wonderful when they all came up to Derby to see the launch of the film about my life – it made me very happy.’
Since the launch of the film, which was made by the Liverpudlian director Daniel Draper, Skinner has travelled the length and breadth of the country attending numerous movie screenings. ‘I’ve taken part in lots of after-show question and answer sessions,’ he says. ‘But I am used to travelling around the country – after all I have spoken in every constituency in England.’
Just when Dennis had thought he had seen it all before, the launch of the film about his life has brought him much closer to a new modern phenomena – the rise of the ‘selfie’. ‘It was bad enough in the past with one or two photographers trying to take a picture – but with all of these mobile phones I can’t walk far without someone wanting to snap a picture,’ he laughs. ‘I don’t mind really.’
At 85, he remains as active as ever, and he says he is looking forward to serving out the next five years as the Member of Parliament for Bolsover.
A screening of the Nature of the Beast will take place on Sunday 19th November at 11.30am at the Belper Ritz Cinema. Dennis Skinner MP will attend and take part in a question and answer session. For tickets please email: firstname.lastname@example.org