VIDEO: Dennis Skinner still Sailing Close To The Wind

He’s been the scourge of the Tories and embodied the left-wing soul of old Labour for more than four decades.

By Martin Smith
Wednesday, 24th September 2014, 7:57 pm
Dennis Skinner with his new autobiography, Sailing Close To The Wind
Dennis Skinner with his new autobiography, Sailing Close To The Wind

Since 1970 ex-miner Dennis Skinner has taken his place on the green benches in the House Of Commons to deliver his barbs and do the job the voters of Bolsover sent him there to do and has become a highly respected – if not universally loved – Parliamentarian.

But without The Star he might be just another retired miner.

Young Skinner was one-of-the-lads in the early 1950s, worrying his parents with his boozy life around the pubs in his home village of Clay Cross, out with his pit mates most nights and living for the moment.

Dennis Skinner with his new autobiography, Sailing Close To The Wind

Then three things happened that changed his life.

Firstly he realised he was never going to acquire the taste for beer that his mates from Parkhouse Colliery seemed to have.

Secondly his uncle ‘Nip’ was killed when he was hit by a car coming out of a pub in Clay Cross and thirdly he saw a poster for The Star Walk. Though the third seems less of a life-changing event than the other two Skinner himself credits his training and participation in the 1956 race walk around Sheffield – in which he finished second – as a major turning point in his life.

Without it there might never have been his part-time course at Sheffield University, no political and trade union studies at Ruskin College Oxford, no MPs role, no campaigning voice for the miners during strikes in 1972, 1974 and 1984/85 and thousands of speeches and fundraisers supporting countless other working class causes.

Dennis Skinner with his new autobiography, Sailing Close To The Wind

Without that reawakening of his undoubted intellectual capabilities there may never have been the Parliamentary pick-axe of his withering wit delivered with full Derbyshire miner’s scorn to pompous and presumptious opponents in the House Of Commons.

And that’s just to the slackers among the Labour lot. He saved his best lines for the Tories, Lib-Dems and especially royalty with his legendary annual quips on the opening of Parliament.

And now all this and a lot more are in the book he swore he would never write but was eventually talked in to, and he’s agreed to meet The Star to discuss it.

So how come the Star Walk was such a big factor? “There used to be a gang of us from Parkhouse Colliery who would go around the pubs in Clay Cross and we even formed a singing group at one stage,” said 82-year-old Skinner. “We had a good time but I never really got the taste for beer and there was always something in my head telling me that I needed to do something different.

Miners Strike 28th April 1984 Miners and supporters march through Worksop. Pictured with the marchers is Dennis Skinner MP

“The Star Walk was a huge part of me changing my way of life. It was the end of 1955 that I saw the Star Walk poster. With that and my uncle Nip dying I said: ‘Right that’s the last pint for me, no more boozing’.

“I knew all about race walking, though I had never done any, but I had been cross country champion at Tupton Hall. When I first started training for race walking I tried to do it out in the country lanes where no-one could see but of course someone did. My dad came to me one day and said ‘Twice I have been asked why tha’ waddling tha’ bloody arse.’

“I carried on and got myself as fit as I could for the race in about six weeks, I was sailing close to the wind then too. I went to Sheffield United Walking Club a couple of times and soon realised I had to improve.

“The Star Walk in those days was a huge event. The steel workers had Whit Tuesday off and 250,000 people would line the streets. I still believe to this day I could have won that race. I was told by Roland Hardy from Chesterfield who had won the race before and had been at the Olympics to look out for Halifax Road. So I saved myself for it but it was nothing like Slack Hill on the way to Matlock where I had been training!

A gallant second in the Star Walk, 24 year old Dennis Skinner of Chesterfield, receives his prize from the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Ald. J. Curtis, at a lunch at Davy's Cafe, Sheffield. 22nd May 1956

“The bloke who won the race collapsed into the arms of the St John Ambulance people as he crossed the line. I could have gone for another 12 miles! When I got the two buses back to Clay Cross my mother greeted me to say ‘well done’.

“I said how do you know? There was no internet,TV or social media then and news travelled slowly.

“She told me my dad, who had warned me against racing, had found an excuse to come up the pit early to get a bus into Chesterfield to get the first edition of The Star to see who had won.

“He never mentioned it to me but my mum told me he was proud. We weren’t a family for expressing our emotions in public.”

Our interview takes place in a quite room in the council offices in Clowne, Derbyshire in Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover constituency.

At first he seems a little wary but he gradually gets in to his inimitable stride or his ‘rhythm’ as he calls it.

Dennis Skinner talks to Martin Smith about his new book.

“Public speaking, like singing is about rhythm,” said the man who, as a 10-year-old prodigy at Clay Cross Infants and Junior School was so bright he could memorise everything on the blackboard and teach the other kids and passed his entrance exam to Tupton Hall Grammar a year early.

“When you’re speaking if you get your rhythm you can link ideas and points together.”

In his book Dennis Skinner speaks with great feeling about his upbringing as one of nine offspring of Edward, known as Tony Skinner, a miner and NUM activist repeatedly blacklisted after the general strike of 1926, his politics and the way the Second World War and colliery life shaped him.

He speaks of his life in the Commons and as a politician but it’s when he speaks about the Miners’ Strike of 1984 that the old gleam is back in his eye, the intensity and the soap-box rhythm return to his voice.

But the most moving section of the book is on his mother Lucy who suffered from Alzheimers in later life. The woman whose voice filled the family home every day with the old music hall songs she loved as a girl became isolated by the disease, almost unable to communicate or recognise her family.

“I decided to take her to the Miners’ Welfare grounds where we used to play football and cricket,” writes Skinner. “On a park bench I sang to my mother to see if she could remember her favourites. It worked. Her memory jogged back. For half an hour on the deserted Clay Cross Welfare ground we sang to our hearts’ content all her old favourites. For those precious 30 minutes she was with me again.”

Some say that without The Star Walk awakening of Skinner the Commons might have been spared endless hours of late-night debates – he will argue all night and next day if he thought he was speaking for the people he was elected to represent.

Others in the Labour movement believe his uncompromising Socialist stance has alienated many who might have been persuaded to join their ranks.

But he is what he is and he’s done what he said he would do when the voters of Bolsover first sent him to Parliament. He has represented them to the best of his ability and according to his principles.

Even those who hate his politics concede that.

In another life Dennis Edward Skinner might have been an entertainer.

The wit and presence with which he graces the House of Commons might have been used for a lighter role.

As a young man he and his miner mates would sing in pubs around Clay Cross, though he says they never took it seriously.

But Dennis Skinner does reflect on those days and how things might have turned out differently. “If I had not been born into a pit village but into a big city where there might have been drama or singing groups I think I might have got in to acting or singing or both.

“But there weren’t such places in Clay Cross and although, like my mother, I loved to sing and did so in pubs with my friends, nothing ever came of it.

“It could have been different in different circumstances I suppose but we’ll never know.”

* Sailing Close To The Wind by Dennis Skinner is published by Quercus at £20.

Dennis Skinner talks to Martin Smith about his new book.