The power of Sherwood and why I am glad to have studied English…

Sherwood (BBC picture)

THERE aren’t many links between studying English Literature in the 1970s, the miners’ strike in 1984 and prevailing attitudes to the humanities in our universities, but here’s one.

After leaving Goldsmiths College, I worked on a local newspaper in south-east London. A good job for me, but finding it took longer than the six months our government now insists on.

A few years into the job, the miners’ strike happened. Our NUJ chapel extended a brotherly hand to members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) with a meeting in a local pub.

Where the miners came from is lost to me now. Perhaps it was the small but militant coalfield in nearby Kent; also unknown to me now is what on earth the miners thought about meeting those earnest young journalists who wanted to hear about their struggle.

The memory was revived after watching Sherwood, the BBC drama inspired by the miners’ strike and set in Nottinghamshire village dominated by the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers.

On one level, this is a crime drama. Alun Armstrong plays Gary Jackson, an NUM stalwart in a ‘scab’ village, to use the language of the day. When he is killed by an arrow from a bow, the bitterness of the long-ago dispute rises again. Gary was a pugnacious union bore who never let up about the strike or those who broke it, and many on the other side suffered his undying harangues.

The writer of Sherwood, James Graham, is too clever and interesting a writer to confine himself to a genre. Without wishing to give anything away, it’s safest to say that Sherwood is much better than the usual crime drama, even to those of us who love the usual crime dramas.

Sherwood is smartly written, brilliantly acted by a knockout cast (nearly every role going to a ‘name’), and the most compelling drama in years. It has a plot of many sides, not least the use of spy-cops who were suspected of having infiltrated mining communities so they could report back on union activities.

If Graham has a deeper thesis, it is that when politics divides us, we all lose. A timely thought as we contemplate the political bumper-car ride led by Boris Johnson, not so much a government as an endless, distracting self-protection racket, throwing out one stupid headline after another, with the aim of leaving us confused, worn out, and too tired to act.

James Graham then took to Twitter to complain about what he sees as the government’s assault on the humanities. A new policy insisting that arts graduates must find a good job within six months of leaving university is causing havoc in the humanities.

The latest example came with Sheffield Hallam University announcing it is to pull its English literature degree from next year, seemingly pushed in that direction by the government.

James said he would never have become a writer, would never have written Sherwood, if such a policy had been in place when he studied drama in Hull.

The writer Philip Pullman joined in, saying that the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes”. Yet here we are, with the arts becoming a minority sport, going the way of music and art in state schools.

I enjoyed studying literature and even read James Joyce’s Ulysses willingly again after leaving, so something stuck. A love of writing and words stayed with me, although in those days I could have gone into journalism without a degree, as many did, but that route has gone for would-be reporters. That is a shame and a loss, but so is insisting that arts students must find a good job in six months. Many won’t have found anything by then, or possibly their way out of the house.

You can’t measure the benefits of an arts degree with such an unfeeling ruler. While not many writers or artists become rich, their work offers great riches to society, and our arts economy is booming and respected around the world. According to the Arts Council, the arts and culture industry contributes £8.5bn to the UK economy. Shove that into your six months!

Anyway, as the writer John O’Farrell argued on Twitter, studying the use of language, the importance of story and character, and the power of words “is a profoundly civilised thing to offer young people that cannot be instantly measured by employment data. Literature expands the mind, opens up a world of imagination and possibilities…”

Although not when the cat walks over your laptop, writing the following…



  1. I agree 100% with what you say here and I am a (retired) mathematician. The Gradgrind obsession with STEM is wrong on so many levels including wilful ignorance of the economic contribution of music, art and writing to this country’s wealth (we are really good at these things as well as the scientific things) never mind the joy that excellence in these things bring to so many of us. I greatly enjoyed Sherwood too. Bob

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