Pride & Prejudice
THEIR story has charmed the world, becoming an unlikely global cinema hit of 2015 – and now a permanent memorial to Mark Ashton, one of the founding members of the campaign group Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, is set to be unveiled in King’s Cross.
Mark, who died in 1987, was one of the key characters in the smash hit movie Pride, starring Ben Schnetzer as Mark, backed by the likes of Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and George MacKay.
This spring, Ashton’s role in the fight for civil rights will be recognised as a plaque in his memory is unveiled in Marchmont Street, King’s Cross, above the Gay’s The Word bookshop where he was integral to a number of meetings that set up the group.
Friends Mike Jackson and Dave Lewis, who were part of a core of young men and women who set up the campaign, recall how they stood against the Thatcher government and found allies among the mining community to fight bigotry in a world where homophobia was mainstream. They hoped to raise funds online to pay for the memorial, and reached the target of £2,000 in just 16 hours. Now excess funds raised will go to a charity set up in his name to help people with HIV and Aids.
Mike recalled how Mark became politically active. “Mark was from Northern Ireland and when he first moved to London, he got a job serving at the bar at the Camden Conservative Club in Cromer Street, King’s Cross. He went dressed in drag for six months and nobody noticed. He posed as a woman as a political act.”
Mark became genuinely politically active, joining the Communist Party after a visit to Bangladesh with his father, who was in a textile engineer. “He saw real poverty and he had an epiphany,” said Mike.
Mike met Mark through the help line Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. “I come from a working-class background in Accrington, Lancashire,” he says. “I struggled with my sexuality and I absorbed all the homophobic nonsense thrown at me as a young man.”
A keen gardener, Mike had moved to London to study at Kew. One day, he called the switchboard. “Through them I met a group of volunteers and from being mad, sad and bad I became joyous and angry. I thought to myself: I’ll join this, he’s all right,” he said. “I soon realised we shared the same ideals of gay activism and socialism.
“Mark was just 23. He was passionate, very charismatic, funny, bitchy and really annoying at times, full of contradictions. He knew all of this and laughed at himself all the time, and he would take the whole world with him in what ever direction he was going. Mark was very charismatic – people do eulogise him but the simple fact is he worked to get the group off the ground.”
Dave recalls how as a teenager he watched Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. “I remember thinking: well, I’ll need to do something,” he says. “It brought me towards left-wing politics.”
When the miners went out on strike, he collected donations on Saturdays. “I then read an advert in the Capital Gay newspaper that said there was going to be a meeting for LGSM, so I went to see what it was all about.”
Dave recalls heading to South Wales with the funds they collected, and remembers the tear-jerking moment they walked into a hall of around 300 miners, unsure quite what to expect, only to be met with applause and thanks.
They also remember other little acts that showed they were welcome. “It was October 1984 when we first travelled there,” says Dave. “We’d borrowed two minibuses that were well-maintained, but we needed another, so we got a mate’s VW camper van. It was knackered – it didn’t have a pad on the accelerator, the wipers didn’t work and the handbrake was bust.
“We were about 10 miles out of the village on our way home when a police car pulled us over. We all thought: oh shit, we’re in trouble here.
“The policeman asked for insurance and a licence and then sat in the driver’s seat, noting how unroadworthy the vehicle was. He then asked us where we had come from and what we were doing. We were scared to say where we’d been and why, so we said we’d been visiting ‘friends’.”