As part of my research into mining for The National Theatre of Wales, I thought I’d start by examining my relationship with coal.
My life with coal.
Born Herefordshire 1956 - red soil, red cows drooling over lush grass – coal came delivered by Burt, bent and black under his hundredweight sack. I thrilled to hear his knock and his lame clump through the scratchy crush of spilled slack. I was impressed by his strength, though if my dad was home from work, he helped to haul with ease. At two I couldn’t shift it, could barely lift a seaside bucket full.
I fell in love with Ada his horse and ran out with an apple or carrot to drop into her hessian nosebag. I hated his flat-bed lorry enough to beat its bumper. Why did he swap her and her friendly snorts for a backfiring, black machine?
I crawled into the bunker, bit shiny black lumps, spat dust and crunch, wondered how mum knew where I’d been. Flames fascinated me. I watched them leap and slaver even after they were shut behind stove doors. Fuel tar, fumes, smoke, ash and clinker. Poker swords and tong clang, hearth paraphernalia, singed clothes, smelly, smouldering, burns in the hearthrug I lay on.
I got big enough to shovel coal and soon learned that it didn’t respond well to force. Over-eagerness made it dam and jam and fall back off the shovel. I loved the glitter of freshly broken lumps but was discouraged from smashing it. Some pieces had gold splashes. Our neighbour told me that these streaks were Fool’s Gold, Iron Pyrites. This kicked off a fascination for chemistry and geology – the naming of elements and composition of the earth’s crust. Strata – time-stripes – testimony to different ages and conditions. Metamorphoses.
I developed an obsession with digging, wanted to get down to molten core, dig my own volcano, reach Australia. My red, tin, seaside spade wasn’t up to heavy Herefordshire clay so I started nicking dad’s steel spade for my navvying. It was heavy and I had to pogo it into hard ground. Even my best holes filled themselves in. Sides crumbled, sods collapsed, I got frustrated and joined some bigger kids tunnelling into a grey clay section of the river bank. I wanted to go underground. On the school trip to St. Fagan’s I was shocked to see south Wales’s rivers running black through the cracked slime of low tides.
I got strong enough to fill the coal scuttles and was proud to carry them in, clanking. Next door favoured coal tar soap. I liked the smell but wondered why it was rubber duck yellow. The smell didn’t mix with perfumed talcs that I didn’t understand the purpose of. I loved the smell of fresh tar and sniffed out any steam-roller about town. On wet playtimes I tried to get out to the dilute smell of re-vitalized tarmac – I’d do almost anything to avoid the coercions of country dancing.
Along with just about everyone else, we were converted to natural gas. I pined for the stove and the live flames behind flaky, mica doors. There were no surprises with hissing blue gas. I missed the rituals of carting coal and ashes. There were adverts on telly to recruit miners to the Yorkshire and east Midland coal fields. My dad didn’t want to go and “do that filthy work”. Mum explained about bad chests – the curse of Pneumoconiosis – I wondered if gran had been down a pit because she wheezed like a cat quartet.
There was still coal in my friend Jane’s cellar, big lumps of damp house coal. It was policed by huge toads. If her dad was down there he did shadowy Dracula impressions or bellowed ghoulish noises and we bolted squealing for the attic. It was different from the anthracite we had and the school coke heap. Aberfan put us off daring one another to run up the coke heap which we did to defy Mr. Barrington the caretaker who fed the stoves in our hut class rooms.
One hot afternoon our geography teacher handed round a piece of South Wales coal with the imprint of fossilized fern. I thumbed the oval leaf depressions and didn’t want to pass it on. I was holding time, holding swamp and overwhelming seas. I started riding my friend’s pony along the old Kington railway track. It was fringed with clubbed and feathery horse tails, dwarf relatives to the tree ferns which formed coal deposits 80 million years ago. We took it in turns to ride Goldie – a Welsh Mountain mare who might well have ended up down a mine a few generations earlier. When I walked I picked over the stones and discovered exotic blue ballast in the general mix of carboniferous limestone with smashed fossil shells.
I shivered at the ghosts of the steam trains. When I was a baby I waved to the black-faced stokers with sweaty necks who drove the milk train – impatient puffs of steam , pistons and screaming brakes. A farmer let me ride Smoky Joe who’d thrown his daughters too many times. Joe did buck like a rodeo bronco on meadows, but the stones of the track cautioned him. I started going to Hereford museum to look for rock samples too, but got sidetracked by the grin of weasels and stoats. Going to the museum was a good excuse to get out of shopping.
Contrarily, in 1974, I did decide to go shopping. On my way to an interview at Bretton Hall, I got out at Birmingham New Street for the first time and felt overwhelmed by tunnels and suspicion. Three days after the pub bombings and the only people about were nervous shop assistants and security guards. I caught the next train to Sheffield and from there a slow train to Wakefield. Someone said we were going slowly over the mines to placate the gods of subsidence. Muck stacks and winding gear – I was excited to be in the Land of NCB and King Arthur – as open mouthed as a cooling tower – this was the first time I’d seen them in the concrete, rising from tons of coal. Black acres and the grey lagoon of Pugney’s open cast site. Eh up! A complete colour contrast to Herefordshire.
I was accepted at college and lived at the top of the mansion in my first year. I loved the park and walked round the lakes every day. A gamekeeper told me “the whole place is honeycombed with mines.” I fancied I heard the whine of either Park Mill Pit at Clayton West or Woolley Colliery and felt them shudder. In the late 70s Woolley employed over 1500 men underground.
1978, we moved into a miner’s flat near Wakefield B power station (A was never built). Every student house I went in was heated by a sparky electric fire. At 5.30 every morning a convoy of empty Coal Board trucks hit a pothole on Doncaster Road. We soon learned to sleep through the thunder and shudder. Teaching practice in Crofton High, centre of three mining villages. On my preliminary visit, Barry MacFadden a twelve year old giant sat me down at the teacher’s table, board room style, and said, “You don’t want to come here. They’ll chuck stuff at you and turn tables over and put stuff in yer dinner. Don’t come here.” Nobody did that but they did holler, “Victimization” frequently and proclaim, “I don’t need this to go down pit.” and argue about whether Shakespeare invented fishing reels or bikes.” A girl called Clare settled it by saying, “Nay, ‘e’s that right cultural one. When one of his films comes on t’telly, we turn over straight away.”
Barry and his skinny mate Glyn lived on the Lump. The Lump was a grid of terraced pit houses just outside the main village. In a free lesson (I just happened to walk through the library when 3D had taken charge) Barry told me that his family were originally miners from Fife, Glyn’s parents came from Wales. The previous night was enough history for Glyn. He was like a Jumping Jack, “Miss, miss, there were a madman on t’Lump last nayt. Police car at top of row, ambulance at bottom and ‘im running in and out o’ all houses.” Barry asked me to read selected entries in his school report. He flicked through a ruck of slips with Ds and Es and fixed on Drama - grade A. “Read us that ‘un there.”
‘Barry’s unflagging, unstinting, enthusiasm has been quite infectious to the rest of the class’.
“Read it again and tell us what them big long words mean.”
I read it umpteen times so he could learn the lines. In the end Miss Rowe (deputy head) came to silence the class. As soon as she went, Glyn nudged me and said, “Have you noticed how she likes to chuck weight about? When she gets in t’ car all t’ suspension goes rayt down on that side.”
Bikes and cars were important: Fonzie, Dukes of Hazard, American Graffiti; boy racers and custom cars – isopon, bitumen paint and jacked-up suspension. The pits were the means to wheels. Then came ‘The Winter of Discontent’. NUM sent pickets to the Bakers’ strike we participated in. I got a job lecturing in Newtown the day Maggie Thatcher came to power, but stayed in Yorkshire for the summer to work in the Bakery. ‘Confec’ were still in ‘Coventry’ and some people hissed ‘Scab’ as we walked through their lines.’
Clocking off and returning to sunshine was euphoria. I took the snicket behind British Ropes factory and marvelled at the miles of twisted coiled steel. They were built to last. I believe the site’s a retail park now. In my first years of teaching I liked and respected the mechanical engineers – their humour, the lore of metals, and the whiff of cutting oils, discussions about motorbikes – my defective kick-start – the sprockets hadn’t been hardened in the factory so the teeth stripped and couldn’t engage. This affinity and memories of the blacksmith’s shop my dad worked in contribute to my decision to call my next poetry collection Swarf.
When the pits were being demolished an ex-miner, ex-bakery friend told me that one night somebody stole a Coal Board scraper off a tip. He was woken by police with loud-halers instructing people to move their cars. The only way the joy-rider could stop was by blundering about till the machine ran out of diesel or by getting back to a site and dropping the blade into a muck stack.
I’ve just ordered some more coal – I still think stove heat is the best. The hounds and I like to bask at the hearth. The rumble of a new delivery gives me a special sense of security especially during long freezes. The most northerly mining community I’ve visited is Barentsburg on Svalbard where around 400 Russian and Ukrainian miners work on 3 year contracts to produce about 100,000 tons of coal per year. They were the palest people I’ve ever seen. Their coat of arms proclaims, ‘Mining and Polar Bears at 78 degrees North’.
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