I’ve had coalmining on my mind recently. Contra last week’s Metro, I don’t think it’s accurate to say ‘the world looked on in despair’ at events at Gleision Colliery – in fact the story was predictably underreported and largely unremarked upon by my usual social media circle, until the story became a self-evidently human tragedy, whereupon it was hardly engaged with at any deeper level than that. Anyway:
As the admittedly lame title of this blog suggests, the coalmine for me is bound up with a certain sense of national identification, but also, if not more so, with class and regional associations. I feel that I have more in common with someone of my age from a post-industrial area in (say) south Yorkshire, than I might with someone from rural west or north Wales or indeed the great bright-lit sprawl that is Cardiff and the Vale. Weighted against this potentially mawkish shoulder-to-shouldering with other unemployment blackspots is the knowledge that this landscape as a functioning entity, as something that defined one as part of and in relation to a certain workforce, as the sum of one’s labour, has (been) altered out of all recognition and what it tends to be seen as generating now is dysfunction. But the mine as a symbol of shared frames of reference carries an inescapable emotional weight.
There is, as I wrote when discussing the peculiarities of the Manic Street Preachers, a residual, nebulous but strongly-felt cultural identity with which one is inoculated when growing up in a post-industrial area, and particularly in the coalfield. That cultural identity, based as it was around an assassinated industry and community, is one that’s no longer valid; whether its passing should be mourned or just acknowledged depends on what arises in its place. Its absence certainly feeds into the dubious handwringing over white working-class identity. This is a debate which has tended to focus on England, due perhaps to the presumption that outside England a class-based cultural identity can be smoothly replaced by one based, again quite dubiously, on national identity, but – especially for a region so distinct, so defined by its industry and so historically enhanced by migration (English, Irish, Italian, Spanish, Somali) as south Wales – it’s hardly as simple as that.
I think reaction to the deaths at Gleision Colliery was informed at least in part by a collective memory of the lack of regard in which the lives of miners have always been held by the industry on which they depended. Mining disasters are the stuff of balladry and dirge all over the world, of course. It’s too easy, problematically so, to romanticise what’s gone. An uncomfortable tension exists between what I may as well call pride in one’s heritage, anger at its loss, and a relief at not being personally subject to its harsh realities. Mining is a horrible, difficult and incredibly dangerous job which no miner in their right mind wants their child to follow them into. Industrial coalmining was brought into being by the imperatives of industrial capitalism, and the communities, the cultures – the lives – that grew up around it, based on collectivism and mutual aid, were brought into being almost in spite of the demands and degradations of their conditions of production. The mining-town where I come from produced the blueprint for what eventually became the National Health Service, taken up by Bevan, also from my town and also a former miner. From the vantage point of today, both things – the NHS and the ascent of a mining-town boy to Secretary of State – seem even more extraordinary achievements, barely short of miraculous.
I have little inclination to go into how the mining industry was destroyed – the 1984 strike, incidentally, marking an unprecedented and now largely forgotten level of government-sanctioned police violence against a section of the British population dubbed an ‘enemy within’ – nor how the NHS is about to go the same way. If you’ve bothered to read this then you probably know already, and if you don’t then find out, damn you, and not just via Billy Elliot.
Political retrospectives, and many histories, tend to close the book on industrial Britain after the 1980s. Under the Major administration, a second round of pit closures and the long, sad hold-out of the Liverpool dockers planted a conclusive boot on the coffin-lid of industrial organisation and industry itself. Twenty years after the miners’ strike, research from Sheffield Hallam University indicated that less than half of jobs lost in coalfield districts had been replaced. In terms of national media or political attention, we all may as well have vanished down a disused mineshaft. In the slice of south Wales where I grew up, with my father’s generation in jobless post-traumatic crisis and my own retreating into nihilism, the only attempts at economic regeneration I saw were the daffodils planted along the M4 corridor to improve the view for commuters. Flimsy sticking-plaster sectors – call-centres, fast-food outlets, cardboard-box factories – grew like bindweed, with a handful of former miners and steelworkers ‘reskilled’ to answer a phone and use a keyboard. Little or no attention was paid to the psychological aftermath of economic trauma: the spread of mental illness, petty crime, addiction and dependency.
Successive Conservative governments’ gutting of industrial communities also excised the social and cultural benefits built up by long-term guaranteed employment, effectively eradicating progress made over the past hundred years. When Huw Beynon writes: At the turn of the century in south Wales and Durham, the old mining areas stood out as having … low levels of wages, high incidences of limiting long term illness, poor housing and poor patterns of education attainment. These features combined to produce high levels of household poverty. All this was compounded in particular places by a high incidence of crime and drug abuse and by a pattern of young men and women leaving to find work elsewhere, it’s difficult to be sure which century he means.
New Labour in opposition had, since Kinnock, concentrated less on the unsexy struggles of a doomed demographic and more on the promise to deliver such communities, slumped and comatose, into the welcoming embrace of a tamed free market, a line of wishful thinking as insulting as it was unsuccessful. In government, the handwringing reports of Prescott’s coalfield task force on post-industrial Britain’s ‘unique combination’ of concentrated joblessness, physical isolation, poor infrastructure and severe physical and mental health problems prompted only a renewed emphasis on attracting employment – any employment – as short-term, panicked panacea.
On Friday nights in the Welsh valleys, miners go from pub to pub hunting for their employers to claim unpaid wages. Pay cheques bounce, mining companies close and re-open under other names, men are sacked for being union members or refusing to work on Christmas Day. In some pits, miners get no basic minimum and are only paid by the tub of coal produced. Underground, they stand in streams of water, hacking at the face with picks and shovels. Wooden roof props, phased out in publicly owned mines 40 years ago, are standard. Pit ponies haul rusting carloads of anthracite back and forth from the face. On the surface, there are no showers. The coal owners are back with a vengeance. This is private mining in 1994: the promised future of the British coal industry.
Dotted around the wreckage of the South Wales coalfield, mining heritage museums are opening up on the sites of former collieries, where visitors can go underground to see re-creations of the horrific conditions in which miners toiled in the early years of this century.
In working private pits nearby, the re-creations are for real. Last year, the fatal accident rate in privately owned mines was 23 times that in British Coal collieries. Government health and safety officials advise caution when comparing the public and private safety records because the smaller numbers in private mining can lead to sharp fluctuations in the fatality figures. So it seems fair to mention that the death rate in private mines was only seven times as high the year before.
One man who fell victim to the new cost-cutting coal owners was Phillip Rees, a 32-year-old miner electrocuted at the Blaengrennig colliery in the Amman valley just over a year ago. “The manager called me up and asked if this boy was one of my members,” recalls Anthony Jones, the local National Union of Mineworkers official in charge of private mines. “I said I’d have to look in my records. It’s just there’s been a bit of an accident, he told me. I said I’d come right over anyway. He was dead when I got there. They didn’t even know where he lived.”
… In many cases, mine owners and managers blame the miners themselves for these collapses. What can you expect, they ask, if “the workmen” don’t bother to put up proper supports in the rush to finish the job? Meanwhile, the owners make corner-cutting ever more certain by driving up the tonnages needed to earn colliers’ piece-rate wages.
This seems to be an age of reaping the whirlwind. It shouldn’t feel so mystifying, so revelatory, to say for instance that trade unionism ensures the proper and safe functioning of workplaces, that it protects those who work there through ensuring adherence to correct procedures, and that this protection is needed, increasingly so as the profit motive once again takes rapacious precedence, as the power of workers to influence their pay and conditions and, yes, their health and safety, is stifled and criminalised, as training, expertise and skill in a worker is seen as less desirable than mute compliance.
And yeah, you have to let go sometimes, but let’s be clear on what it is we’re letting go. Not a rose-tinted view of some Blue Labour pre-sixties male-breadwinner ideal, but a sense of solidarity and community, an attempt at shared ownership and empowerment, an alternative. The coalmine, still, is a potent reminder of what it’s hard to say should be missed, but also of what we have lost, and are still losing.