Caught by the River

Coal Mining (from the Welsh Antidote to Indifference)

16th September 2013


Below is an extract from the latest edition of An Antidote to Indifference. The issue is an all Welsh edition (the place, not the language – that would be pretty specialist). It features Pete Fowler, Rob Penn, Marc Jones, Bernard Kane, Jude Rogers, Rhian E Jones, Jeb Loy Nichols, Nicky Wire and Roger Clapham writing on subjects like R.S. Thomas, sheep, Molly Parkin, TJs, beer, sleeping under the stars, guerilla restoration and also this piece by Richard King on coal mining.

The picture is from a book that I keep on my desk.

An Elementary Text-Book of Coal Mining belonged to my grandfather, it’s subheading reads ‘A class-book for elementary students preparing for the board of education examination in ‘Principles of Mining’ and for colliery managers’ examinations’. Along with the Bible every Sunday, my grandfather studied Coal Mining as an adult.

Just as there is a theory that everyone in Wales is somehow related, most conversations about Welsh identity begin with the phrase ‘My grandfather was a miner’. To an outsider the resonance mining carries among the Welsh might seem like a particularly idiosyncratic nostalgie de la boue, a strange longing for the coalface, an environment in which conditions were appalling, the work brutal and lives were cut short by ruptured lungs.

My grandfather retired early from the mine because of a pit accident and like many of his contemporaries became involved in adult education. At a moment when ideas about how society might function held great resonance, a generation that had been working since school age taught themselves to think. Mining was an industry whose legacy defined our sense of chwarae teg: the pithead libraries, self-improvement through learning rather than through materialism, the origins of trade unionism, the birthplace of the NHS and the singularly Welsh way with oratory and debate. This – along with communal singing, victories on the rugby field over the English mine owning classes and a sense of fellowship and place that ran deeper than the coal seam – is what we mean in Wales when we say the word ‘mining’. Its absence takes a form of permanent catharsis.

The coalfields and slag heaps have been grassed over but the tiered rows of miners cottages still run along the valleys, their close packed density a reminder of the scale of the workforce. A spectre of employment and self organised labour. There is a dormancy to the landscape that in the wrong kind of weather is as suffocating as any pit.

My grandfather’s Marsaut Safety Lamp hangs in my parents’ house as surely as one day it will hang in mine. There has never been a need to test its fuse. Just to be near it is to be illuminated by a source of energy as powerful and nourishing as daylight.

An Antidote to Indifference is available now in the Caught by the River shop.