'MOST people don't care whether there is coal or not. During the miners' strike, 90 per cent were behind the Government. It's the opposite now - but it's all sentimental.' So says David Harvey who, with his dad, runs Harveys Coal and Builders Merchants in north London.

I've come to Harveys to see coal. Touch the stuff. Find out if it has any meaning left for the urban middle class that has devoted the past week to mourning the miners as if they were the lost tribe in some ethnographic film. Even Tories shed tears. Last Sunday, in a frenzy of concern, we turned out our lights when we should have turned them on.

So I have a yen to sniff the stuff that used to fuel the world and bred the legend of the heroic labourer; mine, after all, is a generation that has a relationship with coal only in novels. For most of us, mining culture is reading D H Lawrence beside an open fire that burns gas-fuelled fake coal made of spun ceramic fibre. This is about as authentic as a battery-powered dog on the hearth.

Fifteen lorries loaded with coal used to pull in and out of Harveys' big

yard all day long. 'Now people in their twenties come in and say:

'How do we light our fire?' ' says David Harvey who, in his early forties, represents the third generation to run the yard.

Although Harveys has successfully diversified - most of its business is now in building supplies - its soul is coal. David Harvey's grandfather opened the yard with a horse and cart in the early Twenties. The firm served everyone in the area, and was known as 'the biggest little men in London'. Now it is one of the last coal merchants in the city.

In Harveys' yard, a couple of stalls contain a few tons of coal: in the drenching rain, it looks like a small heap of wet black. Over here is anthracite, with its dull glitter; here Coalite, which has had its gases burnt off to render it environmentally acceptable. The Clean Air Act of 1956 was a good thing, Mr Harvey says, but the fire itself was never the same: the burning of the poisonous gases was what gave it its leaping flames; it was terribly pretty.

In London, the smokeless zones killed coal. It was a slow death, though. 'Even 20, 25 years ago we sold 5,000 tons of domestic coal,' says Mr Harvey. Last year the firm sold 250 tons. 'The domestic coal business is dead,' he adds. 'Except for yuppie heating, that is.'

For decades Harveys supplied an essential commodity that sustained urban life; the firm had a real connection with the coal that the miners took out of the ground. Today, across the street from the yard, hundreds of houses maintain their emblematic chimney stacks but, Mr Harvey says, few have working fireplaces.

He is wry about it, but not at all sentimental. He sells only a little coal now, beautifully bagged, like black truffles. What's left of the business depends on customers who buy tiny bags to heat a single fireplace. One customer buys just enough to feed the Aga stove. On Christmas Eve, business goes up maybe 20 per cent.

A mild-mannered man with a sense of humour, Mr Harvey sympathises with the miners because they are out of work; he considers it idiotic to leave coal in the ground if you're going to end up buying it abroad. But he thinks that all the beating of breasts and the politically righteous circulation of leaflets in north London urging folk to march for the miners are empty gestures. 'And why are the old biddies in Cheltenham getting worked up about the miners in Nottingham?' he exclaims. 'Nobody's going to burn more coal if there are marches. If they gave away coal today, you'd have nowhere to burn it. The rooms are too small. All the houses have been cut up into little alcoves with a pot of dried flowers on the table]'

It costs about pounds 460 a year to heat an average-sized house with coal; and if you want to keep your home hot all day and night, it is actually cheaper than gas or electricity. Mr Harvey heats his house with coal 'because the stuff is in my veins', but, what with the work it takes, he admits that it's an old-fashioned idea.

Harveys buys its coal through a middleman. It rarely asks if it is British or German - 'there's only a few pounds difference' - and neither do the customers. 'About eight years ago, though, one woman did ask. I said German. She said: 'I don't want to buy it.' She was Jewish.'

As we talk, David Harvey's father shows up, and so do Tony and Charlie who have worked at Harveys for 40 years. They reminisce about coal and the miseries of carrying it (Tony often hauled 15 tons in a day). They talk about the schools they served, and the nurseries that grew tomatoes; how coal carts and coal cellars were as much part of everyday life in London as in a Yorkshire village; how people hoarded coal during the war, like sweets. But it was a hard life. 'I've got plenty of rheumatism to prove it,' says Tony, who is 65.

Everyone is smoking and working and smiling. I wonder why they are all in such good spirits. Charlie looks around the building supplies shop, which glows with success. He grins: 'Because we don't do much coal any more,' he says.

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