The Worst of Times: 'You're a conchy?' he said, and he hit me: Tony Parker talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DURING the Second World War, if you registered as a conscientious objector you had to appear in front of a tribunal that decided whether you were sincere or not. Those who said it was against their religious beliefs, mostly Quakers, were given unconditional exemption; but if you were an agnostic, as I was, you had rather a hard job.

The tribunal was held in Manchester. The idea of appearing in front of a lawyer, a trade union boss and an Army officer, to defend myself or my views, aged 18, was terrifying. I was shaking like a leaf. I know lots of people who appeared before the board and were not allowed to go on the register, and some were sent to prison.

The members of the tribunal were hostile. They began with the assumption that I was just trying to get out of military service. They asked questions such as, 'What would you do if you saw German soldiers trying to rape your sister?' Or, 'If you saw an English soldier lying injured in the street as a result of shrapnel, would you help him?'

And when I replied, 'Of course, yes,' they said: 'Well then, what is your objection to going into the Royal Army Medical Corps?'

To which I said: 'I am just not going to go into the Army.'

Eventually they decided to give me a conditional exemption: I could choose to work on the land, in the fire service or as a coal miner. I chose the pits.

At that time I had a girlfriend. Her father was very much opposed to 'conchies' and told her that either I went into the Army and did my duty, or she wasn't to see me any more. I said: 'Well, I am sorry, you will have to tell your father I am not going in the Army, and you must decide . . .'

And she decided that we were not going to see each other any more.

I was upset about it, but it was not an uncommon happening. My sister was married to a soldier, and most of my friends went into the forces, so one felt very much out on a limb. But the extraordinary thing was that I wasn't criticised by the people who were close to me.

I was told to report at Bradford coal mine. It was a long way from home and you had to be there at five in the morning, so eventually I took lodgings with a widow whose husband had been a miner. She was very motherly, and did not hold it against me that I was a conchy.

It was remarkable with what tolerance the older men accepted me. I was the only conscientious objector in that pit, but they were friendly. 'That's OK, son, you did quite right not to fight in the war.'

These men remembered the times of the Thirties, the lock-outs, the strikes and the Depression. There were posters at the pitheads that read: 'You are the commandos of industry', and the men would say: 'Look at what the buggers are saying about us now. They weren't saying that 10 years ago . . .'

The young miners, however, were quite aggressive. They were spoiling for a fight. They wanted to go to war, but they weren't allowed to, because mining was a reserved occupation. There was one young guy who said: 'You're a fucking conchy?' and hit me.

Some pits, such as the one I was in, were very deep - about 2,000ft below ground - and tremendously hot, because there was very little ventilation. You could have wet pits, where water came through the ceiling; you could have cold pits, where the coal was frozen almost solid; but Bradford was a hot pit. Bradford was a very hot pit. You were down there for eight hours.

There were no facilities of any kind. If you wanted a pee, you just went off down the road and had a pee. If you wanted a shit, you went round one of the corners and had a shit. They were very primitive working conditions.

I was useless as a miner, of course. The roof was low, you could barely stand up, and you loaded the coal into tubs that were hauled to the foot of the shaft and taken up.

I worked with a collier. It was my job to be behind him, and as he cut the coal I would shovel it back to someone else.

The colliers were the elite, and were treated with great respect, which they more than earnt. Their job was very dangerous; if the roof was going to fall, it would fall on them, because there were no pit props where they worked; the props came along after the colliers.

You'd see these men stripped to their waist, in just their underpants, their backs covered with lines and scars caused by falls of coal. I don't know why, but the scars were always blue. They were physically very strong, but they were gentle, and well read: they talked about H G Wells and Bernard Shaw and things like that. They were great men.

That whole period ended when I was involved in an accident underground. I was bending down between two tubs when six tubs full of coal came down the incline and ran into the one next to me. I was squashed. I had a broken collar-bone, two broken ribs, God knows what. I stayed a bit in hospital, and it was decided I wasn't fit to go back to work.

For years afterwards, I used to have tremendous claustrophobia. I'd wake up many mornings with the feeling that I was trapped underground.

But that experience was the turning point in my life. As a middle-class grammar-school boy from a middle-class background, coming in contact for the first time with people who were not privileged, I had never really known what life was about. Seeing the sort of conditions these men worked in, a life of hard labour, dirty and dangerous, I became a convinced socialist, and I have never changed.

Now I see what is happening to the miners, and I weep for them. Their future is very bleak indeed, and it is a very great shame, because these were fine people, and still are fine people.

Tony Parker's latest book, 'May the Lord in His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast', is published next week by Jonathan Cape.

(Photograph omitted)