Britain in Crisis: The lustre of darkness

When the coal mines close, their monument will be the great writing they inspired.
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The Independent Online
D H LAWRENCE

Sons and Lovers (1913)

'AND YOU are a miner]' she exclaimed in surprise.

'Yes. I went down when I was ten.'

She looked at him in wondering dismay.

'When you were ten] And wasn't it very hard?' she asked.

'You soon get used to it. You live like th' mice, an' you pop out at night to see what's going on.'

'It makes me feel blind,' she frowned.

'Like a moudiwarp]' he laughed. 'Yi, an' there's some chaps as goes round like moudiwarps.' He thrust his face forward in the blind, snout-like way of a mole, seeming to sniff and peer for direction. 'They dun though]' he protested naively. 'Tha niver seen such a way as they get in. But tha mun let me ta'e thee down some time, an' tha can see for thysen.'

She looked at him, startled. This was a new tract of life suddenly opened before her. She realised the life of the miners, hundreds of them toiling below earth and coming up at evening. He seemed to her noble. He risked his life daily, and with gaiety. She looked at him, with a touch of appeal in her pure humility.

'Shouldn't ter like it?' he asked tenderly. 'Appen not, it 'ud dirty thee.'

FRIEDRICH ENGELS

The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)

THE CATEGORIES of religion are known to them only from their swear-words. Their morality is destroyed by their work itself. That the overwork of all miners must engender drunkenness is self-evident. As to their sexual relations, men, women and children work in the mines, in many cases wholly naked and in most cases nearly so, by reason of the prevailing heat, and the consequences in the dark, lonely mines may be imagined. The number of illegitimate children is here disproportionately large, and indicates what goes on among the half-savage population below ground, but proves too that the illegitimate intercourse of the sexes has not here, as in the great cities, sunk to the level of prostitution. The labour of women . . . dissolves the family and makes the mother incapable of household work.

WILLIAM COBBETT

In the North East, from Rural Rides (1832)

YOU SEE nothing here that is pretty; but everything seems to be abundant in value; and one great thing is, the working people live well. Theirs is not a life of ease to be sure, but it is not a life of hunger. The pitmen have 24 shillings a week; they live rent- free, their fuel costs them nothing, and their doctor costs them nothing. Their work is terrible, to be sure; and perhaps they do not have what they ought to have; but at any rate they live well, their houses are good and their furniture good; and though they live not in a beautiful scene, they are in the scene where they were born, and their lives seem to be as good as that of the working part of mankind can reasonably expect.

J B PRIESTLEY

English Journey (1933)

YOUR miner, then, is isolated, remote from the rest of the community, and generally in unpleasant surroundings, living in the beastliest towns and villages in the country. He sees little or nothing of you and me. On the other hand, he sees a great deal of his fellow-miners. They work together in an arduous and dangerous trade, in which they have to depend on one another for such safety as they have. The risks are still much greater than most people suppose, only the more spectacular tragedies taking up much space in the newspapers. During the five years ending with 1931 more than 5,000 people were killed in the coal-mining industry, and more than 800,000 were injured . . . The women in a mining village live forever in the anxious atmosphere of the war years. At any moment they may find themselves running, half- demented, to the pit-head. Every man or boy who goes underground knows only too well that he risks one of several particularly horrible deaths, from being roasted to being imprisoned in the rock and slowly suffocated. We must not make too much of this. Doing a grim, dangerous, necessary job frequently brings its own mental reward. You know, even if a lot of other people don't, that you are somebody. It is not a matter of swaggering. The deep satisfaction probably comes from being continually and severely tested and from being saved from the dull folly of taking existence itself for granted. Actually, miners in this country are not swaggerers, not, that is, qua miners. I have talked to dozens of them, and have heard them boast about beer, women, football, whippets, fighting, and various other things, but I have never heard one of them so much as suggest that he is a fine brave fellow because he worked in a tiny dangerous place underground.

ANEURIN BEVAN

(Bevan became a miner at 15)

HERE down below are the sudden perils - runaway trains hurtling down the lines; frightened ponies kicking and mauling in the dark, explosions, fire, drowning. And if he escapes? There is a tiredness which comes as the reward of exertion, a physical blessing which makes sleep a matter of relaxed limbs and muscles. And there is a tiredness which leads to stupor, which remains with you on getting up, and which forms a dull persistent background to your consciousness. This is the tiredness of the miner, particularly of the boy of 14 or 15 who falls asleep over his meals and wakes up hours later to find that his evening has gone and there is nothing before him but bed and another day's wrestling with inert matter.

GEORGE ORWELL

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

OUR civilisation, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal- miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.

RICHARD LLEWELLYN

How Green was my Valley (1939)

IT WAS strange to go out in the street and find the men out there, on chairs, or sitting on window sills, or just standing in the gutters. There was a feeling of fright in it, too, for the street was almost empty at other times. The wind was full of the low rising and falling of their voices, but nobody talking loudly, or laughing . . . Meeting after meeting the men held on the mountain-side, and it was strange to see them every day going browner and browner in the sun, and it was then I saw how pale they had always been, even my father and brothers, with the lack of it.

Nothing was said, not a word, at home about the strike. It was never allowed to come past the door. Food got less. Tea we had without sugar or milk, and then no sugar, and after, no tea. Meat came less and less. Bread was spare, thick in the slice, and presently, butter only on Sunday.

GEORGE ORWELL

The Road to Wigan Pier

COMING back is worse than going, not only because you are already tired out but because the journey back to the shaft is probably slightly uphill. You get through the low places at the speed of a tortoise, and you have no shame about calling a halt when your knees give way. Even the lamp you are carrying becomes a nuisance and probably when you stumble you drop it; whereupon, if it is a Davy lamp, it goes out. Ducking the beams becomes more and more of an effort, and sometimes you forget to duck. You try walking head down as miners do, and then you bang your backbone. Even the miners bang their backbones fairly often. This is the reason why in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half-naked, most of the miners have what they call 'buttons down the back' - that is, a permanent scab on each vertebra.

Nottingham and the Mining Country (1929)

UNDER the butty system, the miners worked underground as a sort of intimate community, they knew each other practically naked, and with curious close intimacy, and the darkness and the underground remoteness of the pit 'stall', and the continual presence of danger, made the physical, instinctive and intuitional contact between men very highly developed, a contact as close as touch, very real and very powerful. This physical awareness and intimate togetherness was at its strongest down the pit. When the men came up into the light, they blinked. They had, in measure, to change their flow. Nevertheless, they brought with them above ground the curious dark intimacy of the mine, the naked sort of contact, and if I think of my childhood, it is always as if there was a lustrous sort of inner darkness, like the gloss of coal, in which we moved and had our real being. My father loved the pit. He was hurt badly, more than once, but he would never stay away.

(Photograph omitted)

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