The village that is sick of living without a future: Esther Oxford on why a former mining area has so many invalids

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THE EIGHT wives were in their forties and fifties but their bodies were as tired and bent as those of the old widows in the corner. The conversation at the Age Concern cafe was about polio ('Her foot is as twisted as a pipe cleaner, I don't know how she manages'), about Ann's new lung, about how dust - coal dust, stone dust - chokes the lungs.

It was mid-morning in Easington, a former pit village in County Durham. There was tea, toast, plenty of chat. What are your husbands doing? Gutteral laughs: 'He's down at the allotment - prize vegetables,' said one. 'He'll be lighting the fire about now - if he's out of bed,' said another. 'With his pigeons,' 'Sitting on the bench outside', 'Asleep'. Not one said her jobless husband was bedridden or sick.

In May, Easington colliery closed down. More than 1,300 men lost their jobs. This week, an independent analysis of the 1991 census showed that Easington district had more people suffering from long-term illness than anywhere else in the country: two out of every five are on invalidity benefit.

At first it appeared that the figure was accurate. The women tutted at the number of people who are sick or disabled. 'It's the damp climate,' they said (Easington is by the sea). Or it was the coal dust and stone dust from drilling through to the coal face that had made the insides of their men 'soot black' and their coats 'lily white'. Diet and smoking should also be considered; the women all smoked continuously. 'It's the stress and boredom,' said one.

But when no one else is around, people confide that they are not sick 'as such'; their 'sickness' is being of working age with no prospect of a job. It is getting up every morning and only moving for the sake of appearances.

Some have packed up and left. In 1961 the district's population was 110,000. Thirty years later the figure stood at 97,000. Easington itself has around 7,000. Most of those who left were young. All but a handful of Durham's 130 pits have closed; gone too are shipbuilding and the steel industry.

Those who remain need money. The easiest way is to turn up at the doctor's surgery.

'I finished at pit last May,' said one former miner. 'The lass at the dole office treated me like dirt. She humiliated me. I said to her: 'I've paid more tax than you will ever pay, bonny lass.' I left and went straight to the doctor's surgery. 'It's my leg,' I said. He gave me a sick-note there and then.'

Michelle Kirtley, the receptionist at one surgery in Easington, said: 'Sick-notes are our biggest business. We see about 70 to 100 patients each day. About a third of them are after sick-notes so they can claim invalidity benefit.

'With most of our patients, nothing stands out as being the main problem. They come in and say: 'I'm sick and depressed. Can I have a note?' It is part of the doctor's job to hand out sick-notes. Some even say that the unemployment office encourages people to go on the sick. It keeps the unemployment figures down.'

Peter Barlow has worked at the surgery in Easington for 13 years. He says he is 'not in a position to call patients liars' but admits there are times when there are 'differences of opinion' as to whether the patient is sick or not. 'If I am convinced I give them a sick- note. If I am uncertain, the patient is referred to an independent assessor.'

The people 'on the sick' were bashful about invalidity benefit. 'This is between you and me,' they would say, then explain that they had no choice but to go sick. As quickly as possible they would move the topic of conversation to the camaraderie of the pit, the accidents, the deaths.

It is 42 years since the Easington pit disaster. Two rescue workers and 81 miners died. The men had suspected there was something wrong with the colliery months before. 'What's she like?' they would ask each other at shift change. 'As full of gas as a bottle of pop,' was one reply.

But the miners kept working, and after the blast they kept searching. One remembered the eerie silence of the mine as he walked through it alone checking for movement, for bodies. White chalkmarks signposted where bodies had been found. Some were mere boys. The tragedy drew the town together. 'I was proud to be a miner, I was proud of the men I worked with, and proud of the colliery I worked at,' said one rescue worker.

The town survived the disaster and the 1984-85 strike. Throughout the long months of soup kitchens, marches, food parcels and collections, food and charity were never provided at the expense of personal dignity.

Now dignity is an indulgence. The shell-shocked men sit on benches, stroke their pigeons and look to the women to provide from part-time jobs. In turn the women look to the Government.

Angela Robinson, 32, lives with her husband and three children right next to the colliery. She can hear the rolling wheel, still smell the gas. The neighbouring houses are boarded up, vandalised.

It is the summer holidays. Mrs Robinson has the children to entertain. Her doctor tells her that August is the busiest month of the year - the waiting room is full of women waiting for anti-depressant tablets. She refuses to take them - she does not want to become addicted - but is receiving invalidity benefit for depression: in recent months her mother has died, her brother was murdered, and she has been unable to find work.

With her is Tracy Bryson, 23, a single mother with three children. She lives next door. Piles of clothes lie up the stairs; there is a strong smell of damp and garbage. Through the open door the television is on but not tuned, showing just a green, fuzzy glare with electronic noise.

Most of the congregation of David Flavell, minister at the Methodist church in Easington, are women. Half are miners' widows. They talk about their memories, their children, being able to go to the shops, their hopes.

He looks after their children during the holidays, visits when people are sick. He has only been there a year, he is an outsider - a reminder that there is a world beyond the two miles to the next mining village. The road names in other towns do not fool them that they are in another country. Wallflower Avenue, Daffodil Avenue, Snowdrop Avenue, Primrose Avenue. Row after row of run-down terraces.

Bob Hills, 57, a former miner, works for a voluntary organisation which drives disabled or infirm people around. He says the town's spirit will pull it through. 'There is none of that 'I'm all right, Jack' attitude up here. Nobody stands on your neck to get what they want. People band together in times of suffering.'

But banding together will not be enough this time. In two world wars, the disaster, the strike, people knew it would one day end; in this one - a no-hope, no-future disease that cannot be dismissed as colliery-related - they do not. At the Durham Miners' Gala this year, the banners were up for what was deemed the 'last march'. In the eyes of the men there were tears.

(Photographs omitted)