Dependable props of the Ashington pit

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ASHINGTON is an archetype. This Northumberland community was once the biggest colliery village in the world. It was famous for coal, the Charlton brothers and its conservatism. It voted Labour, of course, but its traditionalism derived less from the party or the place than from the absolute power of men.

Only 30 years ago, Ashington's 30,000-strong workforce comprised mainly men, 25,000 of them, mostly in mining. Ten years ago, the workforce had declined to 18,700 but by then only 10,600 were men and of those a small minority were miners. At the last census, in 1991, there were only 15,000 workers and just 7,000 of them were men. This is the quiet revolution in the economy of gender.

Ashington's five collieries have long gone, but the machinery workshops remained, caves of engineering alchemy, where skilled men exercised those perverse traits of startling ingenuity and sulky inertia that made the British working man so contrary.

Last week British Coal announced the end of the workshops in a decision that was characteristically capricious - Ashington is the only one of its three workshops to make a profit. But the tragedy of the place is not so much the loss of community and solidarity and all that stuff. The tragedy is that its traditions were so terrible.

Ashington man was the archetypal proletarian, the archetypal patriarch. But, as in the Army and the Stock Exchange, men's companionship did not produce social cohesion; it fostered power and privilege for men within their own class and community. In coal communities this was cemented by their history of hardship and heroism. These men commanded real courage. The colliers' work risked the roof falling in on life itself. The mechanics maintained machines designed to save lives. Death shadowed their everyday life.

But they wrenched comfort and compensation from women. No group of men has been so sustained by women's self-denial. No group of men has been so cold and confident in its exclusion of women, yet so dependent on their support. The women's movement during the great strikes of the Seventies and Eighties gave miners an alternative welfare system and a moral authority they often seemed to squander.

Coal communities harboured men's animus against women. Men fought against women's access to the only work with a wage, the pit, and fought for women's confinement to a separate sphere and to the personal service of men.

What kind of community did that construct? One of the 100 or so men still employed at the workshop chose his words carefully when asked how it was for women in his world. 'If you don't like bingo and you've got kids it's a very, very lonely life.'

No day matched Sunday for desolation. Up with the children, the woman kept them quiet while the man had his lie-in, made the dinner while he sank a skinful at the club, kept the kids quiet while he slept it off, made the tea, put the kids to bed while he ended his day back down the club.

Monuments to the martyrdom of men dominated the social landscape. Miners' clubs along the north-east coast were the cathedrals of their communities, the space where men had their pleasure and their politics. Their homes, however, remained some of the worst in Britain. They did not extend their political pressure to the place they shared with women.

That era is almost over. But not yet. Councillor Kevin Richardson encouraged his district council to pass a resolution condemning women's exclusion from membership of working-men's clubs. But only one invited him to come and talk about it.

The National Union of Mineworkers in the north-east is resisting Labour's proposal that some seats shortlist women for parliamentary elections. The NUM has 38,000 members in the region of whom 95 per cent no longer work in a pit, but the NUM insists that it wants to sponsor its own MP, and he'd have to be a man.

Ashington moves towards the end of the century with more women working for wages than men. It seems impossible, however, to conceive of a culture defined by that new majority in the way that it was dominated by men. The new breadwinners are taking care of men. Their clubs and cathedrals won't be symbolic spaces from which men and children are banned.