About five years ago I built a raised border by the front step of our home to cover up the austere ugliness of the bare concrete it had been made from. The earth I filled this border with was held in place by a frame of short round logs that had been split in two and were held together on thin wire. The inevitable happened in that the wooded split logs began to crumble and fall away from their positions. The border was looking a mess and needed replacement.
I had assigned one day and one day only to get this job done from start to finish.
Firstly I removed the plants that were filling the border. Then I removed what was left of the remaining wood work frame so lovingly put up five years ago. Surprisingly the earth of the border that was held in place by the wooden border stayed put. Despite the earth staying in place it still had to be removed so the new frame made from gravel boards could be put in place.
I started digging away at the dry compacted soil only able to release meagre shovels full of bone dry earth and rocks. Instead of putting the earth on the lawn or the path I dumped it into a green bag supplied by the local authority for garden waste. Over an hour later most of the earth had been removed so it was time for a drink and a break in the warm late summer sunshine. It was a moment to reflect on how much earth I had moved, what the new border would look like and life in general.
It always seems to me that these types of little projects take longer than expected and are imbued with minor complications that hinder linear progress from start to finish. The problem I had encountered just when it was time for a drink was that there were some old house bricks embedded in the earth about a foot down right where I needed to place the new border. These bricks were not the casing for any pipes or cables going into the house. They had been dumped there casually by the builders some fifty years ago when the houses were built. They were proving difficult to shift.
Fifty years ago when the house was being built I was still at school.
One of the books we had to read for English was a collection of essays by George Orwell. Of all the essays contained in the book there is only one that I can vaguely remember. It was about the working conditions in a coal mine somewhere in Britain between the first and second world wars.
Orwell described how the miners worked with the most basic of tools. A shovel definitely like I was using and most probably some sort of crowbar also like I had been using earlier in the day. He described how in some mines the coal seams became so thin that the only way the miners could extract the coal was by working lying on their sides in the semi dark and hot atmosphere countless feet underground. Working away for long shifts, never knowing if they would actually get home safely at the end of it and as they were partly paid by the volume of coal they extracted, whether or not there would be enough money in the pay packet to pay the rent, buy food and clothe the family.
I looked over at the green bag my meagre shovelling’s had nearly filled. At full capacity the bag would hold a cubic metre of soil. Working in sunlight, fresh air and able to stand and stretch without any pressure to shift a volume to guarantee my pay I had only managed to three quarter fill the bag.
Any miner would have scoffed at my efforts.
In my travels around Britain I did stay a couple of nights in what used to be a miningvilage in South Wales near Pontypridd. The village comprised of slate grey cottages huddling together on either sides of narrow streets that cling to the sides of hills. The first afternoon of my visit it was raining and the moisture on the roads and the walls of the cottages made everything look a shiny black. Or as Dylan Thomas describes blackness in ‘Under Milkwood’, ‘bible-black’. His poem takes the reader to a past where things were so different. The now quiet and empty streets would have echoed to the tramping of miners’ heavy work boots as they went to and from the mine, children playing games made from nothing and women going about their chores. The children would have been safe playing in the street as there would not have been any traffic moving faster than a horse and cart making deliveries of food and fuel to each home.
The streets were quiet and empty when I was there but that does not mean they were abandoned or derelict. Every home had net curtains hiding the inner depths of family history from passers-by. Every groundfloor window had glass or porcelain ornaments on the glossy white interior windowsills. Perhaps showing off to neighbours memories of holidays or as an expression of individual taste. Everything was clean, tidy and well ordered.
Just outside the village is the retired and redundant mine head. Its pylon like structure still houses the giant flywheel that would have dropped men down in lifts for their dangerous shifts, brought the coal up they managed to dig out almost with their bare hands and then bring them back up to the surface at the end of the shift. The pit head buildings at the foot of this pylon had been converted to a mining museum preserving the village’s connection with coal.
There was a permanent exhibition of photographs that showed what working down the mine was like. They may have been taken in colour but coal mining is either black or white and that is how these pictures were presented on A3 sized frames. Grainy and gritty to emphasise what the work was like.
Surrounding the village were gently undulating hills covered in green grass and forested with fir trees. To get to the nearest hill I had to walk past some cottages divorced from the main part of the village but still retaining a connection to it through their slate grey and black walls, net curtained windows and ornaments adorning the gloss white windowsills. As I walked past gardens being scratched and pecked at by chickens I looked back to see how far I had walked. Back in the valley the pylon at the mine head no longer dominated the skyline. It was now dominated by the surrounding hills and became more insignificant in the landscape of time with each step I took further up the hill. Almost as if its significance in the history of the village was being diminished.
Once away from the last cottages of the village there was a swathe of green grass with a worn footpath. A little further on was a bench facing across the valley in memory of someone deceased but still in ‘loving memory’. There was a man sitting on the bench with a dog lying at his feet. They both looked up as I got close enough for them to be aware of me. A few paces further on and I was able to join them for a rest.
We started to chat about the weather, the view and the hills. I said something along the lines of them looking fabulous.
‘No they bloody aren’t’ the man replied.
His reaction wasn’t aggressive but it still surprised me.
‘They’re not the hills that God made, they’re slag heaps……huge slag heaps. Even that one over there…that big one further up the valley……that’s a slag heap as well.’
‘They only put the fir trees up here to hold them together otherwise they would have been washed down into the village years ago’.
This was about twenty years on from the miners’ strike that brought the miners into direct conflict in a power struggle between the unions and Margaret Thatcher.
I ventured into what I thought t the time was going to be dangerous territory and asked him what he thought of what happened to the mining industry after the strike in that it was closed down.
‘I’ll tell you this, see’ he said.
I thought here we go. A verbal assault on how the Tories killed an industry, put people out of work, killed a way of life and split families that was going to be dumped on a visitor from the home counties.
‘I’ll tell you this, see. Margaret Thatcher was one of the best, up there with Churchill, one of the best Prime Ministers this country ever had’.
‘But she effectively closed the mining industry’ I replied.
‘I know, I know. I lost my job. Made redundant but I’m still here. Best Prime Minister. Look, those hills and this one’ he pointed around us at the hill we were sitting on ‘a few years ago they were black. Not a blade of grass on them. The whole of this valley, even on a sunny day like today….it was black. Covered in soot and dust from the mine. Wouldn’t even see the sun on a day like this because of the dust and smoke. It’s green now’.
He bent down and stroked his dog.
‘See, I used to work down that mine in the valley’.
He pointed back to the pylon and its flywheel.
‘Thirty years. Straight from school. Got made redundant when the pit closed. Seen me good and comfortable with my settlement. Couple of years later got a job in a factory in Pontypridd. Just retired two year ago. If I stayed down the pit I would have been dead by now….as it is I have some lung disease but that would have killed me working down there until I retired…if I lived that long.
He gave a slight cough. Looking back from today I wondered how much coal he mined in a day.
‘I’ll tell you this as well see, what Thatcher did was good, bloody good. Everyone I worked with that got made redundant they all got jobs like I did and most are retired or retiring soon. What Thatcher did was brilliant see, even my boys now don’t have to go down the pit like I did at sixteen. They’ve all gone off and got proper clean jobs in Swansea and Cardiff. Never, never again.
The evening light was fading and it was time to move on. We both stood up together. The dog clambered back to his feet. I was going to go on a bit further before dark. He was heading home. Presumably to a slate grey black cottage with net curtains and ornaments on the glossy white interior windowsill and a hot dinner.
As he went away I heard him say to his dog:
‘Thought they were God’s hills…..bloody slag heaps….that’s what they are’.