WHEN ROBERT CHESSHYRE returned to Britain in the late 1980s after four years as a Washington correspondent, he wrote a book about the country to which he returned. A quarter of a century later on the eve of the world premiere of 'The Miners' Hymns' in Durham Cathedral, the arts production company Forma asked Chesshyre to go back to the east Durham pit village of Easington. He found the pit long closed and the village – though cleaner and healthier – struggling to find new direction.
It was mid-summer: the sun shone, and the evening light would go on for hours. A carpet of wild flowers lay at my feet; ponies cropped the next field; the nearby North Sea – dotted with white sails – sparkled; men with dogs walked the hillside. I had to pinch myself. Was this where I had come a quarter of century earlier on a raw December day and watched mesmerised as frozen men scrabbled for coal from the colliery waste tipped into the sea from a giant aerial conveyor belt?
I returned to the bridge under the railway line where, all those years ago beside a steel gate, erected to stop sea coal ‘warriors’ taking lorries onto the beach, I had talked to miners. The gate has gone, but onetime miners still walk their dogs: they are older now, gentler, resigned – many have not worked since the pit closed, along with most other deep mines, in the early 1990s – in a mood to reflect with some regret and much nostalgia, especially for the vanished ‘banter’ and ‘crack’.
‘If the pit hadn’t closed, I would never have left; if it re-opened tomorrow, I wouldn’t go back down,’ said one. There are ex-pitmen who argue that mines like Easington could be brought back; the clock that stopped after the miners’ strike could be restarted; and that what some recall almost as days of wine and roses could return. But I suspect that man, with his terrier on a lead, spoke for most ex-miners.
The men resent bitterly what they regard as official hypocrisy. Their battles in the eighties and nineties, they say, were to keep the pits open. Now that the collieries are closed and there is no work, those who live in ex-pit communities are often branded as scroungers and workshy. It isn’t fair, they say, and it is hard to disagree.
Like most mining villages, Easington Colliery (‘Colliery’ is part of the village name) was designed as a one-industry community. Settlements were built where coal was discovered; their sole raison d’être was to house pitmen. Homes were poor; schooling inadequate for any purpose other than turning out miners – once the pit took on 100 boys (leave school Friday, start Monday) every year. In the words of one ex-miner: ‘If you were not colour blind and could read the safety notice, you were in.’
Out-of-sight and mind – until and unless miners took action that threatened fuel supplies – pit villages were the most self-contained and isolated in Britain. JB Priestley in his 1933 book ‘English Journey’ wrote: ‘Who knows East Durham? The answer is – nobody but the people who have to live and work there… It is, you see, a coal-mining district.’ Over 50 years later at the time of my last visit after the miners’ strike, those words might well have been freshly minted.
I felt that I had trespassed another country. Easington is the end of the road: travel further and you end up in the sea – the coal seams stretched eight miles beneath the water. Then I saw Easington in black-and-white: now it blazes colour like any other part of Britain. Priestley’s isolation has gone, hastened away by new roads and better bus routes, more (if fewer than elsewhere) cars, many top marque and new.
Millions have been invested in regeneration, but 17 years after the pit closure much of Easington’s legacy persists. ‘The ex-coal fields are the most deprived communities, bar none,’ said a former miner. The culture runs deep: pitmen (the Durham term of choice) and their families depended on the mine: miners went to the colliery medical room rather than a doctor. Tony Forster, a regeneration manager with Durham County Council, said: ‘Social regeneration lags ten years behind physical regeneration.’
This has consequences. The solidarity and the community structures, themselves highly enviable qualities, created by pits were found nowhere else except perhaps in the military (I have often been struck by similarities between pit communities and regiments); where life itself depends on the man next to you, it is all for one and one for all; people wait for a lead from others – time and again I was told of the lack of self-confidence in Easington; a few, often the brightest, kick over the traces.
John Surtees who worked underground in the 1970s spoke of his first day in the pit baths: ‘I found this great big hairy thing washing my back with a sponge: I thought I was going to be “rogered”; then the man passed me the sponge and indicated that I should wash his back.’ The penny dropped: Surtees had joined a family. Dave Douglass left school at 14 – he hated it and would have left at 12 if he could: yet he has since become a graduate – and he saw miners as the shock troops in the historic war against capitalist exploitation.
Douglass said: ‘The ruling classes feared miners: they sensed the power in their hands.’ As a member of the National Union of Mineworkers, he had ‘the opportunity to challenge society through a powerful trade union. We fought for the right to a point of view. Mining meant having a sense of yourself, respected in communities that valued labour over all. Prosperity – or lack of it – was a collective achievement.’
I met again Alan Cummings, who was NUM lodge secretary at Easington at the time of my 1986 visit. Health and safety, derided elsewhere as politically correct, but vital down a mine, made him an activist. He had watched one grandfather wheeze to death, and seen ex-miners work their slow, steep, breathless way up Seaside Lane, pausing bench by bench. He remains unpaid lodge secretary, pursuing claims for men whose lungs were ravaged by years underground: he is, he said, an unofficial ‘parish priest’. ‘Their plight is close to my heart. As long as people need help and I have breath, I’ll do it.’ Like many who took part, to Cummings the miners’ strike remains vivid. Easington, he said almost wistfully, was like 1970s Belfast – under occupation.
Douglass’s flat is a shrine of posters and photos to past conflicts – again, the analogy with regiments and their battle honours springs to mind. He lists proudly the disputes in which his grandfather and father took part and those in which he was involved – ’69, ’72, ’74, ’84-’85 and finally ’92-’93, the ultimate action when most of the collieries closed. ‘We lost badly,’ he said, ‘but “she” didn’t win.’ I wasn’t quite sure how he worked that out, but there was no doubting who ‘she’ was.
Michael Fishwick, who works in Easington on grass roots regeneration projects, comes like most people I met from mining stock. It is tempting, he argued, to excuse lack of local initiative on the grounds that the legacy of poor health and high unemployment gives no one a chance. ‘It is right to recognise the tradition, but we need a new narrative. It was not utopia before the pit closed’ That I can confirm.
The village retains its band, one of the best in the region, but it is hard-going now that the colliery subsidies are gone. Two years ago it almost closed. It doubles as the band for the Rail Maritime and Transport union, which helps, but musicians must pay their way. The band still marches each year in the Durham Miners’ Gala, and its HQ is, suitably, the last remaining Easington colliery building, the former pit wages office.
Teenagers have shrugged off the history – two I met had no concept of mining – without having found Fishwick’s new narrative. Jim McManners is head of an award-winning primary school at Cassop, a few miles from Easington. When the local pit still worked, he organised visits underground for staff and pupils; when it closed, he rescued what he could: helmets, lamps, pony halters, now on display at the school. ‘Places need a sense of how they evolved; but they also need a new focus,’ he said.
Outsiders, even perhaps Priestley, stereotyped miners. They were, of course, as McManners stressed, as varied in temperament and ability as the rest of us. The challenge, now that the pits in most places have vanished, is to unleash that variety in their children and grandchildren. Generations of mining families said, out of one side of their mouths, that they hoped their sons would never go underground; out of the other side they argued that no one (certainly not Margaret Thatcher) had the right to take away their livelihoods. It remains an unresolved ambivalence.