On this date 3 years ago, I received the call. I was driving down the E45 motorway and pulled over to the hard shoulder to answer it. I knew the moment it rang that it wasn’t going to be good news. For one thing, I never receive many calls and for a second, my sister wouldn’t call me at 11pm, so I expected something bad. Yes, it’s the one where I got told my Dad was dying. What’s even more strange is that I actually got the opportunity to speak to him on the phone, there and then and despite the weakness, he seemed to recognise my voice. When I regained composure, I set off home as quickly as I could and immediately booked a KLM flight for the very next morning, at 6.30am. You may guess it wasn’t cheap, but of course there are no choices or price comparisons in situations like this. I knew that flight would get me there soonest and with the least stress. It had to be done.
When I arrived in Consett, that led onto a week of sitting at the hospital, watching a once-strong man who could apply himself expertly to any job and from whom I learnt a few D.I.Y. skills, a good work ethic and a large measure of self-reliance from, decline in front of my eyes. That’s the thing about parents, you think they’re immortal, even if you see your own grandparents die and the grief it causes to your parents. You still don’t quite see, until you’re older anyway, that you will one day experience the same loss.
I am grateful for that last week. I can’t think of many things worse than being trapped in a foreign field while a parent dies quickly and you don’t get a chance to grieve and say goodbye around other loved ones suffering the same loss as you. Thankfully I did. The funeral was planned for 2 weeks later, just after Christmas day. So I returned to Denmark, and work, for a brief while and then flew back again. This time on a flight I’d booked with a bit more warning, but which still required me to depart at 6.30am on Christmas Day. The grief that caused for some warrants inclusion in a story for another day, but for this story, I’ll recount here the exact one I told as a eulogy at the funeral itself.
See, not many people know that I once did a night shift at the Pit with my dad. It happened when I was 14, back in 1985, not long after the miners strike. With Sacriston colliery now destined to close, my Mam made up mine and my Dad’s bait and I accompanied him in the trusty Ford Cortina mark III that he eventually owned for 20 years, single-handedly maintaining it lovingly all that time – the welding, any part repairs, it was all done by him, no help needed. Somewhere, the local BBC or ITV has footage of that car parked in Sacriston car park, that became their stock footage whenever the miners strike of 1984-85 was on TV. Believe me, our car was on TV a lot that year.
Now I am older, I see that this must have been a sad thing for him to do. He knew the whole era of coal mining was coming to an end and I was unlikely to follow any of my coal mining ancestors into this profession. Yet still, tradition was upheld, just as years later one of my uncles said my grandfather had done for him. Obviously, aged 14, I was unaware of this tradition, but the prospect of a day inside the mine and a look at what really goes on seemed exciting. I didn’t actually get to go down the cage, but I did see the workshops, the pit ponies and the men with blackened faces emerge from the cage in the morning. As an electrical engineer, he often went off for inspections and I am ashamed to say I fell asleep on a chair. An uncomfortable chair, but I fell into a darting sleep anyway. Now I’m older and know more about coalmines, I imagine he may even have operated the cage that brought those men back up to daylight. Now there’s a responsibility, but he had the licence for it. I can also report that bait tastes really good at about midnight, as does tea from a thermos flask, when you’re tired and hungry. Even if you haven’t done any real work. At about 6am, shift was over and we went back home whereupon I immediately retired to bed. Today’s Health and Safety may cringe, but this small, seemingly insignificant episode could put me down some day as one of the last people left living to do a shift in a County Durham coalmine. For yes, there are now none left. When I did geography at junior school, I remember one of the books said that in 1971, the year of my birth, there were over 300 in County Durham alone. There are now precisely 0. Anyone who thinks that is a good thing did not witness the economic and social destruction suffered by the region of my birth in the 80s, 90s and 00s. Including my own family. Such a person probably also has an abundant overconfidence in the power-generating capacity of windmills to power their Tesla, iphone or remote data storage to hold their photos and posts on Instagram and Facebook.
My dad had many great and some sad stories about the coal mines, but I know that he loved those times. If you’ve ever watched Auf Wiedersehen Pet, you get some idea of the camaraderie that develops for men working in a tougher environment and this environment could definitely be tough – as an apprentice, he once saw his friend fall onto a live power line, leaving a widow behind. Another committed suicide using the explosives my Dad had set up for use at the coal face that day. He had another skill – the ability to say exactly where a coal seam is and what they were all called and even in the darkest final days that skill remained constant. When they began building the new cardboard box houses in Consett, he approached one of the builders to ask how they could build on top of such-and-such seam – the reply was something like “Oh, we’re pumping in thousands of tons of concrete to shore it up”. You would not want to own one of those houses.
Now, only glimpses remain of that past. I love seeing it when I go back. Of the former pits he worked at – Medomsley and Elm Park are just fields, with no clue as to their former life. Not sure about The Derwent. The Eden colliery, where my granddad also worked still has a huge pithead existing, but you’ve got to wonder for how much longer that’ll remain. I can actually remember his last ever visit there, just after it fully closed. I went up with him in the Cortina for some reason to collect something. At Sacriston, some of the buildings remain, now used as workshops by small businesses.
Sacriston interestingly, wasn’t even on the original 1984 pit closure list that caused the strike, but a year of neglect gave the perfect excuse to justify more closures than originally announced. The miners, led by the awful Scargill in the style of a first world war general, sending men to their deaths while he sat 10 miles behind the front line, sipping claret, walked straight into a massive trap that destroyed families, communities and helped me again learn that no-one is truly your friend once the lure of personal reward rears it’s head. Those same miners who would’ve thrown a brick through the window of anyone desperate, who had no choice but to return to work, and called him and his family a scab – these were the first ones biting off the hand of the Thatcherite government that offered generous redundancy packages to them to quietly just go away one year later. Sacriston was actually making a profit prior to the strike too, it was said, but the zealous over-ordering of new materials including a £50,000 winding gear helped the accounts show the loss that would justify the closure. So my Dad says and as he worked with engineering and electricals, I believe him.
He had some interesting stories that deserve a footnote in the bumper book of government waste, if there is one. At one pit, all of the miners lamps and materials were just chucked down the shaft and covered over. Oh to mine that someday! His garage even now is a temple to high quality tools that he salvaged over the years from the scrapheap. None of us dares to look too deeply in there yet, but suffice to say, if you need something like a particular spanner, there is probably at least 3 or 4 of what you need in there. All of it with an unknown British industrial history, just like my hammers.