18 Dec 2015

Kellingley: mourn the loss of a way of life, not deep coal mining

The Chinese probably used it first: there’s evidence of coal burning at Bronze Age sites from at least 2,000 years BC. Within this century somebody will probably use it last – at least when it comes to generating electricity.


I’m writing this on the train to Kellingley, the last deep coal mine in Britain, which closes today. The event has a huge significance, going way beyond the sadness felt for the people who will lose jobs at a mine so modern and efficient.

I grew up in a mining town. Whenever I smell coal burning – which is now usually only by the roadside in a developing country – it takes me back to that childhood. Men standing on the terraces at a rugby match would give each other a glance when they heard the shunt of colliery winding gear: because the sound of that engine meant the Saturday morning shift was coming up safely.

My grandfather went down Astley Green Colliery in 1913, at the age of 13. My dad followed him in the final year of the Second World War. So I can tell you with certainty that, were they alive, while regretting the way it’s been done, both of them would have raised a glass to the end of deep coal mining.

They wanted nothing more than for it to end. I can still hear the words they used with me as a kid, to disabuse me of any notion of working in a colliery.

The British coal industry was killed – like Kellingley – prematurely. The Conservative governments under Thatcher and Major attacked coal not as a technology but as a social force: the 250,000 miners were the backbone of a trade union movement that had to be defeated, they believed. Successive governments seem to have had no problem with coal so long as it was not dug by British miners, with strong traditions of social solidarity and self-education.

As a result, coal communities have had to live through three decades of atomisation, dispersal and poverty. Even if the worst years of drug addiction and social disintegration are over, the social scars of this sudden and immediate destruction of a way of life are still being felt.

But do not mistake nostalgia for this way of life, and regret for its ending, as a nostalgia for deep coal mining itself.

Like many kids from families associated with coal , Richard Llewellyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley is imprinted into my brain. Written in the 1940s, it is imbued with nostalgia for the Welsh mining culture of the 19th century, when the landscape had not yet been blackened by coal slag.

Surrounded by factories, chimneys and collieries that seemed to have been there forever, Llewellyn’s book taught me that the coal age had a beginning and a high point. Now I’m starting to believe it might have an end.

The COP21 summit in Paris, despite a lot of weaselly language about emissions targets, gave a fairly clear signal that burning coal – the most damaging of all the fossil-fuels – will have to stop. Shares in coal producers plummeted – prompting the boss of the European coal lobby to issue an apopleptic memo and campaigners fighting for dis-investment to say “I told you so”.

If we do see, within our lifetime, the end of coal-fired electricity generation, we should commemorate the generations who sacrificed their health and wellbeing for deep mined coal. Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan called them, in the middle of the 1984-5 strike, “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in”.

But I will also remember what my Dad and grandfather valued most: sunshine and green fields. Like Llewellyn’s characters, they were nostalgic for the unspoilt countryside and clean air of the pre-industrial era.

My grandfather, a prodigious drinker, was proud he’d never missed a day’s work with a hangover: for sunshine, however, he told me would gladly pour his flask of tea into the dirt and set off into the fields to lose a day’s pay.

The coal miners in my family detested the inequitable way the industry was destroyed. I know there’ll be people from that background who feel differently, but the miners I knew loved the earth more than they loved coal.

Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter

14 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    Reasons for the demise of the coal industry have been related much as Mr Mason outlines. Given the current disagreements concerning, what is termed ‘climate change’ and it’s causes : methane is cited as a greater threat by some, although receives little press, how can we be so sure that what we have been informed to date, is actually true? With yet another ‘outsourced’ industry a few will profit…..investors and it’s trusted partners (which includes the government).

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Hello Alan,
      It’s all about insurance.
      I wonder whether you insure your home or your life (if you have dependants)? Do you insure the vehicle you own?
      I only wonder those questions because you seem unaware that ‘uncertain risks’ are an ever-present part of all our lives.
      So it is with the substantial – but unquantified – risk of an environmental catastrophe were sea levels to rise as a consequence of world-wide higher temperatures. All our coastal cities would be flooded and their populations displaced. We’d all have to move inland or drown.
      Like lots of changes these days, the rising average temperature is getting higher at a much quicker rate than all previous changes. And the only parallel change in the air we breathe is the proportion of methane and carbon-dioxide in the air. We know that those two gases hold heat better than others, so they could well be the cause of the rapidly rising temperatures. But you’re correct, we don’t know exactly how great our risks of drowning are.
      But, I don’t know whether my home will catch fire or how much damage that’ll cost me either. That hasn’t stopped me paying out for insurance in case of such a catastrophe.

      Which is why so many of us prefer to take steps to head off the risk that any further warming might lead to a giant and unstoppable catastrophe of rising sea levels and damaging storms. It’s sensible insurance against those catastrophes.

  2. Esther says:

    I don’t doubt Paul Mason’s sincerity when here teasing apart his regret for the loss of the mining towns and villages’ “way of life”, but not of the closing down of the actual underground coal mining industry. However, the vast majority of fellow-travelling leftist militant supporters of the miners’ strikes of 1974 and 1984-5 would not have seen it that way at the time. I wouldn’t mind betting that even the de facto leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas was a passionate supporter of continuing UK coal mining, back then – because it was the only leftist position to take. Now, of course, with the wisdom of hindsight ………….

  3. Alasdair linn says:

    Any loss of jobs is a tragedy, especially on a large scale. However, it is all about supply and demand in any industry. Larger industries are able to exert much more lobbying pressure but each job lost is equally important. Unions have moved from a worthy role of protecting jobs, to one of protecting benefits for the lucky few to have a union. The vast majority of people, especially the self employed, have no such luxury. Times have changed and you only have to look at the salaries earned by union officials to see what a gravy train that has become.

  4. Mary Sugrue says:

    Just wondered when watching the miners on c4 news tonight if the health & safety had improved over the years?? There was no sign of masks of any sort being worn.. But maybe I missed something.. Or it was just a photo shoot…

    Mtary Sugrue

  5. DU 48 says:

    While the Chinese and EDF are busy building a costly £24bn nuclear power station in Somerset, the British Government has been withdrawing financial support for renewable energy and localised generation businesses.

    What does that say about UK policy on energy and the so called climate change agreement in Paris recently?
    Even though the Chinese plan to build hundreds of nuclear power stations on their soil, why are the Chinese investing heavily in solar energy technology?

    “One of the worst deals ever”- words from George Osborne’s father-in-law, former energy minister Lord Howell, on the Hinkley Point project. (The Guardian, 20 October)

  6. John Woods says:

    I met many people like you Paul during my life and all of them told me of the determination of their parents that they should not go into mining. However, I have also met many retired miners whose sense of pride in the work they had done, in the conditions in which it was done, shone like a bright light in their lives. I remember one of them, looking with me over a field full of retired pit ponies, talking about the difficulties of getting the pony back underground for its 6 month work stint after it had been rested in a field for 6 months. It was not only the men who desired their sons not to follow them down the pit.

  7. trevor batten says:

    A beautiful tale of cultural genocide.

    It is indeed a sad paradox that horrible living and working conditions often bring out the best in people.

    Something to remember in an age of commercialized instant gratification

    The last time I saw Wales it seemed to be transforming from a living culture into an artificial tourist experience.

    Nasty stuff economics. Turns people into numbers in bank accounts

  8. Albert Gazeley says:

    There is so much rubbish currently being written about industry for the wrong reasons it is enough to make reading newspapers altogether.
    Anyone that defends coal minding based on a social need is talking rubbish. Black lung was killing people both before the war and after the war . . And good riddens to it.

    A week ago the Pope said he fully supported the conference in Paris on “Global Warming” but he didn’t end his speech by saying Christians should turn off the lights in their Christmas Trees.

    Jet airliners are one of the worlds worst polluters yet the newspapers are full of holidays around the world – and China is currently building 74 new airports that they hope will send thousands of aircraft around the world using London as the European hub on the way to USA.

    No, if you are determined to buy a newspaper today , you must learn to read between the lines.

  9. Andrew Dundas says:

    Let’s get positive!
    As new technologies are developed that produce energy without damaging emissions, new jobs will be created.
    Ever since the 1960s we’ve debated and argued whether we should continue subsidising deep coal mining. Now that debate is over.
    We still have open-cast mining. That industry needs workers with similar skills as the Kellingley miners.
    Moreover, new technology and opportunities may now exist to draw huge supplies of oil and gas from underneath the ground in the UK. Hopefully, the results will mean we can get on with that profitable and useful work: ex-miners willing to transfer should be offered re-training to take these jobs.
    There is a constant death and renewal of industries as technology and consumers march on. Let’s not mourn over the past. Let’s move forward!

    1. Alan Dunne says:

      I’m not quite sure if your comment is saturated with genuine sincerity or laced with covert sarcasm.
      You can’t possibly be prescribing ‘fracking’ as both a social and economic solution to the devasted coal-mining communities after reading an article that laments their loss while at the same time acknowledging the huge environmental and health damage that would have necessitated their eventual close.
      And as history shows, and Paul Mason would no doubt argue will continue, technological advances have not only led to the emergence of new industries but the reduction in required working hours. In anything but pointless bureaucratic professions the actual requirement for man hours has plummeted thanks to automation. No new industry will fill what’s passed. That’s why we need to embrace post-capitalism and flesh it out.

  10. GIS says:

    We are burning record amounts of coal to produce electricity in the UK. The energy companies are burning so much coal, regardless of the environmental impact because they can get it cheap from abroad. Over 40% of the coal we are burning is Russian. The environment is no better off because of us closing the British Coal industry down. In fact it is worse off, there is a huge environmental cost importing coal.

  11. John D says:

    It’s odd to mourn the death of a dangerous, if historically necessary, industry. I’m from a mining family and mine didn’t want me to be a part of it. The dismantling of an industry wasn’t the crime; its demise was inevitable in a shrinking global economy. The crime was the absence of effort to afford the destitute communities an opportunity to gain suitable alternative employment.
    Little has changed since the miners’ strike. The UK is still London-and-south-east-centric, and Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is just more empty words from one of a bunch of PPE-degree wonks who’ve never held down a job that daddy’s influence and money didn’t enable.

  12. Dahling says:

    “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in”

    Yeah, but as you advocated yourself in a recent Guardian blog, this class/ ethnicity is no loner wanted by the New Left. You value the ‘young and multi-ethnic’ now. Probably because you know those men were actually socially conservative and would have sought to block the wholesale transformation of their country by silly middle class leftists doing global capital’s dirty work for them.

Comments are closed.