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