The first time I went to church in my new home town I sensed an extraordinary difference between that and the little Durham mining village where I grew up: I was acutely aware of a profound silence. So what was missing?
The congregation I joined was just as friendly; I, as a newcomer, was welcomed by the parish priest when I took my seat and waited for the Mass to begin. It was then that The Silence struck me,
Eventually, the truth dawned. What was missing was the sound of men coughing. My upbringing in a pit village among those amazing people had gifted me so many amazingly vivid memories, none more so than the sound of the pitman’s cough.
Until that day every church service I attended was punctuated by the underlying sound of men coughing. Lungs choked with coal dust, their gasping for air could not be silenced, could not be left at home. The disease was their companion wherever they were, not a badge of honour but a sign of the hardship of their lives and the cruel in which they worked.
The coughs varied in depth and continuity and you could recognise the victim by the ‘bark’. We always knew when our Uncle Joe had arrived. He was a small man but his arrival was always preceded by his ferocious cough, intensified by the endless number of Woodbines he smoked. But who could blame him?
He and his ‘marrers’ earned their living in dark, cramped and damp underground tunnels, doing the most rigorous and dangerous work one could imagine. To compensate for the darkness beneath, they were always keen to be scrubbed and suited on the surface.
Like all living things they yearned for the sun, air and space which led them to spend countless hours on their allotments tending and tweaking their plants followed by their pride and joy at the annual flower shows when sharing the exquisite blooms they had nurtured.
There was a dignity about these men, born of mutual trust. They relied on each other in the black depths, thus to be known as a good worker and a reliable team member earned respect in the community.
My father was still suffering from malaria when he returned to the pit after leaving the Royal Navy. His antidote to darkness was long, long walks in the country, but it wasn’t just the human toilers who appreciated being brought into the light; one day my father took me to see the pit ponies brought to the surface.
The effect of the darkness was heartbreaking to see: ponies reached the surface blinded by the sunlight, staggering and scared. The relationship and bond between miner and pony was bittersweet, ‘Bait’ was shared by the miners with the the best fed ponies in the world but the moral compass was truly redirected – the miners had no choice but to lead their faithful, four-footed colleagues down into the darkness.
So the mines have gone, and with their closure the coughs have disappeared. But we should never forget that generation of heroes, miners, shipbuilders and the steel producers who fuelled the industrial revolution and, as a result, the British Empire but were never properly acknowledged. Their Northern grit and determination shone through the darkness.
Occasionally we would see a procession of Bowes-Lyon trucks carrying the ‘black diamonds’ as we called the shiny, washed coal. On a sunny day with those jewels sparkling in the daylight visitors found it a pleasant sight.
We did not. We knew the cost.