Community and coal: Why I feel for Big K’s workers

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Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in the subject, you’d have to have been living under a rock – or perhaps more fittingly, a pile of coal – to have missed the news that the UK’s last deep pit closed last week.

Unsurprisingly, given the landslide of eulogies in the media on the subject over the last few days, Kellingley Colliery has been on my mind.

Apart from the fact it brings centuries of deep coal mining in Britain to an end; setting aside the hundreds of people it has put out of work; forgetting the millions of pounds worth of machinery now buried underground – it’s the communities of the Five Towns – Pontefract, Castleford, Knottingley, Featherstone, and Normanton – I feel for.

I spent three years writing for the Pontefract and Castleford Express and for at least one of those, didn’t really understand what local news was about or why it mattered.

It took me a year to really “get it” and almost two to build the contacts and earn the trust of the paper’s readers. I was an outsider, with a strange haircut, and my youth meant I didn’t have any real appreciation of the unhealed wounds these ex-mining towns suffered. The day I really started to understand the bond between community and coal was the night miner Gerry Gibson died.

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We had just put that week’s paper to bed and were packing up for the day when the phone rang.  The person on the other end told my editor there had been an accident at the pit and as she put the phone down, I saw Rebecca exchange a glance with the news editor, Julie, and then proceed to have some sort of wordless exchange about sending the most inexperienced reporter out to what turned out to be the year’s biggest story.

Rebecca eventually said to me: “I think you should go out there,” and I can still remember the feeling of dread that washed over me. Within half an hour I was stood at the gates of the pit not really knowing what to do.

I had underestimated the height of emotions felt by those nervously waiting for news – some of them equally in fear of what word would bring but desperate to know all the same. The first girl I approached screamed in my face: “Fuck off, this is people’s families you’re asking about!”

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I ended up speaking to a man stood a little off to the side on his own. He was a former Kellingley miner – retired, but so concerned for his friends underground that he’d driven over for his own peace of mind, even though he knew there was nothing he could do. He didn’t know who was trapped but it didn’t matter- regardless of who was down there, the feelings were still the same: helplessness, fear, concern.

That deep-rooted camaraderie was never more evident to me than the day I spent down Big K. A year after the horrific incident which killed Mr Gibson, UK Coal invited me to travel the nine miles to the coalface to see for myself what mining was all about.

I wrote about it in detail at the time and even now still find it hard to articulate the obvious affinity between those men, perhaps because it’s so rarely observed in the average workplace. Maybe digging far below the earth’s surface for a living is one of the only places you can expect to form that sort of extraordinary bond.


Shortly after I surfaced from my time down the pit

I remember once interviewing a man about something completely unrelated to coal when he began to tell me about his life down the pit. What was memorable about this exchange was how deeply sad he was at the loss of what seemed, at least to me, a highly undesirable way to spend your life. I wouldn’t even come close to understanding it until I saw for myself what he had been forced to give up.

He was from Featherstone, which was part of my patch – a town which in many ways never really recovered from the closure of its own pit in the mid-1980s. Its housing estates are full  of men like him, who have been on the dole since Thatcher’s reign, put out to pasture long before their time. Some made a career of hopping from one doomed pit to another, but many felt let down and demoralised – never to return to another job, let alone another coalface.

After I joined the BBC, I was well-placed to talk about the impact it would have on the communities it would affect. But now, as it becomes a reality for those who have never known anything but coal, I wonder how they will ever move on. All that’s really left to say is it’s a damn shame it happened at all.

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