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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Viv Nicholson: still spending after fifty years…


Was she ever that miserable?

I RING the bell of Breadalbane Care Home – now the residence of the Cas lass who in 1961 vowed to “spend, spend, spend” – and a tiny, shrewd-looking woman stands boldly in the doorway.

She strides toward me dressed in what I can only describe as a power suit and heels and says “are you taking me out then? I’ve got no money”.

How ironic that a woman who won today’s equivalent of £5 million is asking me – a reporter on a trainee’s wage – to buy her a drink.

Viv Nicholson, who is by my reckoning more 75 than the 72 she admits to, dashes away from the Castleford care home and I have to break into a jog to keep up. I offer her the front seat of the car but she scrambles in the back and declares that she doesn’t want to go into town, she wants to go to a pub.

“Which pub?” I ask. She can’t remember but knows the way, apparently.

In the process of being kidnapped by a pensioner I realise I’ve forgotten to meet the photographer at the home. I call him with vague instructions to drive out of Castleford to a place as yet unknown because Viv still can’t remember the name of it or the village that it’s in. She doesn’t seem bothered, she’s is in the back slagging off Castleford.

“Castleford?” she spits. “Hate it.”

Finally we arrive at a Ledsham pub. Naturally, she leads the way and asks if I’m buying lunch. No, but I fear I may be about to. She, orders half a lager at the bar and takes a seat – a well-trained 60s celebrity used to the media spotlight.

Viv shot to fame alongside husband Keith on September 27 1961 when they won Littlewoods Pools. They were down to their last few pennies when they hit the jackpot and it was the first and last time they played – a move that netted them a cool £152,000 – a fortune for a miner and his wife.

Suddenly all eyes were on Viv and her frivolous frittering – when she was asked what she planned to do with the money she coined the phrase that would be forever associated with her: “I’m going to spend, spend, spend.”

“I regret those words. They sound awful, like labelling myself,” she grumbles, “When we first won the money all we did was drink. I was drunk every day of the week. I used to fall over, I was falling from one table of drinks to the next for the first month of two.”

Viv laughs – the raspy belly-shake of a Yorkshire girl born and bred on cigarettes.

“I had never tasted whisky or champagne. We had lived poorly. We got the money and did what we did and jolly well enjoyed it. The only thing I didn’t do was end up in prison.”

£152k smile

Viv recalls her first purchase – a green suit – the day after she was handed the cheque. The Nicholsons then bought a home in Garforth, ate, drank and splashed the cash.

“I’d lived in Castleford all my life and when I got some money I went to Leeds and it was another world,” said Viv, “I went in my new suit and I got my money out and said ‘keep the change darling’ and did all that swaggering about. I didn’t know how much it was. I just spent it. We had a fabulous time.”

She stops for a moment and waves her hands like she’s brushing memories off her shoulders.

“All those memories are my favourites. We did it all together. We wanted this and got that. I bought two houses, clothes, three or four cars. It was horrible to drive,” she chuckles, remembering the ostentatious pink Cadillac that made her infamous.

The high life wasn’t to last for the happy couple and tragedy followed when Keith died at the wheel of his Jaguar just four years after they struck it lucky. The taxman swooped in and took what was left – a hard lesson which left the mum-of-three a fitting poster girl for The Smiths’ single, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.

“After Keith died I’d go driving my car screaming down the lane and wanting to die. I only ever loved him, having him was the real thing.

“It was horrible. I was all alone, the kids were at boarding school, there were a lot of bad days and evenings, walking around not knowing what to do.

“I was crying all the time in a big horrible house where I used to be loved. I used to scream ‘Come out Keith I’ll play hidies with you’.

“Money couldn’t fix that. If you had walked in then and said ‘Viv, here’s 100 grand’, I couldn’t have taken it. Money doesn’t fix everything, it just buys you what you want.”

Viv pauses to sit obediently for pictures. She grumbles and calls the photographer a “grumpy old bastard” for making her switch positions.

I ask her whether she’s sick of the attention – of reporters asking her the same questions, hoping she has regrets.

“I don’t know why people are still interested. I just got used to it, reading of my ‘worthy news’.

“People used to see the house and they would say, ‘that’s Viv’s house, that’s Viv’s bedroom.’ I would stand there smoking and laughing about it and people used to come in and look around.

“I quite liked being a bit famous. I can’t believe it’s been 50 years…where’s my money gone?” she jokes.

I ask whether the money changed her and she practically snorts with derision.

“I didn’t change. I am what I am,” she says shrugging her shoulders. “People thought I was a tart and a hussy just because I drank, but it didn’t bother me. People were very jealous.”

I ask the question I’m sure all journalists ask – If she had her time and money again, would she change anything?

Again, she shakes her head and looks confused by the question.

“I wouldn’t change it,” she says. “People say “what have you bought Viv?” and I say, ‘nothing.’ I did what I did and it was a marvellous life.

“I might not have money now but I don’t want any. I’m sitting in that care home, no work, and I can stay there for as long as I have left.

“I’m very happy. I fight if any old biddy gets to me, I give her a clout then I pick her up and say sorry and play nice.”

She swigs at her half a Fosters and grimaces.

“First drink in five years that, taste horrible. Yeurgh!”

I look in horror at her half pint and wonder whether I was allowed to ply her with booze.

Viv-acious lipstick

As we walk back to the car she mentions the stroke she had about a year ago and waves it off as something of a minor inconvenience she once had to deal with. She then declares she wants to buy a new lipstick to wear to Kingdom Hall – the Jehovah’s church she attends.

She says it’s fine to drop her in town, then ten seconds later says she “won’t tell the nursing staff” which sets off several different types of alarm bells in my head.

I let her out the car in the town centre and as I watch her dash off – running like a woman making a bid for freedom – fear takes hold and I give chase.

I track her down to a branch of Yorkshire Bank where she strides up to the counter and demands £100. I nervously ask why she needs that much money and she repeats her lipstick request.

A woman behind me shouts Viv’s name. I jump out of my skin and say “oh she’s with me, sorry!” The woman laughs and says “oh I work at the home, I thought she’d escaped.”

A cold film of sweat settles on my neck and suddenly I question the reliability of the last 90 minutes.

She dashes over to Superdrug and picks up a random lipstick and jogs to the counter. I run after her making whimpering noises and watch her pick up several chocolate bars and pay in two separate transactions.

We leave the shop and she picks the lipstick out of the bag and looks at it.

“I don’t like it,” she says. “You can have it.”

I return to the office and try to explain why I’ve returned with a new lipstick, three bars of Dairy Milk and a packet of Chocos. The newsroom weeps with hysterics.

As I recall Viv getting out of the car and sprinting off with barely a goodbye, I wonder whether she knew all along exactly what she was doing.

Was giving me the lipstick the act of someone completely nuts, someone true to her generous word, or the actions of a compulsive shopper with an incurable need to forever spend, spend spend?

I’m also left wondering what she’s going to do with that 90-odd quid in her coat pocket.

“If I won again today I would spend it, “ says Viv, in her parting shot. “Money’s not for saving, it’s not been for all the years I’ve been on this earth. When you die, what you going to do with it?

“I know what I’m doing,” she says, half squinting at me. “If I have money I will go out and buy someone a drink and I won’t have one. That’s my life. I have no regrets.”