SHARING THE PAIN AND THE PASSION
From the Northern Echo, first published Saturday 2nd Dec 2000.
HANDS fly skywards, faces eager, the group of eight-year-olds visiting The Northern Echo offices fight to answer questions. On the editor's wall are some of the paper's front pages, famous images framed for posterity, and the children are challenged to identify the news story.
"Princess Diana's death," they chorus, recognising the picture of the funeral cortege.
"Eclipse of the sun," says another child, moving along the row. Then: "First man on the moon."
But the next one has them stumped. October 14, 1992, the year many of them were born, and the headline reads: "The sun sets on 400 years." Blank faces. The picture is a clue, but they don't recognise the black and white image of a pit head. In fact, they don't seem to know what a pit wheel is - ironic since the paper they are visiting was once known as the "Miners' Bible". How quickly the world forgets.
To the youth of today, coal is a fossil fuel they are told the world should no longer be using. Burning it depletes a natural resource, filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases which destroy the ozone layer. The connotations are all negative, environmentally unfriendly.
It's a far cry from last century when coal was the mainstay of the economy. On coal the region was built. It fuelled our fires, it forged our industry, it sustained lives, but took plenty too.
Yet the memories of the industry itself, and the men, boys and animals who sacrificed their lives, are fading fast.
No better time then to launch a book to remind the North-East of its heritage.
Our Village is edited by Keith Armstrong, edited, not written, because the freelance writer from Whitley Bay allows real people to tell their story, through earthy accounts, poetry and song.
It's a powerful collection, provoking strong images of working class life, of tragedy and black humour.
For Keith the book, published by The People's History, represents 20 years of working in former mining communities.
"This book documents the changing face of County Durham and provides a vivid portrayal of pit closures," says the Newcastle-born writer, whose father was a shipyard worker.
"But it also highlights a kind of resilience in the people, the ability to bounce back from disaster. We have tried to bring out a lot of the humour."
No better example than the recollections of John Iddon, of Trimdon. He recalls: "The Lowe family were another laugh with some queer tales. The father was called Matt and was nicknamed Crock. He worked at Deaf Hill Colliery. One night Matt had gone out for a drink and must have gone over the eight. He collapsed in the yard and it was teeming with rain. Someone passing the yard went and knocked on his door and when Mrs Lowe answered she was told: 'Mrs Lowe, your Matt is lying in the yard'. She replied: 'Just put it over the wall and it will dry out in the morning'."
Publisher Andrew Clark says the strength of the book is the wealth of material recounted by real people.
"Personal memories of people who had lived through hard times; the General Strike, the Depression, the Second World War, down the mines," he says. "Keith has allowed them to tell their own story, we just put their stories into a logical format. The book provides a real sense of what it is like to live in a pit village.
"People didn't like going down coal mines but they didn't want them to close the way they did. There's a great sense of loss. They went down at 14, as boys, and now they just want to talk about it. They have seen the whole community change and they don't want people to forget.
"The book is helping to preserve their memories. People sacrificed their lives down the pit and this shouldn't be forgotten."
Launched in the Dun Cow, Old Elvet, Durham, yesterday, the book inspired miner's son Ian Horn to recall some of the memories his father Billy had of their home village of Shotton Colliery.
"It was the Rock of Gibraltar made of coal dust and slag," he says. "A miner's volcano with vapour of sulphur fumes rising from it. The volcano is now pasture, a grassy hill surrounded by call centres." He says the pit wheel has become a monument and nostalgia is a powerful emotion but there is a danger the pit disasters and hardship can be forgotten.
The tone of the book is captured in the preface in the lyrics of a song by rock folk band Whisky Priests:
This village draws me,
I hear it calling me back through the years.
It's people are its life blood,
I am its joys, I am its tears.
A sacred bond exists here
Between the land and the people it owns.
It grants no escape from the realm of its fate,
It reaps the crops we have sown,
This village has made me all that I am,
This village is calling me home.
The band is headed by twins Gary and Glen Miller, 34. Now living in York, they grew up in the mining community of Sherburn, near Durham, and their material is heavily influenced by North-East culture.
"Our grandparents and uncles were miners but our dad, Allan, was a school teacher," says Gary. "Dad was the youngest son and his father was determined that he should not go down the mines. They scrimped and saved to send him to college and because of that he didn't dare fail. He didn't go down the mines, for which he is eternally grateful.
"Our dad was a singer with a brass band and tried to get us interested in music. Now we run our own record company, have our own website and are popular across Europe."
Glen adds: "We are a rock band but don't just sing about love and baby, baby. We are serious about our lyrics and the content, they have much more depth."
Through this book, and possibly a second volume, mining communities will live on long past the closure of the pits, its stories, pictures, poetry and songs a lasting testament for future generations.
**Our Village (The People's History)