Welcome to my museion. A museion, from which we derive “museum”, was originally a temple to the Muses.

A GENTLER BRUISE.

Carrying the engine battery onto my sailboat, I bumped a finger nail between the heavy battery and the hatch coaming. A clumsy thing to do. Easily done when the boat is moving unpredictably on a slightly choppy sea. A bruised finger nail is quite painful. I clutched the battery tighter, carried it down into the cabin, and placed it carefully in it's box in the engine compartment. I connected the battery, put away my tools, and looked around to see everything was shipshape. I had learned to get my priorities right.

I came up into the cockpit of my boat and looked at the sky of blue and great white cumulus clouds, like white voluminous nineteenth century petticoats running joyfully before a free masculine breeze under a warm, benevolent English sun. I sat down and clutched my aching finger and breathed deeply of the fresh, salt laden, air. I remembered the many past occasions when I had clutched a much worse aching finger momentarily before angrily plunging my shovel into the huge pile of broken coal I had just blown down, with gelignite, from the coal face. Then I saw the sudden flash of the reflected sun burst like spontaneous laughter from a stainless steel fitting of another boat's mast, and remembered the criss-cross beams of other miners' cap lamps along the coal face cutting the blackness into swirling dust as each man moved to the violence of his work. I remembered the taste of the coal dust breathed in with the exertion of the work, and the black phlegm gritty with dust to spit out. A little pain goes a long way, a lot of pain only goes as far as the agony. A little pain is a stimulus; like a tangy fruit juice taken before breakfast, it awakens the appetites. For twenty years I worked underground in a colliery in the Midlands. Each day, six days a week then, bruises and cuts, particularly bruised finger nails, were the everyday exchange of getting coal. Most miners I knew had a black finger nail in various stages of healing. The pain of a bruised finger nail was only a slight background nagging in the dark, dusty, sweating turmoil of "getting" your stint of fourteen to fifteen tons of coal from the coal face onto the conveyor belt, with a pick and shovel and a pair of hands. Besides this "getting" there was the propping up of the roof to prevent it falling on your back. When the physical exertion was over and you again became aware of your body as a living thing rather than a machine thing, the throbbing of the bruised nail came through loud and clear. So when the shift was over and you had showered, you would go to the accident room where the nurse had a small drill with which she would drill into the base of the nail, and so release the pressure of the hot blood and stop the throbbing. If you failed to have this little operation, probably out of cowardice, then the throbbing went on all night to prevent you from sleeping, despite the tiredness from the shift's hard work.

I sat back in the cockpit of my sailboat, and surveyed the quiet pleasant scene of the harbour. I was relaxed and happy. I felt good, and the world seemed content as though it was ordered so for my delectation. In half an hour, when the tide began to ebb, I would hoist the sails and glide out to the open sea.

HYMN TO THE SEA

All embracing sea

Placid mother of tranquillity.

Keeper of creation's secrecy.

All life aspired

From your great fecund womb unsired

By plan or hope or wistfulness desired.

 

Bountiful mother

You encouraged dreamers to discover

Over horizons places where no other

Beast or man had found

A wondrous fertility in their ground,

Making all simplicities profound.

 

Mistress of the wind,

Unstable lover, who puts you out of kind

But creates in you such passions blind

To make the shivering land

Crumble to its knees with gifts of sand,

A golden necklace round every strand.

 

Melodious sea

Your sound is a glorious symphony,

Your rise and fall the rhythm of poetry.

Your small waves, like shy

Lullabies sung to a sunset sky,

Where peace and quietness, like lovers, lie.

 

Indomitable sea

We cannot understand your mystery.

Begetter and deliverer of we,

Who with reverence gaze,

In incomprehension and amaze,

On you to only wonder and give praise.

 

 My finger nagged, and I turned my attention to it as though the ache was in another world, and I remembered how so many small irritants would trigger off the explosive charge of resentment in a man against a job that is the most environmentally unpleasant in our society. An explosive charge that was quickly dissipated in the bowel retching spasms of four letter words and blasphemies that came like an emotional haemorrhage of animal noises.

I hoisted the sails and began to beat out towards the harbour entrance. It was pure magic, the magic of practising a skill that has grace and beauty in an environment that one loves.. As I brought the boat around for it's next heading, I pulled in the jib sheet and caught my bruised finger nail on the cockpit coaming. I remember the times before the colliery had pit head baths, and see myself in dirty pit clothes pushing my bike up the very steep hill in the village, a line of a poem I was writing repeating and repeating in my head, struggling to perfect itself as I made my way home after the early morning shift. I can still feel my sweat damp coal dirty shirt cold on the skin of my back, as I free wheeled down other side of the hill to the ritual of bathing, changing and eating a meal. Then to relax into an armchair and think. I know that people these days take courses in relaxation. Yet exhaustion is the best relaxer, as hunger is the best appetiser. I would sit in the chair and feel the weight of my body sinking as though it's density had increased to an intensity that the chair could not sustain. The good life? As one miner would cheerfully say, "What more does man want for a happy life than a length of coal, a large allotment, and a nagging wife". The colliery where I worked, a length of coal was a miner's stint measuring seven yards long, five feet high, and four feet six inches deep, a volume in tons approximately fourteen to fifteen.

My sail boat was seven years older than me, and no doubt had seen some hard times in the past. She was a steady, hard slogger, and not too finicky in a gale of wind. She and I got on well together, just the two of us. I sailed out of the harbour on the port tack, then turned for a westerly heading, releasing the main and jib sheets to a soldiers wind along the south coast.

I looked at my finger; it had a patch of red under the nail. Not a very bad bruise, it will only turn blue; not really a black nail at all. Memories are softened by time. I sailed on, seeing the beautiful coast of Dorset gliding past, watched a gull swoop and soar over the waves: And that old burning resentment welled up in me as I thought of once disappearing down a dark hole in the ground when the sun was shining and the world so beautiful to see. I had been out of the pit for sixteen years, but my anger was still there; against society, myself? I didn't know. But I did know that if I had my time to do again, despite wife, family and unemployment, I would choose to be nourished on the light and fresh air.

MINER'S DEATH

"Joe's been buried!"  The call came

Cracking the whip of the heart,

Crying cold like wind on sweat,

And we shivered knowing our part;

Fed pity's hungry mouth with pain

From the blow of a dirty oath,

Forgiven in humbling knees that crawled

Our prayer to the merciless earth.

 

With our hands, loving and hating,

We shifted the senseless stone,

Our eyes cursing the brooding roof

While we cowered in our flesh and bone.

When hope stood back, we found him

Beneath a stone eight feet by four

And eighteen inches thick.  We told

His Mass in tears of sweat, and for

A hymn our silent curses sang

To the organ music of our breath,

As we broke the stone and saw

The remains of the feast of death.

 

The crushed thing in a clothing shroud

We rolled for the funeral journey through

The ways of darkness into the light.

There the sun shone and flowers grew

In the blessed earth as on the day

First the world was offered us.

We blinked the darkness from our eyes;

From our hearts the poisoned pus

We drew to leave the deep wound clean,

As in truth's time we gazed again

On the shrouded thing that held

All our darkness and our pain.

 

After leaving the colliery, I found the need to write poetry diminished, for that was my means of escape during the pit years. Perhaps those years were worth it for the poetry I wrote I sometimes think in my forgetful moments.

 

 

THE PIT REVISITED.

(Winter  1967-8)

 

   Six months ago, I stepped off the cage at the pit top for what I promised myself would be the last time.   I stood in the sunshine.

 

   Yes, the sun shone that day as though to welcome me back to the light and the natural order of life.   I looked only to the life that was ahead of me, pushing into the darkness my years at the pit and the memories of my experiences there, as though it were all a bad dream.   But by doing this, I did not realise I was rejecting my liking and admiration for the men with whom I had worked with for so long.   The miners, the coal face workers, who paradoxically, by their qualities of courage tenacity and companionship, made the bad dream tolerable.

 

   Last week I broke my promise to myself, and went with a party of univerity students on an underground visit to the same pit.   When I arranged the visit, I told myself I had no positive feelings about going, even debating with myself whether to accompany the party or not.   But now I realise I had had no intention of not going with them.   Now I also know my motive for arranging the visit:  It was not only that the students would find the experience interesting, in fact a revelation of a completely new world which of course they did, but that it would give me an excuse to parade my pride in having been a miner.   This statement is perhaps surprising after my obvious distaste for the work - the darkness, the dirt, and the whole concept of mining - and I have not changed that opinion.   And yet I do have this ambivalence of feeling, of which the positive side is an inordinate pride in having been a miner, and having worked and risked and laughed and cursed with those men for whom, I believe, every other  member of our society should have the respect and admiration reserved for a front line soldier.

 

   It is obvious that the battle for Britain to become a great industrial nation was primarily fought out in the dark, sweat, and danger of the pits.   And without the miners, who carried the battle on their muscled and enduring backs, the good conditions we have today would never have been possible.   This is a fact that many people are inclined to forget in these days of oil and developing nuclear power, and the glib talk of mining being a dead industry.   A convenience, perhaps, to forget what so many have taken for granted for so long - that this country is still dependent on miners to continue their raw fight against the hazards of coal getting, to supply fuel for industry and home warmth.

 

   So I thought as I went underground again.   So different for me now the ride in the cage; the enveloping darkness after we left the pit bottom like a constant threat crowding the outside circle of our cap lamps; the impending roof and the whole atmosphere produced by the dust and tomb silence in which the noise of machinary frightened the hearing.   So different because I was viewing mining from the other side from the day by day, year by year familiarity.

 

   I went onto the coal face with the rest of the party, feeling an apartness from them and for a moment a return of the old affinity with the men working the face.   But that identification with the miners on the face did not last long, as I too was shepherded by the escort to the safety between the chocks that support the roof.   But from this view I could see the miners as they really are, moving with an ease and a cavalier attitude beneath the threatening roof, controlling the rather terrifying cutting machine with a cool assured expertise - even in their dirt and sweat, men of a stature so many others fail to reach.   No, my thoughts hadn’t changed about mining.   They still concurred with those expressed by one of the men with whom I used to work.   I said to him, “It hasn't changed much”, to which he replied, in a half bitter, half proud tone of so many men like him, “No, it's still a dirty, stinking hole in the ground”.

 

   I crouched under a low bent girder roof in the supply gate road with a couple of men, and talked with them in the ribbing, self disparaging way which is characteristic of miners, and perhaps of all men in exclusively masculine, dangerous, and arduous pursuits, as I had done so often in the past.   For those few moments I was accepted as one their own, but I knew and they knew this was just for old times sake.   I was just as much an outsider as the other members of the party, a member of the abstract “them”.   Miners are an esoteric group, a close kinship of sweat and hurt and, still for many in the less mechanised pits, back aching, exhausting work.   They carry a badge of their kinship, not only in the blue scars of their flesh, but also in the hard tiredness of their eyes, the alertness of their shoulders, and in the emanation of a demeanour of unpanic.   And yet, perhaps above all, in their assurance of belonging to a comradmanship of men.

 

   I am no longer one of them.   As I coughed and spat out the dust of the pit, I was glad for reasons of my health, for my interests, for the widening horizons, and for so many other things.   As I rode in the cage up the pit, I knew I had kept my promise to myself not to go down again, because this had not been for real.   I was no more than a non-combatant watching a battle.   I went into the baths and showered off  the grime and coal dust from my body with a sense of relief.   In the Winter sunshine outside, I watched the wheels of the the pit head revolving in their indefatigable efforts of raising the coal to the surface, which seemed to me like a symbol of the inexhaustible spirit of the miners.  And though I gave thanks that I no longer had to go down again for real, and also hoped that one day no one else would either, I knew that when those wheels stopped turning for good it would also be the end of a breed of men, who if local conditions and upbringing led them into the pits, had given more to their fellow men than most, and with an effort beyond the call of a man’s ordinary duty.

 

   Perhaps I shall go down again one day to visit, but if not, I shall not forget the “dirty stinking hole in the ground” that can give pride because of the men who work it.