May 23, 2014
The Curse Of Coal
The news of over 300 deaths resulting from the coal mine disaster in Soma, Western Turkey, has shocked people around the world. The world’s media has swamped the area, making a brutal public spectacle of unrestrained grief. The sight of mourning protesters being subject to water cannon and tear gas attacks adds to the sense that this is a tragedy with implications far beyond those of a simple accident. Pictures of a government official viciously kicking and beating a mourner will become a symbol of the country’s worst ever industrial accident. Mining of any kind will always be dangerous and dirty work, but to many people, deep coal mining epitomizes these dangers to the lives of those who work underground. It sometimes feels to me as though coal runs through my veins and I cannot get the plight of the Turkish miners and their families out of my head.
I was born and raised in a coal-mining village. Both my grandfathers and all my uncles were miners. Like many from those generations, those men were proud of their work, but what they saw and experienced made them determined that their own sons would not work in the pits. My father’s parents managed to get him an apprenticeship as a printer – an escape from a life below ground. He in turn was adamant that his own son would not go down the mine. He almost force fed me with books and learning aids from an early age as a way to get me through the exams that would lead me to a better job.
The modern world, though, was built on the backs of the coal miners. Industrial revolution, transport, and the iron and steel that forged the armaments of so many wars would have all been impossible without “King Coal.” And coal left deep scars everywhere. As a child, it sometimes seemed that every man I knew had blue scars — the result of coal dust getting into wounds. The land itself was scarred. Giant heaps of “slag” – coal waste – were all around and often stretched for miles. Every house had a coal fire and smoke filled the air. The roads that carried the coal were often black with the stuff, and in winter, pure white snow would rapidly turn grey and black. Invisible and deadly, the black dust penetrated the lungs of the miners and made scars that would cause serious illness in later life.
But in those years, though conditions underground were still terrible and there was an ever-present risk of fire, explosion, or roof collapse, at least safety in the mines had improved, along with better housing for the workers. Back in the 19th century, privately owned mines paid little heed to safety or working conditions. Young children and women routinely worked underground. I recently read a serious discussion of the relative merits of being a child laborer in the mines and mills or in agriculture. In a cold scientific conclusion, the article made the case that agricultural child laborers were better off. They may have worked incredibly long hours for a lot of the year, it concluded, but the seasonal nature of farm work, short daylight hours in winter, and the vagaries of the weather meant that they simply could not get into the fields for long periods, allowing them periods of rest. Alongside that, they were mostly working in the fresh air in an unpolluted environment. It was the industrial child workers, then, who suffered most, in particular those working in coal mines.
Today the “slag heaps” have gone, turned into green areas, housing and commercial developments, even – just a few miles down the road – an entertainment and shopping complex complete with artificial ski slopes. Yet evidence of the wealth that coal mining produced in the old child labor days still surrounds the region. Ten miles or so from where I write is the grand stately home of Nostell Priory, which takes its name from the original building, a monastery on the same site, from the 12th century. To walk through Nostell’s opulent rooms and see the riches that the house possesses is a striking experience. All this ostentation and luxury were built by the Winn family on the proceeds of coal mining and the textile industry. The contrast between the lives of the mine owners and the people who worked for them could not be more stark.
The Soma disaster will no doubt fade from the media spotlight as the cameras move elsewhere. But the reality for the families of those who were lost will be grim and their struggle for answers will be long and hard. The modern day mine owners are the big corporations, as distant from their workers as the Winns were from their child laborers – the new equivalent of the wealth that built Nostell. Some things never seem to change.
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