February 11th, 2018

I first read The Road To Wigan Pier a little more than seven years ago after reading Christopher Hitchens rightly praise the writings of George Orwell. The 4,861-word essay, Down The Mine, written in 1937, is an excerpt from Wigan.

Orwell begins:

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble.

The same, of course, can be said about The United States, but because we developed petroleum resources much earlier than Great Britain, coal continued to play a significant role in that nation’s economy long after it had begun to decline here. For that reason, I imagine that many more British citizens have intimate recollections of coal than we do. I knew a bit about coal. The father of one of my good friends and the father of one of my high school girl friends both drove coal trucks to local power plants and factories. I also have vivid memories of what the acidic dew could do to the paint job of a car if you left it out over night. None of that, of course, compares to experiences of the men who went to the coal face every day.

When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the ‘fillers’ are at work. This is not easy, because when the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost peaceful. The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there–heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.

When you have finally got there—and getting there is a in itself: I will explain that in a moment—you crawl through the last line of pit props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high. This is the coal face.

This is the Stygian chamber that the likes of President Donald John Trump could never imagine. (Yes, I know that such mines are an extreme rarity today with mechanization and mountain-top blasting the norm.) What Orwell did here, and for the rest of the essay, is write what journalists ought to write about: the places where the average citizen never goes, and would never, in all likelihood, never want to go, but must see and understand.

You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. They are feeding it on to the conveyor belt, a moving rubber, belt a couple of feet wide which runs a yard or two behind them. Down this belt a glittering river of coal races constantly. In a big mine it is carrying away several tons of coal every minute. It bears it off to some place in the main roads where it is shot into tubs holding half a tun, and thence dragged to the cages and hoisted to the outer air.

It is impossible to watch the ‘fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while–they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling–and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles.

The next time you’re at the gym, think about how fit and tone those fillers were. Orwell concluded with:

There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But-most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. [Emphasis mine, JH] It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

Yes, the conditions in 2018 are not what they were in 1938 or 1918 or 1838, but still billions of humans work in conditions not much better—and too often much worse—to make our pleasant lives so, well, pleasant.

Consider the men (and women, think Catherine in Émile Zola’s Germinal) who toiled to provide the electricity that powers the espresso machine making your Quad Grande, Non Fat, Extra Hot Caramel Macchiato Upside Down. (I’m sorry, anyone who doesn’t drink their coffee black should just get a smoothie or a milkshake to chase down a couple of NoDoz tabs.)

Anytime we think we are self-made we play the fool because we stand on a global pyramid of backs bent to labor that we never see.

History is vital


Coming next week: North And South….

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