Men Who Stare At Scaffolders

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I’m in Hayes, staring up at some scaffolders, (bugger off spell checker, yes I want to write scaffolders,  not safflowers, thank you very much)  and taking a couple of pictures. They eventually notice me and start shouting. I can’t make out what they’re saying but I’m sure it’s all fairly jocular. I take another snap.  But then I’m not so certain that their bellowings are that good-natured..think I detect some aggressive tones in there. Can’t blame em though, There you are, trying to get on with an honest day’s work and some rubberneck is gawping and taking photos. I mean, really.. Then I think back to a similar situation I was in years ago and in my mind’s eye I see a row of naked men in a line. They’re shouting at me too, inviting me to join them. It was all Noel Edmond’s fault see..he made me go there…Let me explain..

I was thinking back to the British Miner’s strike of 84/85, when I was busy performing at comedy and variety benefits with my ’Coal Not Dole’ sticker on. But it would be a couple of years after that that I actually experienced a coal mine for myself. Cue Noel. Edmonds..

(The picture above is of me in 1987 after a day spent deep underground at the, then fully working, Barnsley Main Colliery. A quite profound experience that I’ll never forget)

I was working on a radio show called Noel Edmond’s Awayday and to cut a long story short, I was to make a little feature about what it was actually like on a coal face and the only way to find that out was to go down there.

So off I went with the producer, Julie Simmons (yes, I know, the all male domain was about to get a little shake-up). We had a, rubber coated tape recorder, the only way of assuring that the equipment would not send out  a freak, rogue spark and blow everyone up!  We were kitted out in orange overalls, gloves, hard hat with a davy lamp, a Self Rescuer, which was a belt with a metal box with some first-aid bits n bobs in. And some all important, chunky rubber knee pads.

Into the shaft elevator we stepped. This was a deep, deep mine and it took a little while to go down, even at speed. I wasn’t sure what to expect but  once the doors opened, we emerged into what was, to all intents and purposes, an underground building site. That’s when it was explained that we must go a little further down on something called a ‘Man-Rider’ Now, what  Man-Riders are, are big conveyer belts for humans. You stand at the side of this moving belt and at the given signal, as it passes, you jump on and squat on your hands and knees. Men, in a row, on all fours, being carried along in the gloom. Then after a series of warnings. 5 metres, 3. Meters,2 meters, you had to leap off or you’d go into a crash barrier. I found it quite tricky and was relieved when we were off. Only to be told that there was another one, coming up..

So eventually we got to what the pit manager, who was accompanying us, explained was the mine roadway and off we did go, literally scrambling over never ending rubble. You really had to be careful not to twist an ankle with every step. It took a while, we were told, to develop ‘pit legs’. I was struck by two things; how well ventilated and not at all stuffy it was. And the quiet. An eerie, calm silence, apart from the men talking, just  a stillness. The cutting equipment wasn’t going because they’d been asked to switch it off so we could record. Just this eerie kind of quiet and that’s when it hit home that I was hundreds of meters underground. I wasn’t panicked, but it was a very strange feeling. Other worldly.

At some point we took a breather and one miner showed us his chewing tobacco, which many of the men used. He described it as a ‘like a long thin turd’. which it did, indeed resemble. But it kept mouths moist and provided a quick- fix nicotine hit for the smokers down there. The only time I’d seen chewing baccy before (apart from that sweet, coconut version, which I loved) was in The Outlaw Josey Wales with Clint Eastwood  who was wont to gob it hither and thither. I think he spat directly on a scorpion at one point,, though I may have imagined that. I can’t think of any other film characters who chewed tobacco..

I digress. Now, what was another surprise was that there was a tannoy system down there. Not sure why that surprised me. I didn’t expect ponies and canaries but neither had I expected a P.A. The manager told us an anecdote about when a party of senior German Mining Officials were visiting the pit. Whilst they were down there, some wag in the control room thought it would be quite funny to start humming the Dambusters theme tune, over the P.A. De de de de de de de.interspersed with imitation machine gun fire..rat-a-at-at-a-rat-at…De de de de de de de…

And then we set off again towards the coal-face. More scrambling and slipping until we came to the end of the roadway. And there it was. The coal face. Again, I don’t know what I was expecting but there were a group of miners, all stood or sat around what looked like a mouse hole, about four foot high. A dark tunnel, high enough to crawl through but not stand up in, and it reminded me of another war movie, The Wooden Horse.
I started chatting to the miners, asking about the job and what it was like but  they were quite monosyllabic and didn’t have a lot to say for theirselves. Why should they?

Honest working men, trying to get on with their jobs whilst some rubberneck with a microphone stood gawping.

Then the pit manager beckoned me over. I need to go and check on something back there he said, with a sort of wink. I’ll be back in a while. I think they’ll be happier to talk with me out of earshot..

And so they were. Remember, the Strike had only been a couple of years before and there was a suspicion towards the media in general but I was able, being from the area and being happy to nail my colours to the mast, telegraph to them that I was not there to report on what Thatcher had called ‘The Enemy Within’, but to hear their side of the story and genrally find out about the reality of pit life.  So we chatted, there was a lot of jokey banter but eventually the bitterness about strike-breakers came to the surface. These men had all been on strike and the management knew only too well, not to mix strikers and strike-breakers in the same part of the pit. One miner explained. -Since the strike, we’re not allowed to call them scabs at work now. But If I see one (a scab) in the canteen, I order Sausage Chips And Beans. See, they can’t stop you saying that. Another miner joined in. Aye an’ if there’s two scabs, we order Sausage Chips And Beans, twice! Much laughter ensued, but it stuck in their craws a bit. They would always be non-forgiving when it came to strike-breakers.

We chatted on about the back-breaking and difficult conditions that they worked in and how they felt that the country as a whole didn’t really appreciate them for. I was told that the seam we were at now wasn’t too bad because it was dry. But another seam in this colliery had about a foot of water, they said, and that’s what you’re standing and working in all day. We chatted on, then the manager returned and it was time to do the coal face.

We were given the pep talk as we stood  peering into that hole in the wall. It’s two hundred meters long , we were told. So once you’re inside, you just keep crawling, you can’t turn around. Up for it? I was. And I’ll never forget it. On hands and knees, with hard hat banging on the rock as we crawled over rocks and rubble in the gloom, the knee pads doing their protective work. With the rock face on my right and a  few feet to the left, the cutting machinery, currently turned off. There was very little room to manoeuvre and thank god for the ventilation because it was a very claustrophobic  experience.  On we crawled, a little hint of panic snagging at my throat, in my belly, on the fringes of my mind. But I kept talking, a little nervously and eventually, we emerged at the other end, relieved and with a little nervy laughter. Wow. What just happened?

Another memory that springs to mind was of a couple of T.V. Play For Todays directed by Ken Loach in the 70’s,called The Price of Coal. A brilliant couplet, the first being about a Royal visit  to a  Yorkshire pit, very funny, Bobby Knutt the club comic featured in a lead role, and then the following week, after all the characters had been introduced, the second episode featured a  mine collapse. It was a harrowing, touching and brilliant portrayal of a typical mining commuity at that time, when the possibility of a disaster was always in the air.

Years later, I did some improv with Ken Loach, when I was up for a part in his TV play The Navigators, about health and safety on the railways. I didn’t get the gig but it was a great experience, being given instant improv situations to perform with an actor that you’d lierally just met.. ‘He’s your brother-in-law and you’ve met at the pub to discuss your parent’s surprise 30th wedding anniversary party that your sister wants to organise. You’re against it cos you think they’d prefer a no fuss, quiet do and you want him to persuade your sister to drop it..okay..go..’

So back at Barnsley Main, we got in the lift again  and up we went. Outside, in the open air, I was releived but exhilarated,  I had my photo took by the radio producer. The pit manager shook hands and said that I could either use a shower in his office or I could go to the pit-head baths with the men, it was up to me. Well, I said, i’ll check out the baths anyway, if that was alright, to record the atmos. The producer, being female, would obviously use the shower, but what about me..?

In the baths, it was certainly a sight to behold. Rows of men, standing naked in lines, washing the muck and sweat of each other’s backs, as I walked around with a mic, recording their singing and chiding. One big burly miner, bar of soap in hand, intoned, as I passed, in broad Yorkshire, ‘Does tha want thine weshing’? One of them sang ‘Radio 1’  to the tune of the jingle of the day. Eh..no.radio 4, I said tremulously..They looked askance..

Meanwhile on  Hayes time, I turn away from the shouty scaffolders and  think again about the Chilean Miners and the extraordinary scenario that saw them being stuck inside the earth whilst 600 meteres above, lawyers banged out financial a deal for them on their (hopefully) safe return. I think I may have invented a new word. – Someone who becomes rich as a direct result of money paid out in compensation for a saftey breach at work: A Chileanaire. And who want’s to be a Chileanaire..hey? Boom Boom.

So I turn and wander up to Hayes station with the scaffiolders jokes/taunts trailing off behind me. Pondering the plight  of working men, safety standards and the gawping media.

What was that? Oh, you want to know about the pit-head baths. Did I get my kecks off and join the miners or slink off to the manager’s shower. I really couldn’t comment.  But I will say, that I was then, and always will be, proud of those fine, upstanding N.U.M. members…

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2 thoughts on “Men Who Stare At Scaffolders

  1. As quality as ever – watched mining doc last night when strikers talked about how scabs would’ve been shot as traitors in a war. Can’t bring myself to watch Blackstuff again as I think the reality ended up worse. Have to confess I couldn’t help thinking of Keith Allen’s Northern Industrial Gay when I read the shower scene

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