I came across this pamphlet this morning and it reminded
immediately of George Orwell’s description of Northern
effort for younger blood in one of the most demanding harsh-environment jobs on the globe--which is a tough thing to do, as these kids would be married to short handled shovels, moving earth and coal deep underground in a foul-air enclosure if they signed on.
“There is a hint of mystery about a colliery” the pamphlet states, but doesn’t explain, though several of the photos of working miners must certainly have slapped a bit of reality into the mind of the reader. Being a miner was bitter-tough, but if this is what your work landscape was composed of, and this is what your father did, I guess that this is the life you got used to, familiar with, as time wore down mining’s “mysterious” edges.
Miners performed amazing tasks of physical endurance and mental acuity in a tediously difficult and unhealthy endlessly-challenging surrounding. Deep underground.
It was in The Road to Wigan Pier that Orwell may have reached his highest heights of social insight and reporting—particularly in bringing out the conditions of the working poor and the psychology, morality and neurosis of unemployment.. But it is his description of the miner’s environment that stays in my head. Orwell observes that the 7.5 hour shift miners would only being their workday once they had arrived at their particular station—and as Orwell beautifully points out, miners had to “travel” to their work zone once they arrived in the mine. Some of these commutes were 90 minutes or more, each way—most were moving at least a half-hour before getting to the point where their day would being. It was a crouching, spine-slashing, knee-crunching scramble through dark, sharp areas not four feet high, interrupted by crawling through smaller spaces…and always with your head up so that you could see where you were going. It was a whole new set of muscles that you had to develop for this travel…and then, after that, then you went to work.
As Orwell writes:
“You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and about five high, with the walls built up with slabs of shale, like the stone walls in Derbyshire. Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck. Usually it is bad going underfoot—thick dust or jagged chunks of shale, and in some mines where there is water it is as mucky as a farm-yard….
A page later:
“At the start to walk stooping is rather a joke, but it is a joke that soon wears off. I am handicapped by being exceptionally tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody except a dwarf or a child. You not only have to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come. You have, therefore, a constant crick in the neck, but this is nothing to the pain in your knees and thighs. After half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end—still more, how on earth you are going to get back. Your pace grows slower and slower. You come to a stretch of a couple of hundred yards where it is all exceptionally low and you have to work yourself along in a squatting position. Then suddenly the roof opens out to a mysterious height—scene of and old fall of rock, probably—and for twenty whole yards you can stand upright. The relief is overwhelming. But after this there is another low stretch of a hundred yards and then a succession of beams which you have to crawl under. You go down on all fours; even this is a relief after the squatting business. But when you come to the end of the beams and try to get up again, you find that your knees have temporarily struck work and refuse to lift you. You call a halt, ignominiously, and say that you would like to rest for a minute or two. Your guide (a miner) is sympathetic. He knows that your muscles are not the same as his. ‘Only another four hundred yards,’ he says encouragingly; you feel that he might as well say another four hundred miles. But finally you do somehow creep as far as the coal face. You have gone a mile and taken the best part of an hour; a miner would do it in not much more than twenty minutes. Having got there, you have to sprawl in the coal dust and get your strength back for several minutes before you can even watch the work in progress with any kind of intelligence.
“Coming back is worse than going, not only because you are already tired out but because the journey back to the shaft is slightly uphill. You get through the low places at the speed of a tortoise, and you have no shame now about calling a halt when your knees give way. Even the lamp you are carrying becomes a nuisance and probably when you stumble you drop it; whereupon, if it is a Davy lamp, it goes out. Ducking the beams becomes more and more of an effort, and sometimes you forget to duck. You try walking head down as the miners do, and then you bang your backbone. Even the miners bang their backbones fairly often. This is the reason why in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half naked, most of the miners have what they call ‘buttons down the back’—that is, a permanent scab on each vertebra. When the track is down hill the miners sometimes fit their clogs, which are hollow under-neath, on to the trolley rails and slide down. In mines where the ‘travelling’ is very bad all the miners carry sticks about two and a half feet long, hollowed out below the handle. In normal places you keep your hand on top of the stick and in the low places you slide your hand down into the hollow. These sticks are a great help, and the wooden crash-helmets—a comparatively recent invention— are a godsend. They look like a French or Italian steel helmet, but they are made of some kind of pith and very light, and so strong, that you can take a violent blow on the head without feeling it. When finally you get back to the surface you have been perhaps three hours underground and travelled two miles, and you, are more exhausted than you would be by a twenty-five-mile walk above ground. For a week afterwards your thighs are so stiff that coming downstairs is quite a difficult feat; you have to work your way down in a peculiar sidelong manner, without bending the knees. Your miner friends notice the stiffness of your walk and chaff you about it. (‘How’d ta like to work down pit, eh?’ etc.) Yet even a miner who has been long away front work—from illness, for instance—when he comes back to the pit, suffers badly for the first few days.
And the first paragraph of chapter 3:
“When the miner comes up from the pit his face is so pale that it is noticeable even through the mask of coal dust. This is due to the foul air that he has been breathing, and will wear off presently. To a Southerner, new to the mining districts, the spectacle of a shift of several hundred miners streaming out of the pit is strange and slightly sinister. The exhausted faces, with the grime clinging in all the hollows, have a fierce, wild look. At other times, when their faces are clean, there is not much to distinguish them from the rest of the population. They have a very upright square-shouldered walk, a reaction from the constant bending underground, but most of them are shortish men and their thick ill-fitting clothes hide the splendour of their bodies. The most definitely distinctive thing about them is the blue scars on their noses. Every miner has blue scars on his nose and forehead, and will carry them to his death. The coal dust of which the air underground is full enters every cut, and then the skin grows over it and forms a blue stain like tattooing, which in fact it is. Some of the older men have their foreheads veined like Roquefort cheeses from this cause.”
Now THAT is some good observation and reporting. Orwell did a spectacular job in relating the viciously difficult jobs done by these thousands of outstanding men.
Notes for Reading on Orwell
Crick, Bernard.. George Orwell: a life. London : Secker and Warburg, 1981.
Davison, Peter. George Orwell: a literary life. London: Macmillan, 1996.
Pearce, Robert. Revisiting Orwell's Wigan Pier. History 82: 267 pp. 410-424
Rodden, John.. The politics of literary reputation: the making and claiming of 'St. George' Orwell. New York/Oxford , 1989.