Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to work with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project. This was part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.
After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response. The result is ‘We’re still here, with luck’, whose title comes from something one of the miners said right at the end of the meeting, as we were packing away all the chairs and biscuits and recording equipment. Quotes from the miners are threaded throughout the poem, which was then filmed by John Hamlett.
‘We’re still here, with luck’
You can tell a miner from the scars,
blue with coal dust, like free tattoos.
A miner wears his memory in his skin –
the mines and all the men who mined them,
screen lasses who sorted the coal
with good shoulders, shotputters’ shoulders.
Sitting in a circle in the church hall
in the room with custard creams and a serving hatch,
we teeter above a shaft
of stories, hanging like the cage at pit top
over a 1200ft drop. Outside,
boarded shut at the backs of houses and the edges
of fields, are beginnings of tunnels
like the town’s capillaries.
We bring them in,
till the adits are the mouths of the men
and the conversation goes back generations.
There’s a seam we keep following,
because these men remember the town
before they were born, can mine
stories and places passed hand to hand –
black dust on Golden Sands
and watter runnin’ in like hell
Some say the pier at Parton
was blasted by a storm, others
how Lowther pulled it down –
their tales like passageways that intersect
then channel on.
No seam lies in a perfect plane.
In the deep, their memories
grow big and spacious as a ballroom, a new face
waiting for the goaf to drop:
rippled, like being on a beach,
the fat clams of ironstone nodules, marcasite
like fish scales
where the rock
dances to the muscled band of the seam,
where the girders bend and break
and we wait.
That waiting was the most profound sound you ever heard
like the stillness after the last reverberation
of a cathedral bell.
From their mouths come the names
compressed and precious as a litany, as coal:
Haig, William, Wellington, Lowca, Kells.