One of my earliest memories is my mothers voice ‘be careful, don’t touch your dad, you’ll get all dirty,’
The door would open at 9.25 and all you would see in the winter darkness were the whites of his eyes and his teeth behind his smile.
I would listen for my father’s return from work until I could faintly pick up the approaching clip-clop, clip-clop, growing louder and louder as he came down Linton Road. It was the clatter of his wooden clogs, with their steel cleats. There were no cars down our street in those days, and the sound carried until at last it began to climb the twenty-two steps up to our bright, new, airy, pre-fabricated bungalow.
In fact, my childhood memories are all connected with mining coal.
I remember a number of times going down to the pithead with my mother to meet my dad. Big steel gates would slide open with a screechy hiss and a huge crash. A bunch of men came pouring out, a black mass of individuals who all looked the same. I could not tell which one my father was until he would grin and say, ‘Nathen, lad.’ On later occasions, I stood by the shaft with the miners making their way past and greeting me in our broad Wakefield dialect. ‘Nathen, owz tha dowin, lad.’ I could see they took pleasure in my awkwardness at being unable to identify which of my dad’s friends they were. Pit-head baths were built in 1952, after which I stopped seeing my father come home in a black mask.
On the eastern outskirts of Wakefield was Heath Common. A high hill of gorse covered moorland that overlooked the city. From there you could see my dads pit head wheel, you could smell the pits, the sulphur, burning coal, hot oil and the whole valley was ringing noisily, a mechanical symphony. The sounds of a pit working, clanging and banging, a hooter, Nothing regular, the buff buffing of a steam engine struggling to move wagons, bashing, concertina like, as they responded, chains like bells, the whirring of the huge pit head wheels, their electric motors humming louder as the cage hit the surface crashing and banging, regurgitating tubs of rock, the rattling of rock against the sides of the steel chute as they were upended into the hungry open mouthed wagons and barges below, a deafening explosion as it hit the bottom.
The only continual sound was the loud whooshing of the huge fans sucking and blowing air into the shafts keeping the men below alive. Amongst all of this the line of tom pudding barges snaking silently along the wide canal below past the half moon lake under the blue bridge passing the meandering river Calder and then at the Stanley ferry toll the canal passing over the river and on with the journey taking coal to the ships at Goole.
Now when I look out over this valley the pit has gone, in its place are wild flowers, the pit stacks are now green hills there are no shadowy figures in helmets and boots, the air is clear there is just the sound of birdsong.
Had I not been a part of it, it seems difficult to believe, that down there through that hole in the ground that spewed out men and rock so noisily, so dangerously, it was alive with the scratching of human beings. All of that is gone everywhere is silent.
My father started working down the pit at the age of fourteen. His three brothers were coal miners. His father had been a coal miner. Mining seams of coal deep underground was what everyone in our world did. Beyond a job, it was a way of life, a destiny. Before I left school at fifteen, a vocational counsellor in a brief interview told me, ‘Well, I suppose you’ll be going down the pit.’
During those early days as a photographer I always had it in mind to contact the Coal Board for permission to go down into the pits. But I never did it. Maybe mining was too familiar a part of my everyday life, so I did not see it as anything special. In my callow youth, I thought more interesting material lay elsewhere.
Then a few years back, on his occasional visits, my dad began regaling us with stories about his life as a miner. He had suffered his fair share of roof falls and other accidents, some involving gas; he had worked in water, bent over on all fours, crawling about on his now spent knees. And yet the tales he recounted were always full of fun and humour and he never regarded himself as a victim.
All this impressed me, and when one day my son Tom suggested that these pit stories should be recorded, I immediately saw that it must be a filmed narrative in the form of a conversation with another person. Who else but my uncle Albert, four years my father’s junior and now the last surviving brother?
For decades in my work I had travelled the length and breadth of the globe and whenever possible I photographed a wide range of peoples in a wide range of lands. Yet in all that time my world of the pits had escaped me. I had overlooked what was my own. I had failed to see beneath those faces masked in coal dust. Now, at one fell swoop, the project that had been looking me in the eye for so long all fitted together.