On Never Having Been Down t’Pit

I used to have the conventional reverence for cultural heritage, and visited a certain proportion of the European cynosures, from the Hermitage in the then Leningrad to the Mezquita in Córdoba, and from the Sainte-Chapelle to the Hagia Sophia. Plus Kyōto and Nara, although nothing in China, India or Central Asia. Not quite an updated Goethean Grand Tour, therefore, but in conjunction with my intensive reading about the twelfth century world-wide, perhaps not altogether to be despised.

Then at some point a switch in my head seemed to be thrown, and I became suddenly unable to see a castle as anything other than a base for bad guys to issue forth and kill and rape the producers, or a cathedral as anything other than a revenue-generating machine. This happened almost overnight. That the French revolutionaries demolished Cluny thereafter evoked approval rather than the previously compulsory horror. An example I use more often is the Soviet repurposing of Yalta palaces as homes for retired coal-miners. I then challenge the audience to explain why the bling-bling of Tsarist aristocracy, overdone even by contemporary European standards, should be more important than the declining years of men doing a horrible and extremely unhealthy job. What do you have against coal-miners and why?

Perhaps this irreversible Miserific Vision was a belated apology for the atmosphere in which I grew up, in which Middle England, what one might call the Telegraph-reading classes, did indeed evince a ferocious contempt for miners – who worked in geographically and culturally very separate communities. To hear them talk, one would think that the colliers of County Durham were over-privileged layabouts. None of these Torygraph-readers, of course, had ever gone down a mine. I myself absorbed this contempt in the way schoolboys absorb certain other attitudes, which with greater understanding of the world in my old age created chagrin and shame.

In the Seventies the bourgeois contempt for coal-miners turned into active loathing, as people the middles thought of as the servant classes, merely dirtier, had the temerity to oppose their betters. Everyone knows how the Miners’ Strike helped bring Mrs. Thatcher to power and keep her there, and yet I have a suspicion that this went deeper than the undoubted inconveniences of the Winter of Discontent and the power cuts that were actually chronic in those days.

The Tories used to make a big deal about the “politics of envy” and the evils of class war, while amply proving that class hatred runs in both directions. In our present age that has restored the nineteeth-century levels of wealth concentration, an age in which foreigners, either here or somewhere else, do all the heavy work, while the natives are owners, managers, cube-rats or social clients, this is more relevant than ever. Because “Down t’Pit” has now met the ancient Yellow Peril, while the green utopia depends on Congolese cobalt miners. Why do we not talk about “blood batteries”?

Leave a Reply