This is not my world, but it is one I in which have spent my life around the edges.
101 years ago there was an explosion in the small town of Senghenydd, recorded as the worst mining disaster in British History. 439 men died. ttempts to dig out the survivors and later the bodies lasted three weeks. But this isn’t about that disaster either; it’s about what happened later.
At the time of the disaster Britain was dotted with communities like Senghenydd where a coal mine, a steelworks, or a port provided the bulk of the employment. Even people who didn’t work in the pit depended on those who did, and this built up a culture — or rather a series of local cultures where people took pride in hard work and community identity. Then over the course of the 20th Century the pits and the works closed. Some people blame Thatcher but really she just presided over the end of a long and inevitable process driven by a changing world.
With major employers gone, unemployment came and it stayed. Generations have now grown up not knowing what it is like to have a family member with a steady job and the old cultures of hard work have followed the pits into oblivion. In their place we have people, particularly young men, trying to establish an identity that too often revolves around drinking, fighting and not working. This has created a new stereotype of the lazy poor that stigmatises a lot of people, even the majority whose encounters with unemployment are brief.
Where once the poor were workers, now they are seen as chavs, a vicious yet comical stereotype that seems to feed off race-based prejudices coming from the US, even though most of the people involved are white. This only helps keep the underclass down by making the unemployed seem unemployable, and so the fear of those a little bit higher up and the anger of those at the bottom reinforce each other.
I’m going to end without a solution because I don’t have one. I am not advocating a return to the old certainties. Even if it were possible there were too many negatives; no one wants to see 439 men die never mind the health effects and the destruction of the landscape. It just sometimes seems to me that the miners in 1913 knew something that we have forgotten – that when people are trapped in a pit the right thing to do is dig them out.