Finest: Paul McGrane – “Industrial Heritage”

Paul McGrane Finest

Industrial Heritage

When a fat slab of anthracite fell
the others got on with the dig
and let him find his own way
to local anaesthetic and a saw.
His father, too, had been a miner
of limestone, then of coal,
but was coughing blood
long before his son
was old enough to work.

Only three of us at school
had dads down the mine.
Coal was home delivered on a truck
and barrowed by dad to the shed.
I learned that if you crack one
sweetly you might find a perfect leaf.
Black snot on my sleeves for the rest of the day.
There’s a word for why my dad retired early,
pneumoconiosis (miner’s lung).

First published in Paul’s debut collection, Elastic Man (Indigo Dreams, 2018)

“I was born and raised in Ammanford which was, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the heartland of coal mining in west Wales. Some of the finest anthracite coal in the world had once been mined there and by 1913 there were 34 pits in operation in the surrounding area.

“I didn’t talk to my dad much and my grandfather died years before I was born (when he was only 36 and my father was 8) so I know very little about the time they spent as miners – hence the poem is scant on detail but I hope that adds to the joy of reading it.

“My father had always been a miner as far as I’m aware (though I know he helped build hangars for aeroplanes for a time during the Second World War). As I discovered as part of my application for a European passport in the early days after the Brexit vote (I still don’t have one as I can’t find out exactly what date he was born) my Irish grandfather migrated to Wales from the Dublin area for work in the early 1900s. He was a Limestone Quarryman when he married my grandmother in 1914 but his occupation had changed to Colliery Labourer by the time my dad was born in 1918. My dad was a Coal Hewer on his marriage certificate, moving on to become a Colliery Repairer (below ground) by the time I was born in 1962. He was eventually medically retired in the early 80s though his heavy smoking habit would have also contributed. So by the time Thatcher was closing down the mines, he’d already left.

“I’m very proud of that working lineage though, as far as I know, none of the local kids from my generation worked in mining. Employment opportunities had drained away by then. Also, I’ve never had an ambition to work down the mines myself. I’m claustrophobic for one thing as well as being scared of the dark. Standing at only five foot eight and a bit, I’m a perfect specimen as far as working down a mine goes. All four of my brothers are shorter than I am so if there’d have been money in mining we might all have squeezed down there.

“My dad’s accident was due to coal falling on his hand and he lost half a finger. I remember that I used to try on his old leather finger pouch that was left lying around the house though it must have been years after he’d needed to wear it to protect the wound. It didn’t reach the end of my finger though I suppose it wouldn’t have reached the end of his either. I don’t know the exact circumstances of his accident so I’ve made it up in the poem. I’ve been criticised in a poetry workshop for suggesting that fellow miners would have left my father to find his own way to the doctor. It goes against the reputation of miners as a band of brothers who would stick up for each other no matter what. Fair enough. The solitary walk adds a bit of drama to the incident, I think, and suggests that the working class have always had to ‘get on with it’ and keep working to bring the money home to support our families. My grandfather dying ‘long before his son / was old enough to work’ would have been devastating as he would probably have been the household’s only source of income. I remember a black and white photo of my father with scores of other children at the local soup kitchen in the early 20s. He and his siblings would have had to find gainful employment as soon as they were legally allowed to do so with otherwise very little financial support from the government of the day.

“I like the unconscious connection I’ve made in the poem between my younger self playing in the coal shed and the coal dust my forefathers would have been breathing in on a much larger and more dangerous scale during their working lives. It occurs to me that I’m literally ‘playing at it’ though. Hurray for the welfare state and educational opportunities! By this time, my father was also receiving free coal as part of his employment privileges and those of us at school whose dads were on strike would receive free school meals.

“I’m also quite proud of the image of the leaf representing time. Cut coal often reveals fossilised leaves that may very well have been formed in a giant swamp forest millions of years ago. Though coal mining only tied my family to that particular part of the world for a couple of generations, it will (almost literally) be in our blood (and in our lungs) forever.

“I’m slightly guilty that I haven’t written yet about my mother’s working life since I had a much closer relationship with her than I did with my father. There’s time, I guess.

“Finally, chutzpah to my partner, Sue, who came up with the title. I’d originally called it ‘Coal’ but ‘Industrial Heritage’ adds so much more weight to the poem.”

Paul McGrane’s second collection, British People in Hot Weather, was published last week by Indigo Dreams. He is the co-founder of the Forest Poets poetry collective in Walthamstow, London, and was formerly The Poetry Society Membership Manager 2006 to 2020.

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