Alan Morrison

on
John Seed's
Brandon Pithouse
Recollections of the Durham Coalfield

(Smokestack Books, 2016)
120pp

Coal Consciousness

Brandon Pithouse

Poetry as social document is something often integral to many of the collections and long poems published by Smokestack, but John Seed’s Brandon Pithouse, subtitled Recollections of the Durham Coalfield, is one of the most explicit poetic montages-cum-social document of the Smokestack canon. It is a very visual, filmic work, having something in common with the filmic poetry of W.H. Auden (Coal Face; Night Mail et al), Joseph Macleod (Script from Norway), and Tony Harrison (Gaze of the Gorgon; Prometheus et al), as well as with the more montage radio ballad form of broadcast oral history pioneered and exemplified by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, particularly The Big Hewer (1961), which was about the miners of the Northumberland, Durham, South Wales and East Midlands coalfields.

The book's cover is also worthy of note with its reproduction of a photographic cover of a magazine called COAL, priced 4D, June 1947 issue –what’s striking to the eye is when looking at the cover the first thing that strikes the eye is the word COAL writ in large white capitals against burnt orange as the logo of the magazine inset and then only afterwards one takes note of the book's title, and its author's name underneath. This trick on the eye seems to echo the authorial humility of the work inside.

It may or may not have been helpful, depending on one’s opinion, for Seed’s elucidation of the book’s purpose and conscious architecture to have appeared as a Foreword at the beginning of the book rather than as a Postscript at the back. That said, I read through and reviewed the book before reading the Postscript, hence my architectonic take on its literary form mutates and alternates throughout my review (I discuss his Postscript at the end of this review).

Brandon Pithouse is split into 25 sections. There is a scriptural feel to the spare pared-down opening to what one presumes to be a long poem:

Crunch of icy tyre-tracks underfoot
Daylight already old

Looking beyond the visible beyond
Brandon Pithouse
Ragpath Drift

This continues onto a second page, this time the text is right-justified:

in short breeches
low shoes and
cotton skull-cap

swinging his
5 lb pick while
sweat runs white
down black cheeks

always in peril
of gas or
fall of stone
or sudden flood or

whoever he is

An absence of punctuation means caesuras do the breath-work in this stripped-down but imagistically evocative triplet of tercets:

grandmother sent me a good door-string
six farthing candles for bait
some of her best currant bread

bait poke over my shoulder
candle-box in my pocket through darkness
along the black wagon-way up

past the pit-pond by the pick shop to the pit-heap
clanking of engines creaking pulleys overhead
hoarse voices of men calling answering

The use of alliteration in those lines is particularly striking. The rather breathless unpunctuated lines almost mimic the laboured breathing of being down the pits, while the omission of the definitive article in the first line reinforces this:

at the pit’s-mouth banksman calling down the shaft
hewers coming up two by two or three by six or
anyhow as the rope brought them

men emptying corves
boys wailing rough coals
discarding stones and slates
long line of sheds the screens

Seed deftly employs various poetic forms and sometimes ruptures into poetic prose in a manner reminiscent of David Jones (his In Parenthesis):

Low Main seam (coal 20 inches thick) – 57ft. from the surface
Hutton seam (coal 32 inches thick) – 157ft. from the surface
Harvey seam (coal 24 inches thick) – 312ft. from the surface
Busty seam (coal 48 inches thick) – 418ft. from the surface
Brockwell seam (coal 34 inches thick) – 522ft. from the surface

one minute to descend by cage
five hundred and thirty seven concrete steps to the Busty
ten minutes carrying an eight-pound electric lamp tokens shot
powder sharp picks

Describing the physical reality of the pit shaft and mine Seed speaks as plainly as possible but yet there is something poetic in his phrases: ‘strong pillars of coal to support the roof’ and ‘an immense number of dark passages’. This is proletarian poetry in the truest sense; its language is sinuous, industrial, utilitarian, as is its plentiful nomenclature:

Miners are hewers
stone-sinkers putters enginemen timber-drawers shot-firers
waste-men horse-keepers and drivers underground …

And banksmen masons fitters joiners sawyers blacksmiths
boilersmiths horse-shoers plumbers saddlers painters
electricians lamp-repairers platelayers smiths’ strikers winding
enginemen engine drivers hauliers ostlers carters…

Then there are little poetic eruptions as in this pictorial aside:

You walk into any pit house ten o’ clock at night
find the same thing
red hot fire
a tired-looking woman
heavy damp clothes hanging up
all over the place

With its irregular lines, tilt towards prose, unpunctuated lines and industrial imagery, one is instantly reminded of the rustbelt poetry of American blue collar poet Fred Voss. There’s a sense of poetry as Notes:

Bromdun Bramdom Brampdon Brandon
1871: 1926 inhabitants 10 streets 281 houses

‘miserable huts’ for families one small room
ladder to the unceiled attic

The next stanza is basically a haiku:

floors of square quarls
iron boiler one side of the fireplace
round oven the other

Then we get some social history:

still collecting water from rain barrels from springs in the fields
scores of bee-hive coke ovens south of the pit
Irish housed in Railway and South Streets ‘Little Ireland’

For those who like their poetry pared-down, spare and to the point, John Seed’s at times staccato verse will meet their appreciation:

two‐up two‐down cottages
each brick stamped with the name of the colliery company

cold water tap in the pantry
backyard the tin bath

wood back gate the goal
and next to the coalhouse the ash-pit

lav ash-midden netty
whitewashed walls and tied with string

squares of newspaper or occasionally
soft paper wrappings from oranges

Seed is excellent at using sense impressions, domestic images and unobtrusive alliteration to build up effects:

Wash day the devil’s birthday
living room reeking with steam
dodging damp vests drawers shirts sheets pillow-cases
drying pegged out across the
front of the fire place
dim light of an oil-lamp or candle

Brandon Pithouse is littered with potted social histories:

sinkers at Blackhall in 1909
for their wives and families

built huts out of
packing cases on the beach banks

at Blackhall Rocks there were still
families of pitmen in the 1930s

Irish immigrants tin miners
from Cornwall among them

Sometimes one wishes incidental vignettes weren’t quite so pithily expressed:

Going in-bye to his work
some men in front of him
got into a refuge hole to
let a set of tubs pass
but he went on
mind elsewhere
hit
and died the same day

We get some facts and figures:

Coalminers as % of occupied males in County Durham
1841 16.1
1851 21.1
1861 20.8
1871 17.1
1881 24.3
1891 25.0
1901 26.0
1911 33.4

Next we get what appear to be anecdotes from various miners emphasizing that Seed’s work is very much oral history as poetry. One Dick Morris talks of how fathers took their sons down the pits as kids to get them ‘acclimatised/ the inevitable way of life’. Another called William Cowburn confesses ‘but then I’m not frightened to admit/ I was terrified when I went down the pit’. These appear to be transcripts sculpted into poems:

I asked to go into the pit
to get away from school

I would go to school now
if I could be allowed

The constant shift in poetic form helps to keep up the momentum of the poem and avoid it stalling, and the shifts from lyrical poetry to prose is strongly reminiscent of David Jones’ In Parenthesis. There’s much bittersweet wit and irony in the trope: ‘In winter time the hours are harder and when we/ come home we are fit enough to go to bed’. The narrator, who may or may not be Seed himself (?), or a relative of Seed’s (?), mentions, ominously, how he escaped the coal pit: ‘I left to join the/ army goodbye to Wingate pit’. This narrator is a knowledge-hungry miner, perhaps an autodidact: ‘15 hours out of the house every day I go to school at night/ we’re in school two hours I hurt myself very sore to get/ scholarship’.

A miner in parentheses called James Agee explains how only objects, the tangible, things you can touch, taste and smell sum up the mining life far better than any writing:

If I could do it I’d do no writing at all here. It would be
photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of
cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and
iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement.

This poem is almost like a kind of séance with the ghosts of miners as the time seems to shift:

First task when he reports for work at midnight
collect a token he strings round his neck
identification in case of accident every day
three miners are killed (1939)
every day he collects his safety lamp his token

There’s a fascinating description of the mineshaft: ‘The shaft is a perpendicular drift, sometimes made semielliptical/ at the mouth by means of boards’. Coal mining vernacular is quite fascinating:

Three raps: man riding
Two raps: start
One rap: stop.

When the chummens had taken the place of the fullens and the cage
had been rapped away the winderman would lift the cage off the keps

I’ve no idea what ‘chummens’, ‘fullens’, ‘winderman’ or ‘keps’ mean –perhaps Durham dialect?– but they all sound wonderful. The coal mine is clearly a place of considerable risk:

Nobody puts his helmet light on
in the cage you’d
blind each other you
drop down in the dark

--------------

The only means of ascending or descending the shaft was in a kibble
or loop
He came out of the workings to the shaft bottom and shouted
‘Bend away to bank’
Swinging up the shaft the spring hook at the end of the rope caught
an iron bunton which broke the hook and the loop and he dropped
486 feet to the bottom

At times the depictions of the perils of the pit are truly gruesome: ‘going down/ a hook of another rope caught him by the hough/ ripped off the skin of his leg like a stocking’. We then read of one Isaac Rickerby who ‘was crushed between the/ cage and the shaft timbers’ at Broomside Colliery, and another at Thornley Colliery. The names of some of the coal miner casualties are redacted with Xs. And at Haswell

…The crab, a
sort of huge drum revolving horizontally, to which a rope was
attached, moved by a horse, was a very slow method of traction.
Some obstruction took place, and the corf, full of men, hung in the
shaft for an hour-and-a-half, exposed to a strong downward
current of air

it was 3 on a dark winter morning and nothing could be seen
Tak had!

Presumably ‘Tak had’ is Durham pronunciation for ‘Take heed’? I think ‘corf’ is here meant as a metal container. At times there is a real Joycean stream-of-consciousness in full flow:

and blue stone soft like when we were kids we used to write with
at school
when it got wet it buried you like the houses on the Isle of White
are sliding into the sea
in this band of stone are the fossils of the dinosaur we called it
blos stone or mall

And perhaps more explicitly in the following flourish which seems to almost lapse into word association:

sandstone strata sequence of Westphalian coal measures bands
of shale
steam coal house coal chinley coal gas coal claggy coal manufact -
uring coal sea coal bunker coal pan coal crow coal sooty coal
roondy coal coking coal cannel coal brown coal shaly coal parrot
coal beany coal

The alliteration in the following passage is very effective:

Old workings and air-ways where nobody was working so
quiet you could hear your own heart beating in the strata the
forms of a leaf or a fish in the stone the iron quartz pyrites
sparkling like gold

The following trope is rather puzzling geographically speaking: ‘some coalfaces were 6 miles out/ under the North Sea Bohemia’s coast’. Seed depicts the darkness all year round for the miner:

The darkness never changes. Seasons make no difference. Spring
and summer, autumn and winter, morning, noon, and night, are
all the same.

Coal and stone, stone and coal – above, around, beneath.

Seed then quotes from the Book of Job:

There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s
eye hath not seen: The lion’s whelps have not trodden it, nor the
fierce lion passed by it.
(Job 28: 3, 7-8)

Indeed, this is a life lived in darkness: ‘they rarely saw daylight for six months of the year/ apart from Sundays the whole night’s rest lasting till daylight/ the one family dinner of the week’. And as for the climate, it’s always extremes, as Seed puts it most economically:

You do get
All sorts of temperatures
Down the mine sometimes
It’s cold as winter sometimes
Hot as hell

There is a sense of timelessness as time and dates shift –a macrocosmic oral history: ‘Winter of 1844 we had neither, food, shoes, nor light in our first/ shift’. Here, then, the term ‘shift’ takes on more than just one meaning. Are we eavesdropping on the memories of revenant coal miners?

The wagon-man, Tommy Dixon, visited me, and cheered me on
through the gloomy night; and when I wept for my mother, he
sang that nice little hymn,

‘In darkest shades if / Thou appear my dawning has begun’.

He also brought me some cake, and stuck a candle beside me.

We are left to imagine the grisly fate of a lad who hid some gunpowder ‘in a piece of gas piping which he had thrust down his/ trouser leg to hide it xxxx xxxx, when a spark from the lamp/ hanging on his belt fell into the open end of the pipe/ when a spark from the lamp/ hanging on his belt fell into the open end of the pipe’. Seed is deft at alliterative effects, as in the following trope:

Midges sometimes put out the candle.
The pit is choke full of black clocks creeping all about.
Nasty things they never bit me.

Some of the pastimes of miners down the pit seem distinctly macabre:

I often caught mice.
I took a stick and split it and fixed the mouse’s tail in it.
If I caught two or three I made them fight. They pull one
another’s noses off.
Sometimes I hung them with a horse’s hair.
The mice are numerous in the pit. They get at your bait-bags
and they get at the horse’s corn.
Cats breed sometimes in the pit and the young ones grow up
healthy.
Black clocks breed in the pit. I never meddled with them except
I could put my foot on them.
A great many midges came about when I had a candle.

‘Black clocks’ are a type of beetle. One of the miner-revenants appears to be a boy:

when the pits were idle I wandered

Houghton-le-Spring Hetton Lambton
Newbottle Shiney Row
Philadelphia Fence Houses Colliery Row Warden Haw
Copthill

every wood dene pond and whin-cover
was known to us in our search for
blackberries mushrooms cat-haws crab-apples nuts

not a bird’s nest in wall hedge or tree for miles around
escaped our vigilance

Remains of what some trapped miners had subsisted on were discovered:

many who escaped to the higher workings
must have subsisted for some time on
candles horse-flesh and horse-beans

part of a dead horse was found near…

The pits were sufficiently damp in some parts for fungus to sprout:

Mushrooms
grow in the pits
at the bottom of the props
and where the muck’s fallen
100 yards or more from the shaft

There are numerous tragic and often grisly accounts of the fates of miners:

Burnhope Colliery he
finished his shift
ravelling out-bye
along a new travelling way
passing the upcast shaft
there was a door he opened
and stepped into the shaft
and fell
to the bottom

Occasionally there are redactions and it’s not clear what they are concealing or protecting from public consumption, since in the following example the name of the killed miner is mentioned at the end:

xxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxx carried away down by the rush of
coals. Xxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxx xxxxx, xxx
xxx xxxxxxxx, William Robinson, was beyond hope

Seed uses deliberate repetitions of the manner of many miners’ demises to emphasize the terrible uniformity in the causes of death:

Crushed by tubs on engine plane Struck on head by horse
Crushed between wagons and wall Fall of stone Crushed by
tubs on engine plane Crushed by tubs on engine plane
Crushed by the cage starting as he was getting into it
Explosion of a shot Run over by four tubs of stone Head
crushed between tub and timbers Fall of stone Fall of coal
and stone Crushed on pulley wheel…

The anonymity of the casualties makes it all the more chilling. There’s a fascinating quote from one W. Stanley Jevons on the hazards of the Davy lamp:

‘It was supposed that George Stephenson and Sir H. Davy had
discovered a true safety lamp. But, in truth, this very ingenious
invention is like the compass that Sir Thomas More describes in
his Utopia as given to a distant people. It gave them such
confidence in navigation that they were ‘farther from care than
danger.’ No lamp has been made, or, perhaps, can be made, that
will prevent accidents when a feeder of gas is tapped, or a careless
miner opens his lamp, or a drop of water cracks a heated glass, or
a boy stumbles and breaks his lamp.’

It’s not entirely clear how much of Seed’s book is drawn from coal miner transcripts but the considerable employment of prose throughout suggests much of the work is drawn from such sources, though I might be wrong; it then occurs to me to skip to the back of the book and there sure enough is a Postscript by Seed which details his extensive use of transcripts and other sources throughout. In these senses, then, much of Brandon Pithouse can be classified as ‘found poetry’. Whether transcript prose or transcript poetry, it still makes for intriguing reading:

putting is sore work dragging the coal corves or tubs
using a harness called the ‘soames’
a chain passed between the legs hooked to an iron ring
attached to a
leather belt blisters as big as shillings and half-crown pieces
blisters of one day broken the next and the
girdle stuck to the wound crawling on hands and knees
dragging the coal through the tunnels from the workings to
the passages where pony putters could be used
dis thoo think we deserve to toil awl day in livin’ tombs?

That last line in dialect is a nicely evocative touch. We get a taste of Durham wit in some anecdotes and jokes included throughout –the following one is priceless:

Hangman to a murderer on the scaffold at Durham Gaol:
‘You can have a reprieve if you start work, putting at the drift.’

Condemned man: ‘Pull that lever.’

‘Putting at the drift’ obviously means to go down the pit –there’s a sense of synecdoche in the imagery of a lever used both for dropping the hatch for a hanging and for lowering the cage of miners into the pit. One George Hancock tells us:

I was 15 year old and nine month
when I started to hand-putt
and that is the worst job God ever created
shoving it behind a tub

And, ‘for Ralph Hawkins’:

Smash me heart marra
me puttin’s a’ done after his
first day down the pit
head in his hands
he told his mother he
wished he was 65

Gas is one of the perils of pit-life –the repetitions of ‘damp’ in the following passage is accumulatively effective:

Carbon monoxide is colourless odourless tasteless lighter than air
damps or foul airs kill insensibly
they are most in hot weather
infallible trial is by a dog and candles show it
in south winds colliers suffer from carbonic acid gas
white damp black damp and fire damp heavy sulphurous air not
fit for breath
black damp or stink could knock a man down

Some tropes are mini-poems, almost haiku:

Traces of gas in the dark

tiny little sparks in mid-air
or bubbling on the wet
black surfaces

In many respects Brandon Pithouse would work particularly well for radio as a work for voices very much along the lines of Ewan MacColl’s The Big Hewer (1961) as cited in my opening paragraph. The scriptural layout of parts of the text almost suggest this:

Jim Green
I’ve seen fellas who were deaf
stone deaf underground
and they would
tap

sound of knuckles tapping a surface

the roof
and they would tell you
if
it’s
safe

and if they said it wasn’t safe you better take notice of them

because them seem to know something you didn’t

We come upon what appears to be part of an 18th century transcript about a pit disaster:

and heard the blow, and see what it threw out of the pit, and
shatter’d about the Gins: There was one thing very strange in it,
as I was told, That a Youth of 15 or 16 Years of Age, was blown
up the Pit and Shaft, and carried by the blast about 40 Yards from
the shaft, the Corps was found all intire, save the back part of his
head, which was cut off, though the Shaft is sixty Fathoms deep,
which is an Argument of the mighty Force this Blast is of.
1705

This is actually a trail of 18th century transcripts reporting various pit disasters. We come upon another from 1708, one from ‘Lampton Colliery near Chester-le-Street, 1766’, a pit fire and explosion in 1806 and so on. On occasion Seed’s descriptions of these tragedies is more poetically engaged in terms of language and image:

Heworth morning of the 25th May 1812 about half past eleven
darkness like early twilight
inverted cone of black dust carried away on a strong west wind
falling a continued shower a mile and a half around
covered the roads so thickly
footsteps of passengers were strongly imprinted in it

clothes, tobacco-boxes, shoes, the only indexes by which they
could be recognised

Such descriptions are not for the faint-hearted and that Seed can wring poetry out of them is a tribute to his craftsmanship:

bodies in ghastly confusion: some like mummies, scorched dry
baked. One wanted its head, another an arm. The power of
the fire was visible upon them all; but its effects were
extremely various: some were almost torn to pieces, others
as if they had sunk down overpowered with sleep. Some
much burnt, but not much mangled. Others buried amongst
a confused wreck of broken brattices, trapdoors, trams, and
corves, with their legs broken, or their bodies otherwise
miserably scorched and lacerated.

The trope ‘as if they had sunk down overpowered with sleep’ is particularly powerful; as is the following lyrical passage, which, in its sparseness, is all the more potent:

From the position in which he was found
as if he’d been asleep
when the explosion happened
and never after
opened his eyes

That the tone and form of each anecdote varies goes in the work’s favour:

William Bell working in the pit morning of the disaster
Hebburn 1849 he was knocked down and rendered deaf and
while he was making his way to the shaft he
fell and knew nothing until he found himself at home

The pits, it seems, are littered with bones and corpses of miners or ghoulish memories of their grim witnessing –and not only of miners, but pit-ponies and horses as well:

…a horse lying dead directly in
the passage his head turned over his
shoulders as if in the falling he
had made a last effort to escape

Some accounts are composed more prosaically: ‘It came like a heavy wind it blew all the candles out and small/ coal about and it blew Richard Cooper down and the door upon/ him’. And the homes of so many miners’ families often reduced to funeral parlours:

As I knew many of the pitmen there at Haswell, I walked over
to see their families.
In the Long Row every house save one had its dead.
In one house five coffins – two on the bed, two on the dresser,
and one on the floor.

Latticed throughout this work are almost stream-of-consciousness passages:

collieries idle or working short
time the foundry gone the township
one little part of the wreckage

hard times together
criss-crossing of kinship and friendship networks

little to do and nowhere to go

gas-lit main street

bare bones of existence abject poverty multitude of meanings

exploited sweated underpaid health ruined maimed

It’s also important to note that Brandon Pithouse is not only a very oral but also visual work in terms of its layout on the page: many of the lines are double-spaced as if to give pause for breath between the lines or simply emphases to them; some passages are presented as poems, others as blocks of prose; it is a restless work which constantly shifts in shape on the page. Seed includes a striking quote from writer Sid Chaplin (OBE; 1916-86) who was himself from a Durham mining family and worked down the pit as a teenager before educating himself and then embarking on a fruitful literary career:

‘I have to guard myself against waxing poetic on the theme of this
great galaxy of villages each with the pit as its focal point, and each
nurturing a sort of semi-tribal community which in the light of
present-day urban society, seems almost a dream of paradise – a
sort of pitman’s Paradiso, safely set in the remote past. The
corrective is to remember the harshness, the filth, the disease,
above all the smells. At the same time, their achievements cry out
for celebration. Against all the odds, they and the folk who
inhabited them built up communities prepared for every
contingency, little societies of great strength and resilience and full
of vigour and humour.’

Chaplin’s literary gifts are tangibly in evidence in such glorious phrases as ‘galaxy of villages’ and ‘pitman’s Paradiso’. Some of Seed’s anecdotal histories are quite sublime vignettes:

6th December 1934 I met a man
trudging under the rain along a

muddy road a mirror the
omniscient narrator he was

small sturdy perhaps forty-five his
unprotected clothes were wet

an empty pipe in his mouth
out of habit he said

no tobacco in his pocket aye
and no prospect of affording any

Similarly to MacColl’s works Seed’s organises each topic associated with coal mining and so we move methodically through themes: from pit disasters to horse-keeping etc. The transcripts headed by the italicised name of the speaking miner as a script would be set out suggest verbatim transcription and it’s interesting to see how Seed uses line breaks and enjambments as if, presumably, emphasizing where the speaker pauses for breath between tropes, and this also gives the strong impression of the pithier and shorter verbal sentences more typical of the North of England:

Dennis Fisher
first job I ever had
I was placed into the stables to work
I could have been a horse-keeper if I
wanted to I liked the ponies
liked working with the ponies
and without those ponies
and we had two hundred of them in Chilton colliery
there wouldn’t have been
any coal production whatsoever
without the pit ponies
they were the ones that did all the work
taking the empty tubs in
to the coal-face for the coal-hewers
and bringing the full ones out
and it’s not
it’s not on the level
when you go down the mine it’s not level
you’re going up steep hills
and going down steep banks
it wasn’t very easy work for the
pit ponies

You can almost hear Fisher pause for breath abruptly at each line-break. The deceptive simplicity of some of the poems camouflage fine craftsmanship:

Some people have a feast every pay-day
and some have spiced cakes and having spent
their money will live poor towards the end

of the fortnight for three or four days
or more until payday come again perhaps
they’ve only potatoes and salt for some days

Seed’s unshowy prosodic craftsmanship places much oral emphasis in line breaks and spacing of lines to give greater emphases, as in ‘for Edmund Hardy’:

Occasionally the pit ponies
were brought out of the pit

and ran loose in two fields

again and again they ran

from one end to the other

And here:

I have seen men working in the pit all day
with only a bottle of water
and oatmeal in it

Everything down to toileting is detailed: ‘no flush toilets them days/ a fire hose/ to wash all the excrement down a pipe/ onto the Pit Dene’. There’s a poignant juxtaposition of the young men lost down the pit with those lost simultaneously in WWI:

in 1914
a miner was severely injured every two hours
and killed every six hours
like a soldier remembering a campaign he said
the lads in the ‘C’ drift where I was
in there
there’s only one left alive
all of them died young
Hank and all them
Hank collapsed and died
Wally Purvis Clemensey
all big hitters all gone
them’s the empty chair in the club
and they all worked in the same flat

One miner is found dead in a surprising manner but in a scene otherwise undisrupted:

the deceased fell out from between two props

there was no timber displaced
tub was on the way
pony standing quietly

Some moments in the book are quite oblique:

flaming place that’s safe in the pit?

Let the coal
Stay
There

One transcript, shaped into a poem on the page, relates the sad story of a pit boy killed on his first day:

the Friday night
there was a little laddie standing
at the pit gates
he asked a dark night he asked me
could he accompany me to Birtley
afraid of the dark you see
& I asked him who he was he says
I’ve left school today
Catholic school at Birtley
I’ve been to the colliery office
to get a job
he says me mother’s a widow
and I can get a job at the pit
so the manager’s told uz that I can
start on Monday
I says come on sonnie I says
you can go half way when I go
up Eighton Banks you can
go along to the huts where he was living in Birtley
canny little lad he was

so anyway I was chairman of the Lodge
and on the Tuesday following
never thought anymore about it
a man came from the pit to tell uz
that I had to go straight to the pit
there’d been a fatal accident
didn’t know who it was
so off I went I
left me breakfast
and went to Bewick Main Pit
it’s about a mile and a half or
two mile
here’s this little lad
lying in the ambulance house
head off
top
been caught with the girder
he was killed outright
second day down the pit
at the Catholic school on Friday afternoon
and got his leaving certificate at fourteen
killed eh
nice state of affairs
and a widow to start with
from the first world war

Another transcript, presumably from an audio interview, includes some phonetically emphasized Durham pronunciation and idiolect:

When it did come away me and Jimmy were sitting in the tail
end getting wa bait. And Bob R. and Tommy C. was the
officials.
Could hear this bloody noise. Looked alang the face. And there’s
coming alang ...

Within half an hour the whole Mullergit five hundred metres in
was flooded completely. Reet alang the face, reet alang the
tailgate.

And it took six weeks to pump down they found an under -
ground lake and also stone archways which wasn’t on the plans
at all and they hadn’t a clue where these archways came from.
There was a swally in one of the gates. And you had to jump on
the boat to get through the water.

We get a depiction of the physical handicaps caused by years working in the pits, bow legs (or rickets), rheumatism etc.:

bent double into the wind sometimes
they could hardly walk

shadowy figures in the twilight

they’d be soaking wet by the time they got to work
and it was a wet pit
soaking wet still when they got home

not a bit of wonder they’re all
rheumatic bent old men now

for all their strange appearance you knew
no harm would come to you

The constant wetness of clothes and bodies, an occupational dampness, continues as a theme:

soaked knee-pads rubbing into the bones
wet straps cutting into skin

he used to come home soaking wet
this is before the baths were built
and we were always drying clothes in front of the
fire soaking wet they’d be
as if he’d been out in the rain

And, presumably in Durham idiolect again:

Yell watta
day watta
red cankery poison watta

And a distinctly wet funeral for one deceased miner:

Geordie used to hate wet workin.

And the day of his funeral, it was during the Strike. It was chuckin
it down. We were at the gates of the cemetery, all wor badges on.
And an aad couple came along. ‘Huh. They’re picketin the
cimitiry noo, yer knaa. We cannot bury wor dead’.

And we followed the hearse up and Geordie’s coffin was. Water
actually came awer the top. It’s a wonder he didn’t wake up and
yell. He hated water. He wouldn’t get a wet note off Wilfy A.

There’s some deft alliteration and build up of images in the following poem:

In the Buddle Pit when the rope
broke or the cage left the conductors
all hands in the pit had to
seek their way to bank by an

old pit near Broomside we had to
travel and crawl through abandoned workings
broken-down roads blocked with old timber
falls of stone pools of water

puddles ankle deep and then ascend
on chain ladders amidst a stinking
stifling atmosphere of black damp
reaching Rainton bare-headed bruised and cut

The constant breathing in of coal dust inescapably produced black mucus:

We used to always have a saying
the lads at the end of the shift
you used to give a bit of a cough

and they used to say
gan on
get the blackuns up

mind it used to
be black phlegm it was
just dust man

One George Taylor relays:

I learnt a lot off old miners
these old miners
they were old men
at forty-two years old

aa’ve had to gan with the owd bugger

and they were the nicest fellas in the world
and that’s where I learnt the pit work

Seed serves up oral history as anecdote-cum-prose poem impeccably:

It’s a terrible thing, emphysema. When they give him stuff all
coal dust came up.

Well he died of it, and my father died of that as well and he was
first Bevin Boy in South Shields to say I’ll not go down the
pits. And they put him in Durham prison for six solid weeks
for being defiant. It was in the Gazette. He was just eighteen
years old.

And on the headlines it said ‘YOUTH. I WILL NOT GO
DOWN THE PITS’. Even his doctor who he was under, for
bronchial, he wouldn’t sign the certificate to give him to the
man – what do you know, the judge or whatever.

All me mother knew – the policeman knocked at the door and
he said: ‘Can I have a toothbrush and a change of clothing’.

She says: ‘What for?’

He says: ‘Ralph’s going straight up’.

He went to prison rather than go down the pit and when he’d
finished his six weeks he was a changed young lad. And the
day that he came out the feller knocked at me mother’s door
and said: ‘Your Ralph has to report to Whitburn Colliery and
start on Monday’. He made him go.

And again the Durham vernacular: ‘Ah man but aa was bad aa/ nearly smelt brimstone that time’. There’s a prose passage which details the horrendous physical scars on so many miners’ bodies, particularly their hands and ankles, areas exposed to the toxicity of coal dust for long periods of time, or symptoms of bacterial infections peculiar to mining:

History the history of bodies in pain impossible to button his
clothes lace his boots use a knife and fork hands are often
knocked skin abraded local throbbing or ‘beating’ pus will
track along the tendon sheaths most often to the back of the
hand inflammation considerable swelling in the centre of the
hand the skin will be hot and glazed inflammation of the
synovial membrane of the wrist joint and of the tendon sheaths
swelling and thickening around the affected wrist-joint
stiffness of the joint pain on movement and crepitations the
lesion may be erythematous or may consist of boils the lower
part of the legs and the forearms round the ankles at the upper
level of the clog or boot and also round the waist at the level of
the waist-belt coal dust is infected with staphylococci

We come upon a six line poem-vignette spoken by one Tom Lamb mid-sentence:

and me back was catching the roof
making scabs down yer back
called pitman’s buttons

it would heal over the weekend
and you would go in and
knock them off on the Monday

The term ‘pitman’s buttons’ shows how poetry crops up in the most unlikely of places. The defiant wit of the miners is everywhere in evidence as in a prose anecdote in Durham dialect from the Sixties in which some of them are discussing the closures of pits, which leads onto a punning punchline:

We were in the top deck. Well the top deck has a bar runs across
it, and you can sort of lean on it, well S. was leaning on it. And
our Len says: ‘Aye, aa knaa two bliddy mair they should shut’.
S says: ‘Aye what’s that?’
‘Thy bliddy ARM pits.’

Miner Dennis Fisher recounts through one of Seed’s poem forms how ‘each colliery was allotted a target/ for tonnage/ a tonnage target/ and we were all patriotic’ and how the miners always met their targets and looked ‘up at the pulley wheels/ to see if the flag was flying’ and how ‘we’d reach the target/ we reached the target every week/ till that flag/ was flying in tatters’. Then there is a particularly poignant trope:

and then we got a new flag
in 1947 when the collieries was nationalised
and at last the pits belonged to us
so we thought

And:

New Year’s Day was Vesting Day
miners paraded the streets behind the lodge banner and colliery
band

to Brandon ‘C’ pit head
before a large crowd the blue flag was hoisted

N.C.B. in white in the centre
and a board fixed to the winding engine house:

‘This colliery is now managed
by the National Coal Board
on behalf of the people.’

Some miners are less than nostalgic for their lifelong service to keep the nation heated:

Geordie Ord
if this pit were to close
I’d accept me redundancy tomorrow
nearly 44 years down the pit
it’s a fair good length of time
I haven’t got the figures but
I know the people in Craghead
I would think about two or
three years after they’re finished
retired at 65
nine out of every ten dies
simple reason is
their engine’s finished
they’ve worked
that hard
all their lives

There are many miners understandably embittered after lifetimes of hard graft:

just fancy
a man working 50 years down the mine
and he gets a piece of paper
a certificate (from the National Coal Board)
I’d have given ’em all a hundred pound
in fact some chaps doesn’t come and even accept it
& I’m damn sure I wouldn’t
and some hangs it up and put them in a frame
and some just throws it in the fire
and that’s where mine would go

Another verbal contribution by Geordie Ord is particularly poignant in its prophesying future unemployment and lack of comradeship for redundant miners and is beautifully sculpted into a poem by Seed:

Geordie Ord
everybody’s brothers when they’re down the pit
and that’s the sort of thing I many a time sit
what’s going to happen when the pits is finished
redundant
you haven’t got that sort of comradeship
you just sort of
automatic drift apart

Another anecdote relays something of the machismo of mining culture, not only at work but in leisure:

I saw a woman in there one day in the bar
at Kelloe Club it was Robert Shutt’s mother

and Harold Wilson jumps up straight on his feet
he shouts Mr. Secretary
there’s a woman in the bar here mind

It’s difficult to imagine the erudite and rather cat-like Harold Wilson expressing such manly proprietorship in a pub but then he was from a fairly lower-middle-class Yorkshire background prior to his grammar school scholarship and Oxford. Another anecdote gives a fascinating insight into social attitudes and one-upmanship among the mining class:

There’s too many working people think they’re middle class noo.

I can remember Jacky H. Can you remember Jacky H? At Westa.
I remember him. He used to flee all awer.

I used to say to him: ‘Jacky why do you flee all awer? You’re no
better thought of, man’.
He says: ‘I’m going to be colliery overman at this colliery and’,
he says, ‘I don’t care whose toes I stand on till I get there’.

Once he got the colliery overman’s job that was a joke gan’ round
the pit. His lass went to the shop and asked for a pair of
colliery overman’s pit socks.

One Bill McKie recounts how miners collected their wages in coins and how they ‘just put the money in the pocket/ when they got down the pit/ they hung their coat up/ and I never heard of anybody losing one penny’.

For me, perhaps the most striking example of Seed’s technique in sculpting poems from transcripts is the following –just look at how the poet makes music with the names of various medical conditions and symptoms by cramming them together for rhythmic effect in the second and third stanzas:

black crepe
hung on the pit banner at Durham Big Meeting
pitman’s stoop
making your way in‐bye on foot
breathing through dust
coming off like a black fog
driving the drift from the low seam
cutting coal with a windy pick

pneumoconiosis dermatitis nystagmus
bronchitis and emphysema
breathless wheezing and coughing

beat knee beat elbow torn or damaged knee cartilage
rheumatism hernias arthritis crutches empty jacket sleeves
his twisted frame in old age

The rhythm of the line ‘rheumatism hernias arthritis crutches empty jacket sleeves’ is particularly effective. Then in the fourth stanza there is great use of colour, image and alliteration:

black circles of coal dust round his eyes
small blue veins and blue-black
scars of coal dust cuts on his face

The crippling neurological degenerations engendered by the body-eroding onus of decades down the pits is graphically rendered:

You’d see them
in the village struggling to
walk they
lost weight quickly

gaunt and thin
the club I drank in
used to call it ‘Death Row’
ten miners sitting in a line

you saw it go from ten to nine
to eight to seven you can see
who were lucky
to be alive mind

but they can’t get the words out
can’t breathe properly
bent at right angles

Another retired emphysema-ridden miner relays how his wheeze is so loud it can heard from upstairs. Back in the early 19th century we hear of one winter when the pits were stopped:

Winter of 1810
every pit was stopped
without organisation or halls to meet in or strike pay or
savings
suffering from cold and hunger

delegates’ meetings were hunted out by the owners and
magistrates
mass meetings on the moors dispersed by troops

many arrests the Old Gaol and House of Correction at Durham
were so overcrowded some were held under armed guard in the
stables of the Bishop of Durham a Christian gentleman

families were evicted from their cottages and turned adrift in the
snow after seven weeks the terrible and savage pitmen starved
into submission

One poem-vignette details how the pitmen signed their names:

signing the bond
indicating their assent and signature
by stretching their hands
over the shoulder of the agent
touching the top of his pen
while he was affixing the cross to their names

In the following passage Seed brilliantly puts in some of God’s words to Adam post-Fall from Genesis as biblical interlocution punctuating a covetous voice in Durham dialect admitting to having broken in to the home of an official at the colliery, possibly his employer as hinted in the first interlocutory line which is possibly the opening of a sermon framed to keep miners in their place:

I was at your hoose last neet
You are resisting not the oppression of your employers
And myed meself very comfortable
but the Will of your Maker
Ye hey nee family and yor just one man on the colliery I see ye’ve
a great lot of rooms and big cellars and plenty wine and beer in
them which I got me share on
the ordinance of that God who has said
Noo I naw some at wor colliery that has three or fower lads and
lasses and they live in one room not half as good as your cellar
that in the sweat of his face shall man eat bread
I don’t pretend to naw very much but I naw there shudn’t be that
much difference

But the miner is of course right about his personal judgement of such disparities, even if his act of breaking in is more questionable. The rhyming of ‘said’ and ‘bread’ makes for a cadence to the last two italicised interlocutions which contrasts nicely against the more sinuous tongue of the miner.

Seed is rightly damning in his depiction of the oppression of miners and their families after pit closures, in the 19th century:

workhouse closed to miners the terrible and savage pitmen village
after pit village thousands of families evicted their dwellings taken
by strangers families and furniture handed to their door

camped out on the moors on the roadside in ditches beneath
hedges and in fields under the open sky of the wet fag-end of
summer 1844 children the bedridden at Pelton Fell a blind
woman of 88 evicted out into the rain

throwing their household goods out into the road colliery carts
loaded with furniture moved away into the lanes formed the walls
of new dwellings tops covered with canvas or bedclothes

dozens prosecuted for trespass bound hand and foot forced onto
treadmills to work off their fines

everywhere yeomanry militia dragoons regiments of foot troops
of cavalry marines a strong force of London police

bright glitter of the huzzar’s sabre point of the fusilier’s bayonet

Such utterly merciless militaristic suppression of the oppressed classes has uncanny echoes of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 –famously commemorated in Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy– yet this is over twenty years later! I confess to finding the marked absence of commas particularly in the last line here puzzling; perhaps Seed has again here sculpted a poem out of a verbatim source, yet even so, one would think it would still be punctuated in parts –but it doesn’t really matter, it just means a lot of caesuras. Seed puts the local class divide in graphic perspective in the following slab of prose:

1st August 1844. Two days ago the foundation stone of a
monument was laid on Pensher Hill to the late Earl of Durham
in the presence of 30,000 persons the cost exclusive of the stone
which was given by the Marquis of Londonderry being £3,000.
If the Marquis thought this noble deed should be recorded in
history let it also be recorded that Henry Barrass was a working
man and had worked in his pits for 30 years and that he is in his
80th year with his wife in her 75th and they have been turned
out of their house.

Or were what I assumed the repercussions of pit closures actually those of strikes? It’s not entirely clear, but the following slab of prose suggest a strike has happened:

RESOLUTION: ‘Seeing the present state of things and being
compelled to retreat from the field through the overbearing
cruelty of our employers, the suffering and misery of our
families, and the treachery of those who have been their tools
during the strike, we, at the present time, deem it advisable
to make the best terms with our employers we can.’

There is a stark warning of the poverties and resentments that inevitably foment into violent revolution from the transcript of the Durham Coal Trade Arbitration, 1876:

‘If the workman is to be ‘rudely handled’ by natural laws, and
stripped naked by the laws of political economy, he may some day
be forced to seek for his protection outside of law altogether, and
this is what all thoughtful men should seek to prevent. And let not
the Owners forget themselves, history can repeat itself. Not hungry,
but hungered men know no law, or are amenable to no reason,
seeing that their famished state proclaims they have already past
the boundary, where neither reason or humanity govern the affairs
of life.’

Hunger, indeed, though a sapper of energies, can often, in a very primal sense, energise great aggression; after all, revolutions are normally fought on empty stomachs, at least, by the insurgents. The revolutionary sentiment continues:

Everybody followed Billy he used to call himself
a militant moderate
and to Billy it was a test of endurance
something we had to see through
like the Blitz
he wasn’t going to go back
nobody was going back as far as Billy was concerned
we’re gonna beat the bastards we’ll
endure

Seed intersperses much social document with shards of lyricism:

after dark Dawdon women
crept near their pitheap
when your children are
cold they swarmed over the
coal even the bairns’
sand-buckets were filled

We get a triptych of numbered prose poems recounting how the striking miners were intimidated by police and tempted with bribes by blacklegs and colliery officials:

1
The miner demanded to know what law gave anybody the right
to stop him going home he pointed at his blue uniform and
said this law there were no photographers present

2
I used to have a drawing pin in my glove and I used to poke
them in the chest
that’s enough from you you’d better behave
and the drawing pin used to stick in their chests and
they used to wonder what it was we can do all sorts of things
legality can be sorted out later

3
As you were driving past the pickets were shown fivers
and tenners at the windows brochures were waved at them there
were no photographers present
yeah there were them that waved fivers and tenners through the
window

Many police went undercover, pretending to be miners, possibly as agents provocateur:

I never thought I’d see scenes like this in Britain I never thought I’d
see what I’ve seen on the streets of Easington
we’re occupied we’ve been occupied by the police
police some of them
wearing black
uniforms with no markings

Seed includes this slightly ambiguous, beautifully phrased testament to what one assumes is the accumulative production of the coal pits over generations by prolific novelist, playwright and social commentator J.B. Priestley, writing in 1934:

‘I stared at the monster, my head tilted back, and thought of all
the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time: the
country houses and town houses, the drawing rooms and dining
rooms, the carriages and pairs, the trips to Paris, the silks and the
jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies,
I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out…’

Next we get some cold hard facts and figures in terms of those who profited from the sweat of the coal miners -it's enough to make one spit blood:

Annual royalties accruing to landlords in the Northern Coal -
fields:

Ecclesiastical Commissioners £370,000
Marquis of Bute (6 years average) £155,772
Duke of Hamilton (10 years average) £133,793
Lord Tredegar (6 years average) £83,827
Duke of Northumberland (6 years average) £82,450
Lord Dunravin (for 1918) £64,370
Earl Ellesmere £43,497
Earl Durham £40,522

Evidence to the Coal Industry Commission, 1919.

This is social document writ large. Then there is a fine lyrical miniature in Durham dialect which closes with something of a Balekian trope:

from Thornley Pit
low main best went to all the big houses in
London to the Palace
and Sandringham
I’ve seen tickets for the Palace

A’ the hardship toils and tears
it gies to warm the shins o’ London

That last Blakeian trope really is sublime. Seed brings us almost up to date with the post-Thatcherite hinterlands that are what remains of the collieries and their associated communities:

When Ellington closed in 1994 the world’s press turned out to
witness four ponies brought to bank for the last time and put
out to pasture. Cameras and crews came from everywhere to
present the event for television. Colin P., one of the pony
handlers, was interviewed leading the last pony from the cage.

The day before five hundred men were made redundant in one
of Europe’s worst unemployment black spots and nobody else
noticed.

Seed gifts us an intriguing and touching vignette in succinct prose which is worth excerpting in full:

I have a copy of Proletarian Literature of the United States,
published by Martin Lawrence in London in 1935. It was given
to me by an old Communist in Durham in January or February
1972. I think we met in the back seat of a car on the way to
deliver hot soup and propaganda to a miner’s picket line at a
power station somewhere in the Team Valley. I think it was
snowing. I’m sad and guilty that I no longer remember his name
but I remember his strong lined face under his cap. He must
have been over 70 years old. (I was 21 years old, an unemployed
recent graduate). And I remember the story he told. Of waiting
in the fields at night by the London to Edinburgh railway line
during the 1926 General Strike. Bundles of the Daily Worker
were thrown out of a passing express and spirited away by him
and his comrades to be distributed among the striking lockedout
pitmen in the area. I knew the spot: a triangle of ground
between Low Flatts Road, the main railway line and another line
that crossed over taking Swedish iron ore from Tyne Dock up
to the steel works at Consett. I’d sometimes played there as a
child when there were still pitmen on the windy fells west of
Chester-le-Street. There are none now. But I don’t know how the
book came into my hands. I’m not sure I ever met him again. I
think it got to me via somebody else, with a message. There is
nothing written inside the book. But I think I still know what
the message was. I don’t know the words, though I imagine I do,
across those gaps of time. Forty years; and eighty-seven years,
since the great lock-out of 1926. The book’s cover is faded green,
the spine is frayed and hanging off. Its 384 pages include the
writing of none of the leftist American poets active in the 1930s
whose work was then inspiring me – George Oppen, Charles
Reznikoff, Lorine Neidecker, Louis Zukofsky. And looking again
through its yellowing pages on a grey autumn afternoon in 2013,
there are few of its contributors I have ever read with any great
interest –Kenneth Fearing yes, and perhaps Kenneth Patchen
and Muriel Rukeyser. But I have taken this book with me to
every place I have lived since 1972 – seven addresses, which
doesn’t seem very many, and the last three in London, a long
way from the Lambton Worm and Low Flatts Road and the little
bridge over the railway line that still heads from King’s Cross

This chillingly clinical memo to, presumably, property speculators (there is, incidentally, a compendious bibliography and Notes at the back of the book which will elucidate sources):

Category D: Those from which a considerable loss of population
may be expected. In these cases it is felt that there should be no
further investment of capital on any considerable scale, and that
any proposal to invest capital should be carefully examined. This
generally means that when the existing houses become
uninhabitable they should be replaced elsewhere, and that any
expenditure on facilities and services in these communities which
would involve public money should be limited to conform to what
appears to be the possible future life of existing property in the
community.

The following vignette is clearly a verbatim transcript as its broken grammar indicates –it’s fascinating but distressing to see that dispossessed mining communities characterised their dispossession by compulsory purchase orders and subsequent decanting to other areas to live as being moved out to ‘the reservation’:

the house where I was born
number 21 Lower King Street
early 60’s we realised
something was going to happen
which was the
knocking down of the Lower Street houses

so we decided to
look for higher ground
we found a house up in High Thompson Street
not only had it the luxury of gas it also
had the luxury of electricity
which we’d never ever had
chance to get a television

in 1969
we got the compulsory purchase order
that we had to go the inevitable
to ‘the reservation’
had happened

Seed evidently trawled through old photographs in his research as well as having some shown to him from private albums of interviewees, as the following piece illustrates:

Ivy Gardner’s photographs
All these things
are my life

this one
was when they took the colliery down
that was me gran’s street
that’s the school

that was when me gran’s house was knocked down

The pit villages are depicted as ancient settlements: ‘This little village here/ it was a thriving Roman village when London was a/ grazing ground for Roman donkeys’. Yet there is a change of tack with the following quote from Sid Chaplin:

‘The villages were built overnight – the Americans are much
more realistic about mining than we are. They know it’s a
short-lived thing, relatively speaking. Even if there is fifty years
of coal – what’s fifty years? So they talk about mining camps,
we talk about villages, which is one of the oldest words in the
language. It means a permanent settlement. But most of the
Durham villages were, in fact, camps, and they were put down
as camps.’

This verbatim description of pit-village ruins: ‘Very strange seeing the remaining walls wall-paper sometimes/ peeling off to be able to see the allotments through the gaps all/ the rubble lying about it looked like a scene from the war’. Seed deals in fragments like a literary archaeologist: ‘Men would put their lamps face down in the dust and say, ‘I mind once ...’/
And you’d get a story’. This fascinating, mildly hilarious extract from a middle-class visitor to the Durham pit-town, possibly a social historian or Mass Observation scout (?):

If they had little time, they had less inclination to be examined,
and still less to answer the questions of a total stranger; and
even when their attention was obtained, the barriers to our
intercourse were formidable. In fact, their numerous mining
technicalities, northern provincialisms, peculiar intonations
and accents, and rapid and indistinct utterances, rendered it
essential for me, an interpreter being inadmissible, to devote
myself to the study of these peculiarities ere I could translate
and write ... Even where evidence could at last be elicited from
them, it was so intermingled with extraneous remarks,
explanatory of their opinions upon politics and public and
private affairs, foreign to the question addressed to them, that
it was essential that a large portion of it should be ‘laid out’ by
a process analogous to their own ‘separation’.

Here someone suggests a collating and organising of the recollections of still-living coal miners in the area for recording an oral history, something to last for posterity; possibly the prompt for Seed’s project:

Get those miners who can tell the brilliant stories and sit them
down and get them to tell the stories from the stories you make
something to house the stories something that’s right now that
will be able to be listened to and appreciated well beyond their
lifetime something like a vocal archive that could be listened to
people and appreciated time after might be another way to do a
commemoration plenty of miners still live here

Or, put another way, as an elliptical poem:

To record them and make a record
as a monument
is more of a monument

instead of a sculpture
the stories themselves

all those stories you heard
when you were young
go there’s no record

The following is a profound epitaph to the countless miners who perished in the pits:

In Durham Cathedral a miner’s lamp is kept lit each day a page
is turned in the book of remembrance colliery by colliery the
names of men and boys who died underground with their ages
and dates of their death marks of identity about which no man
had any say and each man has no say.

Next we have an imagistic lyrical poem by Seed:

From Ric Caddel’s Back Kitchen Window

Mile after mile the wet roads the weak light
Empty streets
In plenitude of nature
Windswept
In freezing rain in silence that
Familiar place
Dark hills huge clouds blank
Stone on these slopes the same
End from any source

A thousand stratagems

Vanishing into the air

Ego

Scriptor

[1981]

This is, unusually, followed by the poet’s contextualisation of the poem:

Ric was uneasy about the title of this poem I remember. He
wouldn’t come out and say so directly, of course. But I could
sense some reserve. The fact was, that from the back of Cross
View Terrace you could see a mile or so across to Langley Moor,
a pit village where my grandfather was a pitman for most of his
life and where I spent a good deal of time as a child. Ric and I
walked down that long steep hill a couple of times but we never
got as far as Langley Moor. A pub always intervened. By 1981,
when I drafted this poem, Ralph Seed had been dead for a
decade. And the world of my childhood seemed long gone. So
it was a poem about death and about the disappearance of the
past (and of the poet). And it was evoked by that particular
wintry landscape on an actual January day when I looked out of
that particular window. I also liked the several connotations of
the name ‘Cross View’. Now the death of Ric, who I knew for 30
years, forces me to read this poem in a different way. The words
on the page are the same. But it is now a different poem.

London 23 April 2003

Seed inter-textually introduces his next short poem:

This is to remember Ric Caddel – and now Bill Griffiths too:

Byker Hill and Walker shore
Collier lads for evermore!
Pit-laddie keel-laddie
Cold salt
Waters of the Tyne
Autumn waters of the
Tyne golden
Shadows in the last rays smoking
Till howdy-maw

What is particularly noticeable about the Seed has shaped these transcripts into verses on the page are the numerous enjambments that are all the more marked by the absence of punctuation/commas and the implicit caesuras where sentence clauses stop and start; Seed’s technique gives a –presumably deliberate– disjointedness to the lines:

forgotten spaces organized amnesia the activity of coal mining
erased beneath the surface of the visible rising mine-waters
entrail acidic salts they saturate voids

Romans left more traces in Durham County than the collieries
by the end of the twentieth century few traces of their
existence nothing commemorates places where several
generations thousands worked

and dozens sometimes hundreds died the sense of emptiness
experienced in a place which is losing its memory how to
know a place or represent something you can’t see that isn’t
there everything I don’t remember

we treat what is
as inevitable we stand on the ground of accomplished fact
everything that is but

how did the accomplished fact become one become ‘is’

Following this rather fragmentary poem is this plaintive aside: ‘That’s all over County Durham though, isn’t it./ There’s not many winding gears left./ They’re all planted into little hills all over Durham’. Seed is accomplished at such spare and haunting lyrics:

coal dust it
settled on everything
between the smallest cracks
wedges that
pried apart the world

One of Seed’s most evocative and beautiful poetic flourishes is the following:

Place rather than dates events rolling upland low ridges valleys
with a strong east-west grain. Memories of others ancestral
beings gently rounded ridges occasional steeper bluffs. Frozen
for ever at a particular moment they sat down and became a
part of the place for ever they turned into the place.

Not for ever for as long as

as anyone remembers then
drift off without leaving

any residue

‘We’ like smoke over the fields like rain

Fragments of heathland survive on infertile acidic soils.

In the beginning they went onto the spoil heaps picking out
the coal until there was no coal left then down in Bloemfontein

woods they cleared the soil away and they started working this
seam so we had fires during the 1926 lockout.

Ancient oak woods in steep-sided denes on the banks of rivers
and streams an asymmetry the landscape a waxing gibbous
moon high in the east at sunset the owl of Minerva

takes flight only as night falls

Seed continues in this wistful lyrical mode:

Everything that was lived
experience has
moved away
into

heritage reclamation landscape

blocked drift-mouths ramps collapsed tunnels disused railway
lines viaducts old coke
ovens spoil heaps slurry lagoons

new grassy fields smooth green slopes not quite
real among rolling upland ridges and valleys

dry stone walls thorn hedge
straight enclosure roads

immediacies of an ordinary afternoon where
something happened

times of the southern dynasties where strikes and closures it
was
always ganna gan

The alliterations and assonances in the following lines works extremely well making the lines almost tangible:

oscillate on a semi-tone hear both notes at once a chord
unresolved or archaeology the notion of strata lines edges
blurring edges discontinuity where/when one layer becomes
another each residual layer containing information

fragments left from human occupation left in a midden
sludge dregs the lees

That Seed can excavate poetic turns of phrase from geological data is something to commend:

The true coal formation consists principally of extensive parallel
strata of coal, covered by strata of shale, containing impressions
of vegetables, and not unfrequently remains of freshwater shell
fish and animals.

The strata are frequently intersected by cracks or breaks, which
are filled with gravel or sandstone, and sometimes with a sink
or bending, locally denominated troubles.

There’s a verse made entirely of place names, presumably pits, which is arranged in an almost sing-song manner (I’m unable to format the text as it appears on the page):

Kimblesworth Waterhouses Witton Wham
Pelaw Pelton Stargate Plain
Toronto Hobson Phoenix Drift
Lambton Waldridge Tudhoe Mill
Quaking Houses Langley Moor
Randolph Hutton Tanfield Lea
Brancepeth Cragheed Clara Vale
Lumley Harraton Chester Moor
Chopwell Cornsay No.1
Wingate Ushaw Herrington Esh
Shildon Beamish Sacriston Lintz
Blackhall Edmondsley Framwellgate
Handen Hold Trimdon Grange Wheatley Hill
Dragonville Hamsteels Dean and Chapter
Eden Brandon Pity Me

The final poetic flourish of this long and amorphous work, which is difficult to categorise, closes on a hauntingly nostalgic note:

‘Nana and grandad’s at Langley Moor’
the place was called

from Chester the 42 for Crook
off at the Boyne up Front Street
on the left past Brandon Lane

can’t remember the number

listening you
cannot see how it was

pictures photographs shadows
changing on the wall

tangle of time frames unpainted
sunlight and it’s still there yes

a Saturday morning

a few thousand Saturdays ago

Seed’s polished and succinctly written Postscript serves in itself as a slice of social document and is a fascinating read. Here he contextualises his own familial and ancestral associations with mining in Durham:

I’ve never been down the pit. My grandfather Ralph Seed –
pronounced Rarf – worked down the pit around Brandon and
Langley Moor for most of his life. So did his eldest son, uncle
Jim. I remember him telling me how he left school on the Friday
afternoon and some pit manager said to his dad, ‘your lad’ll be
starting on Monday?’ And he did. My father was marched off to
Germany at the end of the war and avoided the pit. His mother,
my grandmother, Evelyn Nolan, was from several generations
of mining stock too. I found her brother, Cornelius (Con) Nolan,
listed as an accident victim at Bowburn colliery in 1940. I think
I remember Uncle Con’s amazing curly eyebrows and his wiry
frame and deep voice (some 20 years later) – or was that Uncle
Henry? My other grandfather, my mother’s father, was too
damaged by his experiences in the First World War trenches,
which got him the Military Medal and chronic bronchitis, to
work down the pit. But his father John Carroll was a pitman. So
was his father in turn, also called John Carroll, who had escaped
from Ireland as a child in the 1840s. He was a pitman around
Wigan in the 1860s and 1870s and later around Durham. My
last sighting of him is in the 1901 census, listed as a retired hewer
and widower, living with his daughter Margaret (Moore) and
her husband in the little pit village of Kimblesworth. I do not
remember his son, my great-grandfather John Carroll. I was two
when he died, in his early 90s, but my mother told me several
times how he’d held my hands to help me to walk as a stubborn
impatient toddler. I think it was through him that I was called
John.
So for what it’s worth, I can claim several generations of
Durham coal-mining stock on both my father’s and my mother’s
side, as of course can hundreds of thousands of others today,
scattered around the globe. And coalmining was a major part of
the environment in which I was brought up in the 1950s and 60s
around Chester-le-Street. Fathers of school-friends were pitmen,
including Jock Purdon and Joe Donnelly. And my wife’s father,
John McTaff, was a Durham pitman too. But all this is by-theby.
You don’t need to be of coal-mining stock or to have worked
down the pit or live in Durham County to write about Durham
and coalmining. These do not necessarily qualify you; nor does
their absence necessarily disqualify you.

We then get Seed’s own description of the conscious architecture of Brandon Pithouse, which reveals the painstaking process:

And this isn’t biography, auto- or otherwise. What I have done
in this piece of writing is to trawl through hundreds and maybe
thousands of pages of printed sources – books, parliamentary
reports, newspapers, magazines. I’ve also worked on source
materials via many websites. I’ve been particularly keen to listen
to the voices of miners – and their families – and so I’ve
transcribed bits of recorded interviews for radio and television,
some going back as far as the 1960s. From all this material, a
tiny fraction of what is available about the Durham coalfield and
its workforce, I have selected bits and pieces that attracted my
attention. I had no plan, no idea of what I was looking for,
though obviously my selections were partly determined by
preconceptions – some conscious, some unconscious. I then cut,
rewrote and spliced this material together in various forms –
prose, verse of various kinds, with punctuation, without
punctuation, arranged on the page in various ways. And with
no outline or narrative or theme in my mind I shuffled and
reshuffled this material: ellipsis, juxtaposition, disjunction,
parataxis, fragmentation...

Seed then explains how he added his own poetic interpretations and interpolations throughout the text:

I was conscious that my pursuit of material here was not the
same as a historian’s. I was reading in a more haphazard (and
un-disciplined) manner. My focus was wider. My attention was
different. A more striking difference was that I sometimes
rewrote my sources and interjected material of my own. This is
a mortal sin for the disciplined historian who has to treat sources
as sacrosanct. It’s like doctoring evidence in a court of law or
lying in the witness box. In my case, I was not revising my
sources to fit a thesis since I had no thesis. I was merely
interested in making the writing sharper, crisper, more precise,
or at least more interesting. Or perhaps I was just enjoying
cutting and pasting, like a child sitting on the floor brandishing
shiny scissors surrounded by scraps of bright paper. Having said
that, I did treat my sources with respect and I have invented
nothing. (Note to librarian: please do not shelve in the ‘Fiction’
section.) I was particularly keen to respect the language of my
oral sources and in places the writing follows exactly, or as
exactly as I can hear, the pauses and incoherence of the speaking
voice –though sometimes it doesn’t. And where I could I have
usually identified the speaker, as found in the source I’d used.
Serious works of history provide a bibliography precisely so that
other historians can examine these sources, check for misuse or
selective use of evidence. There was no scholarly rationale for
doing this here, but I have listed below a few sources I have used.

Oral history, or history altogether, and its presentations, are things that Seed has thought a great deal about:

It is almost half a century since Hayden White criticised
historians for turning their backs on the literary innovations of
modernism.

‘There have been no significant attempts at surrealistic,
expressionistic, or existentialist historiography in this century
(except by novelists and poets themselves) … It is almost as if
historians believed that the sole possible form of historical
narration was that used in the English novel as it had developed
by the late nineteenth century.’ (‘The Burden of History’ (1966),
in Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural
Criticism, (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1978),
pp. 43-4.)

Despite one or two exceptions in recent decades, the charge is
still probably fair. One major exception is provided by Walter
Benjamin and if there is one historical work that Brandon
Pithouse has some elective affinity to, it is his Arcades Project,
his massive unfinished historical assemblage of materials from
nineteenth-century Paris.

‘The first stage in this undertaking will be to carry the principle
of montage into history. That is, to assemble large-scale
constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut
components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small
individual moment the crystal of the total event.’ (Walter
Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by H. Eiland and K.
McLaughlin, (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p.931.)

Had I world enough and time I would write at greater length
about Benjamin’s work, about its resistance to the conventional
historian’s strategy of scholarly inventory and interpretation,
about its use of montage – and about the powerful creative
matrix out of which it emerged in the 1920s, a matrix that
included Cubism and Surrealism, the film theory and practice
of Eisenstein and Vertov, Kafka and Proust, James Joyce’s Ulysses,
and Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness.

The modernist influence in Seed’s experimental montage approach to social document is palpable throughout Brandon Pithouse. Though Seed’s description of his book-length work is loose and ambiguous he seems more definite about what it is not:

Brandon Pithouse doesn’t claim the status of ‘History’. But nor,
on the other hand, does it aspire to ‘Poetry’ – the territory of
other great and jealous powers. It is not a long poem nor is it a
collection of poems. It is an investigation of what can be done
with source materials. It asks questions of the reader. Some
sections have punctuation, some don’t. Some are clear and
straightforward pieces of prose broken up into lines or fairly
conventional free-verse forms. There is much use of oral
testimony which is represented in lines. Others are different in
style. I wanted to keep moving, challenging myself and the
reader to ask — what are these patterns on this white surface,
how do I make sense of them? And yet the content is generally
clear and made up of contemporary eye-witness accounts and
real events. The formal presentation is meant to draw attention
to itself as words on paper – but at the same time it is not trying
to ‘aestheticise’ painful realities, nor distort for trivial literary
purposes the voices and the experiences of real people.
Something of the cold light of the real, of specificity and
contingency, of the pain of physical labour and the suffering of
real people, – ‘the cruel radiance of what is’, James Agee called it
– filters through these texts I hope. When I trim down some
testimony and then break it up into lines I see (and hear) things
I hadn’t seen (or heard) before. Maybe an open-minded reader
can too? I discussed some of these questions in the ‘Afterword’
to John Seed, Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819, (Inter -
capillary Editions, London 2013).

So perhaps we might say in some senses Brandon Pithouse is a work of ‘found poetry’ –that is, poetry found in, and formed from the various voices and written sources painstakingly pieced together and then fragmented to make the work as a whole. Seed seems to say as much here:

Despite exalted notions of the author, writers work with the
materials they find around them and try to hammer out some
kind of new thing with bits of discursive wood lying around and
rusty nails and old string and glue. …

As for the filmic quality to the text, Seed does indeed use the analogy of the visual documentary:

What I am doing here might even be compared to a film-maker
creating a documentary out of other people’s bits of film and
sound recordings, interspersed with some slight commentary.
Editing as creative act! And this makes me think of another
great unfinished project: Eisenstein’s film of Marx’s Capital,
a project stimulated by his reading of Joyce’s Ulysses at the end
of the 1920s. See also Alexander Kluge’s monumental 9-hour
film: News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Capital
(2008). So perhaps Brandon Pithouse is really a set of notes
for a film that can never be made – and a footnote to Chapter
10 of Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital.

That’s certainly a very compelling way of putting this book into some kind of broader literary and polemical framework –though if just the equivalent of a footnote, it is a very finely fashioned and poetically expressive footnote. Seed continues to speculate to the close of his accomplishedly composed prose Postscript:

History? Poetry? Film script even? In the end these questions
don’t matter very much, though they could take us along
interesting detours on a dull afternoon. Perhaps I could just say
that when Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’
Paterson, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems and Charles
Reznikoff ’s Testimony collided with Walter Benjamin’s
Arcades Project and the first volume of Marx’s Capital and
the newly published History and Class Consciousness of Georg
Lukacs, in pubs and CIU clubs around Durham in the early 1970s
this was what resulted – though it took another forty years to
gather up some of the pieces and try to put them together.

Those forty years have been worth the wait for this fascinating poetic social document-cum-oral history to finally hit daylight. It certainly deserves its place in the modernist canon of mixed-genre poetics alongside the recently critically-disinterred works of, for example, Marxist poet and broadcaster Joseph Macleod (1903-84), particularly his film script-cum-long poem, Script from Norway (1953).

But Brandon Pithouse also belongs to the canon of British proletarian literature and in that and other senses discussed bears comparisons with the works of Ewan MacColl. I think that this book would work even more effectively on audio with different voices –ideally authentic Durham ones– threading throughout, like a play for voices or oral poem-cum-documentary, again, in the MacColl tradition of the radio ballad. But it is, as touched on, also a very visual work, and so its many and varied techniques are to be appreciated on the page; a complementary recording of the book would aurally seal the already evident importance and accomplishment of Brandon Pithouse.

Alan Morrison © 2017