Down and Out in Paris and Glasgow

“Coal is history.”

It’s a line from Brassed Off, the Pete Postlethwaite and Ewan McGregor film whose anti-Thatcherite narrative concerning the decimation of the coal industry in the 1980s, has a brass band sound track (Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Orange Juice” is particularly effective on the cornet – or was it a flugel horn?).  The consigning of coal to history is, in the context of the film, a matter of some regret.  But times change.  Alok Sharma might have wished to borrow the “Coal is history” line in Glasgow at the end of an evidently very long weekend, but he wasn’t quite able to be so definitive.  Coal is to be “phased down” rather than “phased out”.  Coal has a wee way yet to go.    

When I was a boy, everybody burned coal.  And when my dad was a boy, he used to scour the Ayrshire beaches in search of “duff”, a mixture of sand and coal dust.  (I don’t know how effective a fuel it was, but I imagine it was pretty duff.)  I remember the coal was delivered off the back of a lorry in hundredweight bags.  The coalmen wore a tabard to offer some protection to the shoulders and back.  Others would patrol the streets vending their wares – “Co-aaaal… briquettes!”  The coal was kept in a bunker and transferred to the scuttle on the hearth.  You lit the fire using old newspapers and wood kindling.  Then add a little dross, and then the coals themselves.  On the hearth would be a “companion set” with which to clean up after the ash was removed.  The ash was transferred to the “dustbin”, and indeed ash dust was the principal non-recyclable detritus, because anything else that was no longer of use was burned in the fire.  There was no plastic to speak of.  My father taught me that the only thing you couldn’t burn was silver paper of the sort that covered a Fry’s Cream or a Fry’s Five Centre.  I used to amuse myself by pushing the poker under the burning coals, until it glowed red hot, then white hot.  Nobody had central heating.  Radiators belonged to schools and hospitals.  Sometimes, if the atmospheric conditions were right, a smog would descend over Glasgow.  A real pea-souper.  I would walk home from school like a pilot, instrument flying in cloud, unable to see the hand in front of my face.    

When I was a medical student I went down a mine, in Loanhead, Midlothian.  I remember performing a Valsalva manoeuvre to equalise the pressure in my ears as we plummeted down two thousand feet at breakneck speed.  I was surprised at how warm, indeed hot, the atmosphere was.  We walked along a broad avenue and then turned into a series of dwindling passageways until at length we reached the coal face.  The last section was a long and claustrophobic tunnel.  I might have been under Stalag Luft III.  At least the business of extracting the coal was being done by an automated rotating digger, rather than a miner with a pick axe. 

One of the few Wilfred Owen poems that is not a war poem is Miners. 

There was a whispering in my hearth,

A sigh of the coal,

Grown wistful of a former earth

It might recall.    

Owen uses his trade mark half-rhyme throughout; hearth – earth, coal – recall.  The half-rhyme produces an atmosphere of wistfulness and poignancy and of loss, of reaching out for something elusive and intangible; the dying fall of a whizz-bang heard at a distance, from a redoubt in the Ypres salient.  Miners is a war poem in disguise.

And I saw white bones in the cinder-shard.

Bones without number;

For many hearts with coal are charred

And few remember.     

In his essay Down the Mine, George Orwell depicts work that is backbreaking, pitiless, and ultimately soul-destroying.  I wonder what Orwell would have made of the deliberations in Glasgow, and the fine distinction between “phasing down” and “phasing out”.  It seems to me there is an element of the absurd about a conference of parties, on the brink of physical, psychological and spiritual exhaustion, staying up all night fine-tuning the text, wrestling with niceties, trying to stumble on a formula that will mimic a sense of accord.  As someone frankly phobic of committee meetings, I think come 5 pm on Friday, had I been in Mr Sharma’s shoes, I would have said, “Down – out – whatever.  It’s a wrap.”  After all, if you are going to “phase” in the downward direction, you are going to have to phase down before you’re out.  The trouble with staying up all night obsessing about this stuff is that you lose all sense of proportion.  You might as well debate how many angels can dance on a pinhead, or how many children had Lady Macbeth.  This is why airline pilots and surgeons don’t operate when tired.  But for politicians, all night sessions, particularly at the end of a COP, are de rigueur.        

I have a sympathy for the developing world, who feel they should not be lectured to by the west, who after all have caused all this trouble in the first place.  We have had our coal and burnt it.  I’m less sympathetic towards Australia.  Why on earth would you want to mine coal in Australia?  I worked in Brisbane in the 1980s.  It was 37 degrees Celsius by 7.30 in the morning.  Australia could turn the hot red centre into a vast solar panel and heat the world, of they were minded so to do.  But they would rather sell coal to the Chinese.  Meanwhile we are losing the natural world. The Great Barrier Reef is dying.  If I’d been stuck in some committee room down the Broomielaw in the wee small hours propping my eyelids open with match sticks, I would have been doodling mindlessly on my scratch pad, looking for anagrams of Alok Sharma.  Harms koala.                    

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