Posts Tagged ‘experience’

I have a very nice life on the East Coast of America, but have been through some unbelievable doses of crazy to get here.  I rarely ever speak about the most formative times of my life, but every now and again I feel like it.  I’m not American – I hail from Northern England, but came here to get married –  literally speaking, with the clothes on my back and a relatively small suitcase, in 2004 (October 1st – the day before Gandhi’s birthday).  Specifically, I come from a place triangulated between Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, called The Dearne Valley.

When I was born, the Dearne Valley had a major coal mining industry, and everyone was gainfully employed.  My grandfather drove coal trains at Manvers Colliery through his whole post WWII career; it supported everyone.  But then around 1984, when I was about 8, the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike due to shitty working conditions and abysmally low wages, and the rest is sadly history; the pits all closed, almost everyone I knew lost their jobs, my parents had a grocer’s shop for a while which they had to close because nobody had any money for food, and the place very tragically crumbled into the pits of hell.  If you ever saw Billy Elliot, Brassed Off or The Full Monty, that is EXACTLY what it was like.  People were cold, hungry, desperate, scared and had no idea how they were going to buy their next meal.  Two of my childhood friends and peers (brothers) were killed aged about 9 and 12, digging into a railway embankment for coal one night to keep the house warm, when a makeshift tunnel they dug off Railway View collapsed.  Suicides and eviction went through the roof.  Everyone went hungry, and we all became experts at sustaining on potatoes and home-grown vegetables.  Maggie Thatcher just died last week, and I could imagine one or two street parties being thrown to celebrate her demise.  Although I don’t fault the Iron Lady or know too much about the political intricacies involved – she was leading a country with a situation on its hands; she may have made some questionable decisions, but she didn’t make the coal run out.  Fossil fuels just runs out; end of story.

But despite the turmoil and the tragedy, the adults in my community worked VERY hard to shield the children from how scared they were.  (And it is tough trying to implement optimism and hope to a kid living in a warzone.)

When the strikes happened, and the “scabs” (fkin HATE that word) were trying to go to work and NOT strike, a lot of violence happened in and throughout my community.  Every village had a pit – sometimes two – and you couldn’t go anywhere (including school) without walking past picket lines.  When we came back from playing football on the rec, the picketing miners outside Goldthorpe pit would always, always share their sandwiches and water with us, and shoot the shit about who won, and which teams we all supported.  Then two days later you’d hear about that same sandwich-sharing man getting his head busted in by a police truncheon, when a fight broke out because another decent man tried to go to work, and a riot broke out.  These were the fathers and uncles and brothers of my friends, who were going to war with each other.  When I was 8 we were escorted out of school, because rioting between miners and cops spilled through into the streets, and one day, into my school itself.  They bloodied up the yard pretty good, and at one point, several cops chased several miners actually into the main school building, which culminated in some very violent arrests outside a classroom where 6-year-olds were finger painting.  It was very exciting at the time; I’m 37 now, and to some extent, the trauma is only just starting to catch up with me.

One thing that occurred to me only recently though is the real root cause behind all of this industrial death:  There was no coal left, and the pit bosses were all too aware of this.  A decade earlier, Sheffield’s world-famous Steel Industry had suffered the same horror, and putting 2+2 together, it was because of the lack of coal.  The Steel Furnaces run on a LOT of the stuff, and towards the end, the coal board were having to choose between whether they kept supplying the steel industry, or sold the remaining dregs to the locals so they could heat their houses.  In the end, we all lost.  And almost 30 years later, self-esteem is in very short supply in that region.  It killed not only people, but everything.

So all is pretty good these days and the place is much more stable; but based on that, I do still have a hard time listening to very privileged people hating on “social welfare systems” and “free healthcare systems”.  To those people, I have only this to say:

If you haven’t lived through desperation, then please tone it down a bit, because you have NO IDEA what you are talking about.  Every “handout” you attack puts bread in the mouths of children.  Every “free” doctor’s appointment saved the lives of MY PEOPLE who would be stone dead without it.  Every scornful face I see ridiculing “Socialist” programs is very lucky to have a place to live, and everyone who resents paying into a system that helps the under-privileged does not deserve to live in a place that would be willing to do so.  If you really do feel that mercenary, I would challenge you to go it alone, in some paradise where you can’t take it all for granted, and the police ARE to be feared and hospitals don’t exist.  Words are deceptively cheap and easy, but can make or break friendships in a heartbeat.  Be kind to everybody; it doesn’t matter where they’re from – it only matters that they are here.