Jeremy Paxman on Black Gold

Jeremy Paxman

The legendary presenter has written a compelling history of coal mining in Britain.
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Jeremy, why did you write Black Gold, because coal doesn’t appear, at first glance, to be an obvious subject for you?

There were two reasons really. I happened to be in one of those little villages in South Wales, where I thought, looking at it, there is no reason why this this village exists at all because all the infrastructure of coal mining has disappeared from our lives. So, you know, the winding gear has disappeared, the slag heaps have been landscaped. And you think of that and you think also there is nothing more nakedly capitalistic than digging something out of the ground and doing something with it. And I rather admire those people who did, who did all that from scratch, and I just was interested to try to make something out of it.

Well, that really comes across in the book, your admiration for them. But this is a noble profession that I had a huge amount of sympathy for and admiration for the coal miners.

Yes, I don’t think they would have called it a profession. It was manual labour, a very, very hard form of manual labour, but it was manual labour nonetheless. And it wasn’t a profession. It was a way of life. And the problem I think that came about in the 1980s was that because people couldn’t imagine another way of life than that which they were used to. Same for all of us, I suppose. When Thatcher set up dismantling the coal mines, people thought it was a destruction of their way of life. Although I never ever met a miner who wanted his son to go down the pit.

Do you think that would have been true of their, parents and their grandparents?

I don’t think so. I think everyone who ever did it recognised that it was a terrible way of life. And it was merciless, absolutely merciless.

That’s probably a prevailing view nowadays that I think Michael Heseltine repeats, you know, that it was a terrible, terrible, terrible experience to be down those mines. But I guess, in dismantling the community at the same time, that’s what made it such a horrific end to that way of life.

That’s certainly true. I mean they couldn’t imagine a different way of life. And, you know, you think of the place where you grew up, and you think its whole raison d’etre is taken away, and the buildings around you are torn down. Of course, people wanted to hang on to their way of life.

And so the government, the Thatcher government, didn’t put anything in place beyond redundancy payments?

They did. In some of these places, for example, up in the northeast it was the Nissan factory, which was opened to give employment to for miners. So, there were substitute sources of employment. But you know, it’s very hard to imagine something that’s entirely without your experience.

That’s similar to the last line in the book actually isn’t it? “One day it may be impossible to imagine?” Living in the nice, comfortable Southeast, I just can’t imagine anything like that. But do you think we’ve reached that stage already?

I don’t think we will be able to remember people doing that kind of work. And it’s very, very sad. You know, there is an energy crisis coming. And everyone can see it. And coal was the only form of energy that was available in this country at that time and they needed to be able to dig it out of the ground. Men went underground and sacrificed their health and their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their family in order to do it. And I didn’t know that there’s any alternative really. We can go around putting up wind-farms and photo-electric screens in order to maximise photo-voltaic energy, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a substitute. There’s imported gas, partly from Mr. Putin, but also from very unstable areas of the world like North Africa and so on. We will always carry on importing coal. We import currently from Eastern Europe, from South America and from Australia and from China. And sooner or later, those sources of supply are going to run out.

We import coal partly because producing coal in this country became so unprofitable. Why was that?

I re-watched Billy Elliot last night, and that was filmed in Easington Colliery in the Northeast of England. And there the mine shafts were going out seven miles under the sea. Well, of course, you go out seven miles you’ve got to walk seven miles back again. It becomes un-economic to mine coal in those circumstances. All the obvious seams of coal had been exploited. So you’re left with more and more difficult seams, and more and more time spent gathering the coal. The big cost in coal was the cost of getting it out of the ground. I mean, it costs nothing. It’s just a rock.

The sheer agony that the miners went through in the 19th century is exacerbated by the vast sums that were raked in by the landowners. It’s mind-boggling the amount of money that, for example, the Marquess of Bute, the Marquess of Londonderry and their descendants all accumulated.

It was staggering, and it was earned through no effort at all. They just happened to own the land. Public ownership was the goal of the miners from around the turn of the 19th century. “Nationalise the pits, nationalise the pits, nationalise the pits.” And it happened eventually in the 20th century. After the Second World War, coal was nationalised. But they couldn’t make a go of it. Easily exploitable seams had been exploited. And the miners themselves were being paid too much.

They were paid a pittance during the 19th century.

They were but the boot was on the other foot then. The rising trade union power meant that the wages of miners rose.

Were they always let down by the leadership of the trade unions?

I don’t think they were always let down. They were rather looked up to by the rest of the trade union movement because it was recognised that it was a very, very tough job. I don’t think they were always let down. They were occasionally let down, sometimes, yes, but they were bloody difficult to deal with.

When you say they were looked up to by the rest of the trade union movement, I guess that’s why they’re the ‘aristocracy of the trade union movement’?

They were the aristocracy of the trade union movement, and many of their employers were genuine aristocrats!

I see it as such a waste of national resources, that money just going to follies in Cardiff Castle and things like that.

Well, I don’t agree. It’s going to be spent, it’s going to be spent on something. Would you rather it went into the national coffers and built the Millennium Dome or something?

Well, maybe not the Millennium Dome. But perhaps one could think of a national endeavour?

A national endeavour of some kind I don’t know. The Millennium Dome always strikes me as a completely fatuous enterprise. Yet that cost 1000 million pounds, and for what?

The numbers of miners who were killed during the 19th century was extraordinary. I could have got this wrong, but I think it was around 100,000. I was thinking that the numbers of soldiers killed during the 19th century, in all of the various wars throughout that period, and it’s around about the same figure. Would you say that we’re quite an ungrateful nation?

I wouldn’t say we were ungrateful; I wouldn’t say that. It’s easier to imagine the call of the trumpet, the siren call to fight for your country. It’s much easier to imagine that than it is to imagine working down the pit.

The 100,000, those are deaths in accidents. If you think about illness.

Countless, countless miners were maimed, or suffered miner’s lung or other forms of respiratory illness or brain disease. A lot of them were blind too.

There was one quote that struck me from a union leader in 1944, this is prior to nationalisation, when he said, “owners have never willingly given a single concession.” Now, obviously that’s coming from the opposing side, but was that right?

I don’t think was entirely true. I mean, the miners like to exaggerate how dangerous a game it was, of course they did. And I think there was an awful lot of bad blood, such bad blood all round, that I wasn’t surprised when people made up things like owners never did anything for the miners. I didn’t think it was true. There were things that were done. But you know, if you are the boss you have to live with the stigma of being the boss. They kind of deserved each other. This was the aristocracy of the labour movement against genuine aristocrats; the landed, aristocratic class.

The big strike is during 1984/85, that I think you deal with sensitively, but Arthur Scargill is slightly villain of the piece, what with his nice flat in the Barbican and a shiny Jaguar. But he was right, wasn’t he that the Thatcher government was intent on destroying mining?

He was right. I mean, that’s what got me. I thought he was wrong; exaggerating. In fact, he was right. Scargill was right. But it’s too late now, of course.

And did you ever come across him in your reporting days in the 80s?

Yes, I did. He was a very difficult man to deal with. Very difficult because the line between truth and untruth with Arthur was a slightly murky one.

And he certainly took a dim view of the press, didn’t he?

Oh, yes. Why not? I think that the miners were having a very hard fight, and a very, very uneven struggle. They were bound eventually to be defeated.

With the Battle of Orgreave, I had assumed it was two violent groups clashing. But that’s not really fair, is it?

I don’t think it is. The police were deployed as a ‘National Police Force’, which was something quite new in this country. And they were equipped with riot shields and snatch squad shields and batons and so on. And there were scenes that I thought I would never see in this country. So “a plague on both your houses”? That’s a luxurious position.

I understand that. The police were backed up to the hilt by the Thatcher government, weren’t they?

There were unlimited overtime bills paid. Policemen earn vast amounts of money policing that strike.

Another area of mining that was in Nottinghamshire which equally felt betrayed by the Conservative government, this time in the 1990s, since many carried on working during the Miner’s Strike.

They did and those things still rankle. Put two miners together, and the first thing that happens is they size each other up for which side of the strike they were on. As you know, a lot of the miners became members of the Union of Democratic Miners which was founded during the course of the National Union of Miners’ national strike. Even now the bad blood still survives; they really don’t care for each other.

Finally, Jeremy, did you go down a mine during the course of your research?

Yes, I have several times.

And what was that like? Because it’s difficult for me to comprehend.

Terrifying. I think many people were apprehensive the first time they went down and then got used to it. And that is true. I’m 6 foot 1. I’m not particularly tall by the standards of our times, but there’s the banging of your head constantly against the ceiling when walking that gets you. That’s assuming you can walk. A lot of the places you can only crawl. It’s horrible. It’s easy to get frightened too. Fear is a product of the imagination, but it is easy to get frightened. I’ve been potholing with a friend and he thinks it’s fun. I find it absolutely terrifying. It’s the fear of being trapped. Not being able to turn around in a space is awful.

Reading about the wounds on the backs of the miners. Because it’s so hot down there, they had to take their tops off and the wounds on their vertebrae from scraping their backs along the wall..

Yes. Like the buttons on a coat down their back, on each vertebra.

Well Jeremy, it’s been fascinating. Thank you. Are you planning a new book?

I’m working on a book about the trial of Charles the First. I’m in the middle of research. If you could see my office here, you will see I’m surrounded by piles of books, which I haven’t yet read.

Jeremy Paxman is a journalist, broadcaster and writer, and author of Black Gold: The Story of How Coal Made Britain.

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