March 16, 2021

Proposals for a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria have been called in, predictably, by a dithering government hedging its bets. Buying time, one assumes, while the algorithm wonks at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government calculate just how popular coal-mining is these days.

Essentially the fate of the mine, near Whitehaven, has been elevated into an exhibition match between The Past and The Future. Local jobs versus global climate.

In the incandescent blue corner — Mark Jenkinson, Tory MP for Workington. He angrily deplores the call-in as a “capitulation to climate alarmists”, which at least drags conservative thought into the 1990s. In the acid green corner, environmentalists wonder if it’s really such a great idea to go rummaging underneath a local landscape rich with tonnes of radioactive shit excreted by Sellafield nuclear power station.

Fossil fuel. Clue’s in the name. Sorry, coal. Even if you win this battle you’ve lost the fight. Leave it mate, the future’s not worth it.

Honestly boomerphobes, there are many things I can’t quite believe I’ve outlived. Britain in Europe. The modem. Woolworths. The concept of shame in political life. Watching live television. Dictionaries. Normal weather. All of the Ramones. Tolerance. Newspapers. Yet the overthrow of coal feels like the last definitive unmooring from a whole epoch of British self-narrative.

Let’s face it, one of the very few positive things to have emerged from The Current Strangeness is cleaner air. This new, puritan climate is a clean break with the dirtiest of all centuries, the 20th. In those days you burned coal in the grate, smoked fags indoors, burned your rubbish in the garden. That’s just how we used to do things, back in the Smoke Age.

Not any more. The phased de-filthification of energy begins this year. Pretty soon you won’t be able to buy bags of house coal from garages and supermarkets and coal will disappear as a domestic fuel by 2023.

It’s odd now to recall those 1970s TV ads urging us to “come home to a real fire”. It all seemed so cosy, and safe. “Coal supplies will last for over 300 years,” the baritone voiceover assured us. The Three-Hundred Year Carbon Reich — what happened to that? “Coal. The fuel for today that won’t run out tomorrow”. It feels like yesterday. Yeah, I know it’s half a century ago but time’s gone weird. Sometimes the 1970s feel more believable than Crazy Frog, say. Or loom bands. Or Gordon Brown’s spell as prime minister.

Banning house coal would surely have been unthinkable even at the start of the millennium. Nutty Slack, like the Cutty Sark, had always symbolised Britain’s glorious, non-negotiable heroic past, when home fires were burning and we ruled the waves, our ships full of precious cargo, never mind what exactly.

Obviously the ban will be a massive inconvenience for people in the country, who have been burning wet wood, peat, lost ramblers and coal since the Bronze Age. “This typically ill-thought-out policy is clearly concocted by metropolitan flat-dwelling elitists,” gargled one rural correspondent in the Telegraph. Always had a lot of respect for the Telegraph. Specifically, its size. Proper old-school broadsheet. Big enough to take the contents of an ash pan; ideal under kindling.

And I do love a coal fire, who doesn’t? Well, my environmentally-literate grandchildren. And they’re just the tip of the Thunberg. An entire generation now stands akimbo, aghast that “grown-ups” have been cheerfully poisoning the air since Stephenson’s Rocket. How feeble we sound when they ask how we’re tackling the earth’s new violent horrorweather: “Well, you see, we’ve started giving the big storms names…”

Hail coal, and farewell. Another smoke gone the way of tobacco. Typical. Plume by plume, how this dull, scoured 21st Century robs us of our romantic past. Those old black-and-white photos of Routemasters, bomb rubble and St Paul’s, all sexy and grainy with airborne particulates. You knew where you were in the 20th Century. Coal smoke in the streets, cigarette smoke in the sheets. Alas, I also know where I am in the 21st Century. Bafflement in the mind and COPD in the lungs, a microcosm of our stupid world.

Coal ran like a black thread through the post-war yarn we spun ourselves. Empire may have slipped to Commonwealth. We may have been broke after World War Two, but we were still a proud nation forging our destiny under Young Queen Elizabeth and Old King Coal. My very first home assignment as a child was to count the sacks being emptied into our coal-hole, to make sure the coalman wasn’t diddling us. The Two Commandments of our household: trust no-one ever and always count your change.

In the 1950s coal was Britain’s main energy source. More than a thousand deep mines. Over 200 million tonnes of it hauled up and burned every year. We loved it. Coal was as cheap as fags. People had real patriotism in those days and no wonder. Britain had invented smog in the 19th century — creating both Cabman’s Emphysema and French Impressionism — and we were determined to stay world champions. If you want to know what post-war London air tasted like, lick some barbecue charcoal.

In the 1960s my family had joined the Great Essexodus from London and settled near Basildon. The new commuter cult quickly fell under the spell of sinister “Mr Therm” and switched to gas, but every house still had an open fire and a bunker out the back. If all else failed, reckoned post-war Britons, there was always Spam and coal. Britain had a Ministry of Power and a National Coal Board then, monoliths of non-accountability.

I was 13 when, in 1966, Aberfan happened; 116 children and 28 adults killed by an avalanche of slurry. Unprocessable horror. The shock of it, the news trickling through our school. The aftershock, too,  when a public inquiry, after months and months in smoke-filled rooms with their beer and sandwiches and cliches, found the NCB squarely at fault. Nobody — not one single scuttling negligible bastard — was ever charged.

Economic downturn followed a few years later. I lived in County Durham in the early 70s, where the Great Dismantling of coal had begun amid poverty and desolation. My wife and I bought our first house — for £500 — in one of several “Category D” pit villages abandoned to die. People were being encouraged to move to Peterlee “new town”. The very poor couldn’t. We lived in First Street. They were numbered up to Eighteenth Street, followed by Shop Street, Office Street and Corporation Street. All curved round the historic heart of the place, the pit.

But every last trace of the colliery had gone, replaced with a large, flat, bleak field. Done. Over. The neighbours were all miners’s families. Laid-off, ignored. On one side, an early-retirement pitman sang opera in the outside khazi. On the other, a lonely widower whose pit mates had all died young. None of the abandoned poor had much of an education but everybody could spell “pneumoconiosis”.

In 1974, the Oil Crisis and a miners’s strike put pressure on Ted Heath’s government to impose a three-day week. It sounds catastrophic but if you were young, lazy and in love then less work and candlelit pubs weren’t too bad. A general election was called. “Who Governs Britain?” barked the Tories, as if the miners had neglected to take off their boots in the pantry. Heath got his answer: NOT YOU, you prancing bollock.

It was the last proper victory for the NUM. Rickety Labour governments lasted a few more years, then in 1979 — SMASH! Through the plate glass in her brown Ford Consul GT came the Conservative Sweeney. Thatcher had sworn to crush the unions, especially the miners, and Lady Handbag had the perfect alignment of popular support, a militarised police force and substantial stockpiles of coal. It was horrible to watch. The miners beaten, physically and politically, then the programme of pit closures rolling over them like fresh turf.

In the end it had always contained its own paradox, mining. Today, it feels like a lost cause — the fight for a lethal livelihood beneath the earth. And now we read that the world’s carbon emissions are falling and we’re glad. The forgettable Not-King Coal. Let’s get on with the future, whenever it arrives. The sun and the wind and the tide.

Once, the economic arguments — working class jobs — would have been enough to wave a new coalmine through. Now? Supporting it feels like putting two kilos of anthracite in a child’s school rucksack.