Friday 23 October 2020

Slag heaps and hope - Sue Purkiss

I always listen to the Today programme in the morning (though these days it's beginning to feel like an exercise in masochism), but there are some bits I tend to tune out of - such as Thought for the Day. But the speaker on Tuesday - Nick Baines, the Anglican Bishop of Leeds - caught my attention. Perhaps it was his quiet, relaxed tone of voice with its slight northern accent - or perhaps it was because he started off talking about things I could relate to: his childhood memories of two significant events. The first was the assassination of J F Kennedy, and the second was the Aberfan disaster, which happened on the 21st October 1966 when a mountain of slag, destabilised by heavy rain, slid inexorably downwards to smother the school in the village of Aberfan, killing 166 children and 28 adults. I remember that too - the horror of it, as we watched the news and saw the pictures of what had happened. 

He went on to speak of Yorkshire, where he lives, and where the slag heaps of his youth, the detritus of the mining industry, have now vanished, to be replaced by fields and - doubtless - houses. His point was that things can change and ugliness can be vanquished, and that it's important to remind ourselves of this.

I too was brought up in a mining town - Ilkeston, in the Notts/Derby coalfield. The local pit had closed recently, I think before I was born, but the workings and the slag heaps  - the tips - were still there. The mine that I remember was at the back of Shipley Wood beside a reservoir; we would see the winding gear when we walked in the woods to gather bluebells or play in the shallow hollows, which were perhaps the remnants of earlier mining. 

I couldn't find a picture of the tip I remember, but this is Ilkeston. The tip was somewhere over to the left of the viaduct.

But it was a huge tip at a different pit which I remember best. It was visible from Cotmanhay, where I was born: you could see it from the school, or when we walked down to my dad's allotment beside the canal. To me, it was an ugly thing, dark, dead, grim. 

At the moment, there isn't a tip dominating the physical landscape. But there are a lot of dark threats louring over the metaphorical landscape. The virus, and other things too. But it's the virus that's really impacting on children's lives at the moment. Yesterday I was talking to a friend who has children in secondary school. She was saying how the whole family is hoping that a planned weekend in Cornwall can go ahead: they desperately need something to look forward to, she said. At school, it's just lesson after lesson: everything is hedged around with restrictions, there's nothing to look forward to. Christmas and New Year, at least in their usual form, look like being cancelled: winter looks like a long, dark tunnel. And I fear, perhaps even more, for the impact on younger children, in a world where you have to be careful of hugs, where changes, imposed from above, disrupt the normal patterns of young lives - seeing grandparents, going to the park, having holidays.

To me, as a child, the rather grim landscape around the estate where I lived was what it was. I couldn't imagine how it had been before the pits and the council estates had arrived: I couldn't imagine it being any different. But it is different, it has changed. The tip has gone. What was dead and black is green and living. Today's children are living in a different world; perhaps, unlike the child that I was in the shadow of the tip, they already have the confidence, the conviction, that change can happen - that they can make it happen. (They have some terrific role models - Greta Thunberg, for example. I don't remember figures like that when I was a child - though there were figures in books who could make things happen, make things change: Heidi, Katy in What Katy Did, Jo in Little Women, Anne at Green Gables.)

As I was musing about all this, it stuck me that there is a role here - as there always is - for writers of children's books. Because what you - we - do is offer up a multidude of visions of how life can be - and how our heroes  - children - can surmount obstacles and effect change. 

We offer hope. 

Children's books can be funny, exciting, silly, thought-provoking, informative, kindly, imagination-stretching. They create images of how things can be different - that slag heaps, viruses, crazy world leaders and other blots on the landscape need not last for ever. Terrible things happen - but there is always hope: and children hold the future in their hands.

Remembering the children of Aberfan, whose future was stolen from them..


Nick Garlick said...

What a beautifully written post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much, Nick!

Unknown said...

A sobering but optimistic perspective of the current situation, so full of thought and compassion. Thank you for a wonderful blog.

Old amateur gardener said...

That was so moving and beautifully written, Sue. We have to present hope in whatever way we can.

Eric Wesson said...

I am guessing that you mean the tip at Shipley Colliery, Sue.
I found this from 1837..... "The pit exploded in the afternoon. No cause was ever established but eight people lost their lives and twelve others were injured. Five or six asses were also killed."
Very sad. Not on the scale of Aberfan, but I think commonplace in the 19th century.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Eric - yes, sadly so. The pit I remember was the Shipley one, and there was a tip there, but the one I used to see regularly when we went down to the shops or the allotment at Cotmanhay must have belonged to another colliery - it was on the other side of Cotmanhay. Maybe Eastwood?

Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Sue! Have you heard Karl Jenkins' cantata "For the Children", which he wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan tragedy? It's absolutely beautiful, and reading your post reminded me of it all over again. Thank you too for reminding us that children's writers can (and should) bring hope to children, especially at the moment!

Chris Appleby said...

Hi Sue, Having grown up around Mansfield in the 70's, I know the pit tip landscape well and never felt in the least bit nostalgic for them. But like anything fading out of time and the landscape a tiny tinge of regret inevitably develops and today I found this passionate ode to the "Slagheaps of my Youth" by a Mansfield lad who ended up as a sub editor on the Daily Telegraph... "They’re taking away the slagheaps from the landscape of my youth
Murdering all those mountains of blood and sweat and booze
To tittivate the countryside the emasculate grim charm
By erecting fancy hillocks of bushes grass and gorse
But remember those pit tips raise them high with pride
Make them monuments to miners who had died
Towering over churches, mocking factory spires
Dominating Nottinghamshire like angels in graveyards
If they want fancy countryside they got the Yorkshire Dales
The Derby Peak and Norfolk Broads and weather-beaten Wales
So leave alone my slagheaps, let them smoke and steam
Let them boast their living scars
To hell with pretty fine folk!"
His passionate rendition is even on YouTube, brace yourself!