One of the most profound things ever said is that the job of parents is to give our kids both roots and wings.
There are things you need to teach kids about where they come from. They know what Mam and Dad do, but there are other generations too whose lives and legacies are part of who we are. Some of these were forged in places of soot and dust, smelting heat, pain and radicalism from necessity. They were places of industry gone and only questionably replaced: Ebbw Vale steelworks, The Celynen North, The Prince of Wales Colliery in Abercarn. They are other places that remain, very different to their heyday, like a decaying liner whose only clue to transatlantic glamour is the faded outline of another era’s silhouette, places like The Coal Exchange. There are stories of people: his great-uncles from Abercarn, Dad’s work friends like Sybil the retired NUM secretary, his Mam going to infant school through a colliery picket in 1983 and her childhood shock that such a thing existed as a “people-train” when every railway was seemingly built for coal trucks. In his inheritance of values and identity there are great organisations that are a direct link to his older generations, endowing a continuity of values that shaped his parents as it had theirs, pillars of what is right in life like the university and the classroom, the Welsh Guards, the brass band, the trade union movement.
Today, it was time to mix all of this up in real life. We took him to Blaenavon, to the superb National Coal Mining Museum at Big Pit. It’s free, it’s brilliant, and we think it’s vital to his sense of who he is and where he comes from. Across Britain we build museums to Kings and Queens, great palaces and cathedrals. We still pay too little attention to the history of working people in this country, and it was time to put that a little bit right.
He learned about lamp-checks, rebreathers, overmen, firemen, shotfirers and pithad baths. He saw in context some of the great names of his homeland and his Grancha’s stories: Celynen, Crumlin Navigation, Maerdy, Lewis Merthyr, and Oakdale. He learned first hand how an explosion at Senghenydd could destroy hundreds of lives at a flash, how dust destroyed thousands more in a slow starvation of the air we live on, and how mams once ruled the a terraced family home with an iron will and sense of humour. The last bit, of course, is not just history. Neither are the others when we discuss in a little boy’s language COPD compensation, safety laws, the National Health Service, and all of the other advances that have been made for working people through the ballot box and the Parliamentary division lobby.
Stripped of watches, iPhone, car-key-fob, and pipe, we descended into the bowels of the earth in a steel cage, emerging helmeted and lamped into the dark tunnels at Pit Bottom.
Under the magical apprentice-mastership of Bob In The Orange Onesie, ex-collier of this parish with a grandfatherly shine for earnet little lads, The Boy had his first Job Underground. As Underman, his title for the hour, he took his task seriously. Never did a man open airtight doors so robustly to allow passage, shutting them swiftly to keep vital air currents moving, calling warnings to those coming behind with serious gusto. All the time he did his work contemplating that two centuries ago, with life cheap and working people’s lives cheaper, this would have been a six year old boy’s life in the dark and dust fo 12 hours a day.
Towards the end of the tour, having done his research before our trip on an original brass safety lamp now gracing Dad’s desk, he also explained earnestly to Bob, who as a collier for 40 years might nevertheless have missed this, how a Davy Lamp works and why it’s important to “test for stinky gas that can go bang.” His father, source of the vaguely recalled 7am explanation whose only experience of working life underground was in the pit of the London Palladium, beamed helplessly with pride.
We returned to the daylight and retrieved Mam, overcoming The Boy’s innocent surprise that two retired miners in the pit canteen with a sparkle in their eyes should have been taken taking their time to charm an immensely attractive and temporarily unaccompanied lady.
An hour in the superb exhibition, we’d had an explanation of Aberfan. We’d gained a new understanding of the Hymn Tune Gresford. We’d explored the origins of The University Where Daddy Works (begun in 1913 as the South Wales and Monmouthshire School of Mines). And we’d had a long discussion of what political protest means – and what it cannot deliver without winning a majority in Parliament.
We left bearing two mugs and a souvenir. And hopefully a little bit wiser about who we are and what really matters.