Coal in the Blood

I grew up in a mining village during the 80s and it wasn’t much fun – unless you liked fighting. I didn’t like fighting so I had to find other ways to survive. One tactic was to stay in. It didn’t work. One youth found out where I lived, knocked on our door, and offered me out. I was petrified at the time but over the years I’ve come to admire his commitment to violence.

Cotgrave was a strange place to grow up. It was dominated by Geordies and Mackens who relocated here for work. They would march through the village banging their drums and showing allegiance to their tribe via proudly hoisted union banners, while sneering skinheads looked on from the Youth Club. When you throw Thatcherism, the Strikes and the constant fear of nuclear annihilation into the equation, it makes Game of Thrones look like a vicar’s tea party.

I’ve written about these experiences for Coal in the Blood: An East Midlands Coal Mining Anthology. The collection is the first of its kind for the area, so I’m proud to be included. David Amos and Natalie Braber have drawn together a broad range of perspectives to provide a nuanced context to what is still a very emotive subject. David’s passion for mining is infectious and his talks about ‘life down pit’ are well worth attending if you get the chance. David and Natalie were my first port of call when I wrote and presented the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets’. David will also feature in the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre at some point where he will be discussing Snap Tins.

One of my favourite articles in the anthology is ‘Here we Go!’ by police officer Barry Harper, who describes the difficulties of coming from a generation of miners and living in a mining town only to be labelled as one of ‘Maggie’s storm troopers’ during the Strikes. Humans are complex and contradictory. To get on we need to listen to each other. But that’s easier said than done given the various dividing lines that split up communities, be that Scabs and Strikers or Coppers and Workers. I’d like to say that these feuds will eventually die out, but I suspect some of them will be passed on from generation to generation.

It’s partly for these reasons that I’ve been working on a comic series challenging stereotypes called Whatever People Say I Am. Putting a face to statistics or peeling back labels to reveal other aspects of identity is vital in these increasingly fragmented times of remain/leave and vax/unvax. One of the comics in the series, The Bigger Picture, addresses challenges faces by retired people and how the arts have offered a second lease of life. It features Barry. I had no idea about his mining background when we first met, nor that he had written about policing for the mining anthology. Tis a small world when all is said and done.

Me and Derrick Buttress

My contribution to Coal in the Blood is ‘Cotgrave Boy’. This is a nod to Derrick Buttress’s memoir Broxtowe Boy (2004) which in turn may have been a reference to Brendan Behan’s autobiographical Borstal Boy (1958). Derrick was a writer I admired, who I spent many a happy afternoon with, and at eighty years-old, was the first person I commissioned for The Sillitoe Trail when it was originally published on digital arts platform The Space.

Coal in the Blood was originally published by Five Leaves, but something happened, and it was subsequently published by Trent Editions. I’ve heard various accounts of why this relationship ended so abruptly but I’ll take the advice of Mrs. Bull in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and save that bit of choice gossip for retail later.

Natalie Braber and David Amos (Eds). Coal in the Blood: An East Midlands Coal Mining Anthology. Trent Editions. 2021. ISBN: 978-1-84233-172-9

Further Reading

10th birthday

LLcover54510A few years ago I mentioned the possibility of doing a Reservoir Dogs style cover for LeftLion, with the editorial team walking down the street in black suits. Instead of being a Mr Pink  or Mr Brown we could be a Mr Books, Mr films, etc. This was put on hold for a bit and then along came Video Matt, aka Triumph Dolemite, with his superb spoof covers for films and record sleeves who had a more dystopian vision for our tenth anniversary issue. All we had to do was get dolled up in suits and frocks and he’d sort out the rest.

For the photo shoot we were asked to bring in something which signified our specialism so naturally I brought along a book. Or rather books. But which one would best represent our chip-littered streets? Decisions decisions.

Alan Sillitoe was an obvious choice, mainly because quotes from that book and film have regularly appeared in the inside cover (“I’m out for a good time, all the rest is propaganda”) but Sillitoe has had his fair share of coverage over the years. Jon McGregor was another contender because he’s the most established writer living in Nottingham, but he’s not a true local (e.g. hasn’t been threatened in Aspley as a kid) and certainly doesn’t need any help promoting his work. David Belbin has published over fifty books and his involvement with NTU Creative Writing and the EMBA made him a strong contender. Or what about Nicola Monaghan, one of the founders of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and author of one of my favourite debut novels of all time, The Killing Jar.

decadeI must have spent a week working down a list of possible authors or publishers who were worthy of the cover. I didn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I felt racked with guilt. I took books off the shelves and then put them back again. On the day of the shoot I’d nailed it down to seven books. My shortlist included the like of Festus, Philip James Bailey; Sydney Race Diaries, Ann Featherstone; The Complete Works of Henry Kirke White and works by Graham Greene, D H Lawrence and Lord Byron. But in the end I plumped for a short story collection by Derrick Buttress.

Derrick Buttress is a writer I really admire. He is a master of vignettes, both in his short stories and poetry. He’s a true Nottingham legend who has shied away from publicity and so was the perfect choice for this very special issue of LeftLion. His memoir, Broxtowe Boy, is published by Shoestring Press but is out of print. Pick a copy up from the library and you’ll see why he’s a Nottingham treasure. For the inside cover I went for Emrys Bryson’s Portrait of Nottingham. Emrys was a Post journalist and perhaps best known for Owd Yer Tight. I’d love to interview him one day so watch this space.

By the way, if you’re wondering why I look like Pigsy on the cover it’s because I’ve got ‘my nose in a book’. Gerrit. Wasted

Join us for our tenth birthday celebrations on Friday 2 August at The Corner, Stoney Street