Condemned to a life in the pits

1st February 2008 at 00:00
The village of Fauldhouse, like so many that lie in what was once the central Scottish coal belt, looks from a distance as if it has been thrown down uncaringly on a wind-blown moor - like Carluke without the tomato houses and the jam factory.

I find myself there now and again for family events on my wife's side. Her people come from the area and exemplify the sense of community I have come to associate with the place.

Just over a year ago, I was at a post-funeral meal in the Miners' Welfare Hall. As the conflicting emotions began to ebb - sadness at the pain my wife and children were experiencing due to the horribly premature loss of a much-loved sister and aunt, and pride at their dignity in carrying out their roles in the service - I paused to admire the mural in the function room.

The picture shows miners at work. To profess a liking for it should not be interpreted as "middle-class boy goes post-modern". Like most people in my area, I do not have to go back far to find a miner in the family. In my case, it was my maternal grandfather. When I knew him, he had long left a job that had been literally killing him since the day he left school, aged 14.

Oddly, though not unusually, Grampa Thomson was a Tory. He felt shame over his years underground. It humiliated him to recall the times he had been required to lie on his back in an 18-inch seam, hacking coal then passing it over his body.

There were plenty of times I found teaching tough, but never like that. Perhaps more pertinently, I was blessed with choice. I went willingly into the profession and stayed there for two decades.

My grandfather, a strong but kind man, had wanted to be a policeman. His mother told him not to be stupid and took him to the Co-op to buy his pit boots.

The only advice against teaching I was ever given was from a pal who predicted that the kids would take the piss out of me all the time. I suspect that a mural on that theme would leave any future grandchildren I might have rather unmoved.

Gregor Steele likes the Miners' Welfare steak pies.

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