There were once more than a thousand men and boys worked at Brandon Pithouse in County Durham. Today the site of the colliery is a green wilderness. John Seed has set out to recover the lost and silent world of Durham pitmen – in the company of Walter Benjamin, Sid Chaplin and Charles Reznikoff. Composed of fragments of recorded speech, parliamentary reports and newspapers, Brandon Pithouse is a book about the experience of labour – about the pain and danger of working underground, about the damage to the human body and about the human relationships created in such conditions. It is a study in the attachments and distances which shape our relationships to place and time, the negotiations required to reconnect ourselves to a world that ceased to exist in the 1990s. It is a set of notes for an unmade Eisenstein film and a footnote to chapter 10 of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. And like any history, it is a ghost story.
Author photo: Gregory Seed
6 The darkness never changes. Seasons make no difference. Spring and summer, autumn and winter, morning, noon, and night, are all the same. Coal and stone, stone and coal – above, around, beneath. There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen: The lion’s whelps have not trodden it, nor the fierce lion passed by it. (Job 28: 3, 7-8) _________________ they rarely saw daylight for six months of the year apart from Sundays the whole night’s rest lasting till daylight the one family dinner of the week _________________ Pressing for more information, he inquired how long I had been down the pit. ‘Seven years,’ was the answer. In most surprised tones he said, ‘Have you not been up until now?’ I was surprised at him, and replied, ‘Yes, every day except on rare occasions.’ ‘Why, I thought you pitmen lived down there always!’ John Wilson _________________ You do get All sorts of temperatures Down the mine sometimes It’s cold as winter sometimes Hot as hell _________________ Youngest were the trappers of the barrow-way where the putters pass they sit in a hole like a chimney cut out in the coal a string in their hand all day in pitch black if the candle went out or the oil ran out noises of strata moving pieces of roof falling rats mice scurrying round their feet in muck and water cold and shivering opening and closing heavy ventilation doors for passing coal tubs up to eighteen hours every day _________________ Winter of 1844 we had neither, food, shoes, nor light in our first shift. I was sent to mind two doors up an incline and the drivers flung coal and shouted to frighten me as they went to and fro with the horses and tubs. yelling all day long half naked black covered by sweat and foam The wagon-man, Tommy Dixon, visited me, and cheered me on through the gloomy night; and when I wept for my mother, he sang that nice little hymn, ‘In darkest shades if / Thou appear my dawning has begun’. He also brought me some cake, and stuck a candle beside me. _________________ To reach the pit three miles from home on cold dark mornings sit crouching in a dark damp hole behind a door kicked and pushed here and there among lads and brutal men for twelve or thirteen hours was an experience I little dreamt of when we asked Neddy Corvey for work at the Leitch Colliery _________________ 10th November. – Xxxx Xxxxxxx, xx, a lad working xx Xxxxxx Xxxxxxxx, in the night shift, had stolen some gunpowder, and was taking it home with him in the early morning, xxx xxxxxx xxxxx in a piece of gas piping which he had thrust down his trouser leg to hide it xxxx xxxx, when a spark from the lamp hanging on his belt fell into the open end of the pipe _________________ I became a door-keeper on the barrow-way four years ago up at four walked to the pit by half-past work at five no candles allowed except my father gave me four burnt about five hours I sat in darkness the rest of the time I liked it very badly it was like I was transported I used to sleep I couldn’t keep my eyes open the overman used to bray us with the yard wand he used to leave marks I used to be afraid the putters sometimes thumped me for being asleep _________________ Near a door in the rolley way I held a string which pulled open a door and which shut again of itself. I could move about a little but must be on the watch to see if anything was coming. If I happened not to open the door in proper time I was likely to get a cut of the whip. Swarms of mice in the pit and I could sometimes take them by a cut of the whip. Midges sometimes put out the candle. The pit is choke full of black clocks creeping all about. Nasty things they never bit me. _________________ I often caught mice. I took a stick and split it and fixed the mouse’s tail in it. If I caught two or three I made them fight. They pull one another’s noses off. Sometimes I hung them with a horse’s hair. The mice are numerous in the pit. They get at your bait-bags and they get at the horse’s corn. Cats breed sometimes in the pit and the young ones grow up healthy. Black clocks breed in the pit. I never meddled with them except I could put my foot on them. A great many midges came about when I had a candle. _________________ I used to come up at six went home got dinner washed and went to bed. no mischief in turnip or pea fields in orchard or garden but what I was in it or blamed for it when the pits were idle I wandered Houghton-le-Spring Hetton Lambton Newbottle Shiney Row Philadelphia Fence Houses Colliery Row Warden Haw Copthill every wood dene pond and whin-cover was known to us in our search for blackberries mushrooms cat-haws crab-apples nuts not a bird’s nest in wall hedge or tree for miles around escaped our vigilance _________________ One day the overman sent us to a part of the mine we’d never been before there was fire-damp put out our candles one after another as fast as we lighted them so we ran it was not safe to try it on any longer and we began to scramble our way back in the dark laughing we were a great deal but we missed our way and got into old workings abandoned for years and got lost we wandered about for two whole days and nights and were nigh starved to death afore we found our way out. _________________ many who escaped to the higher workings must have subsisted for some time on candles horse-flesh and horse-beans part of a dead horse was found near and but few candles were left though a considerable supply had been received just before the accident _________________ Mushrooms grow in the pits at the bottom of the props and where the muck’s fallen 100 yards or more from the shaft _________________
‘John Seed has done it again. His historian’s mind and his poet’s ear combine to lift voices out of their documentary shafts and arrange them in artificial visual forms that slow down our reading eyes just enough so that we can hear the voices too, bearing testimony amid the statistics and documents. It’s secular magic.’
‘John Seed is not inclined to call this work poetry but it uncertainly is – simply by the weight of the emotional truth it bears within it and through the factual interpretive discipline in the attention it pays to its fabrication. Its fluidity, its adherence to its materials, its rhythms, cadence and vernacular, produce a verity of being – the being of a way of life now gone. I implore you to read this work.’
‘a poetry book that deserves a place in every Durham home.’
‘a fascinating poetic social document-cum-oral history.’