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Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse: Recollections of a Durham Coalfield by John Seed (Smokestack Books)

Brandon Pithouse is a quest to discern the accomplished fact of colliery life in County Durham from 1700 to 1990 now that there are more traces left by the Roman than the colliers. There is then a personal element to these largely documentary poems and prose pieces that draw upon a wide range of historical resources, documents written, printed and transcribed oral sources from recorded interviews on radio and television. These are offered against ‘organised amnesia’ and erasure. The sources have been cut, rewritten and spliced together in various forms of prose, poetry, with and without punctuation and arranged on the page in visual forms to slow the reader down to hear the testimony of multiple voices from a long history. The singular fragments, juxtaposed and in disjunction, accumulate to produce a deeply moving montage of statistics and documentary experience. The rhythms and cadence of the vernacular emerge in both pain and humour:

Anyway, we’re aall in the cage. It was about ’62, ’63, when they
were starting to close the pits, and we were aall in the cage this
day, and we’re crackin’ on about that. They’d just shut that one
where the lad was supposed to have hit Robens, was it Lambton D?
It was just after that and we’re coming up in the cage talkin’ about
it, which was next on the line.

We were in the top deck. Well the top deck has a bar runs across it,
and you can sort of lean on it, well S. was leaning on it. And our Len
says: ‘Aye, aa knaa two bliddy mair they should shut.’
S. says: ‘Aye what’s that?’
‘Thy bliddy ARM pits.’

The ordering of the montage serves to quickly establish the historical-geographical position and reach of the work within a locality. After an extensive list of what constitutes the work of a miner, we read

You walk into any pit house ten o’ clock at night
find the same thing
red hot fire
a tired-looking woman
heavy damp clothes hanging up
all over the place

And later we read of the worst of the work such as ‘putting’, the dragging of coal tubs using a harness called the ‘soames’ with a chain between the legs hooked to an iron ring attached to a leather belt.

When I was putting I used to have an Elastoplast the length of my
back on here the scab would be catching the strut it was that low
the seam was only 13 inches high in places just about high enough
to get a tub in and you had to push it in bent like that
catching your back scabs on your back

This is followed with some gallows humour:

Hangman to a murderer on the scaffold at Durham Gaol:
‘You can have a repieve if you start work, putting at the drift.’

Condemned man: Pull that lever.’

There are also quotations from James Agee, Book of Job, Sid Chaplin, Bill Griffiths, W. Stanley Jevons, J.B. Priestley as well as named colliers. Agee’s phrase ‘the cruel radiance of what is’ sums up a way of viewing the testimonies presented here.

Seed sees the volume not as a collection of poems but rather as ‘an investigation of what can be done with source materials. It asks questions of the reader.’ It is not trying to ‘aestheticise’ painful realities but rather to reconnect the reader to a world that ceased to exist in the 1990s. Brandon Pithouse, dedicated to the memory of poets, Ric Caddell and Bill Griffiths, is a work of recovery retrieving the core of colliery life pitched between historical record and literary investigation.

David Caddy 21st July 2016

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