I grew up in a small mining village outside Nottingham called Cotgrave. The name said it all really, and the burly men with blackened faces that lived here looked like they’d murdered a few kids in their time. For years I grew up thinking the local accent was Geordie because men from the north east relocated here when the colliery was built in 64. I was greeted more often with a ‘mara’ than an ‘Ayup’.
My step dad worked behind a desk in Mansfield and my mum was a typist. But in the eyes of the locals, anyone who didn’t work down the pit was a ‘posho’. Therefore we were fair game for the occasional kicking. These were rough times, particularly during the Strike. I vividly remember visiting a friend’s house and being shocked that the only thing in his front room was a milk crate which was used as a seat. I asked him if he had just moved in and he said no. It was only years later when I read Harry Paterson’s Look Back in Anger that I realised his dad was one of the 2,000 local miners (out of 32,000) who went on strike. Not all of us were scabs.
Cotgrave is now a quiet little village. The pit closed down in 93, and the Black Diamond pub that was once rammed with men quenching payday thirst has been flattened and turned into new builds. Slag heaps of coal have now transformed into rolling green hills, leading miners to commonly refer to them as ‘coal age burial mounds’. As David Amos and Natalie Braber point out in Images of Coalmining in the East Midlands, when Thoresby Colliery closed in July 2015 it brought an abrupt full stop to deep coal mining in the East Midlands, a region where mining stretched back to medieval times.
It’s not just the pits that have gone. Nottingham was also once a factory city, with Raleigh, Players and Boots functioning as mini villages. Like the theme tune to Cheers, ‘everybody knows your name’. Or at least they did. When these industries died out they took a whole way of life with them. With work so central to identity, the first thing to go was a sense of community. Next up was dialect, with words such as ‘Elephant’s Tab’ (work shovel with a big head) no longer able to make the transition into everyday language. Though some dialect has survived, such as ‘stint’ and ‘gob it’.
As I have discovered over the years, miners are a stubborn lot and refuse to go quietly. They’re proud of their history and heritage and so have been helping to keep it alive through poetry, ballads and folksongs. At 4.30pm on Sunday 20 May I’ll be talking to some of these miners about their verse for a BBC Radio 4 series called The Talk and Tongue: Dialect Poets. One poet of particular interest is Owen Watson who penned ‘Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner’ (1975). Local folk musician Bill Kerry III came across his book and realised his grandfather had worked at the same pit. Now he’s updating the collection, which uses very strong Heanor dialect, into folk songs with a Notts dialect. By translating them into folk songs he hopes they’ll become more accessible to new generations.
The show also includes a beat poem/rap by Young Motormouf that takes us through an A-Z of pit talk. LeftLion editor Bridie Squires performs ‘Mardy’, a poem inspired by local dialect and Andrew Graves shares his crumpled love letter to our accent ‘Still Notts Talking’. And of course any programme exploring Notts dialect has to include some chelp from Al Needham, a former editor of LeftLion.
It’s not often we get a shot at the airwaves so I hope I’ve done us justice. But most important of all, I hope it raises awareness of the brilliant projects and publications being put on by Natalie Braber, Professor of Linguistics at Nottingham Trent, and David Amos, an eight generation miner and now a research assistant with Natalie.
For the programme I visit them at ‘Songs and Rhymes from the Mines’ at the Nottingham Poetry Festival. The room was packed with burly ex miners, many of whom get really emotional when reading their work. These men gave their lives every day for coal and lost many friends in the process. Since the pits closed down they’ve lost a sense of community, in particular the camaraderie that came with sharing space in the bowels of the earth. But what they miss the most is the craic, which helped pass time while doing dangerous work. Needless to say a lot of the poetry is humorous, recounting accidents and arguments with gaffers. Given the misery of modern employment, I doubt very much that office workers will be meeting up in 20 years’ time, fondly reminiscing about having to reapply for their job every year, and getting a warning for spending too much time on Facebook. But you never know…
James Walker Talk and Tongue: The Dialect Poets episode 2. 4.30pm Sunday 20 May.