WHY OH WHY OH WHY?
(The Long Answer)
A few years ago I picked up The Orwell Reader and discovered an excerpted chapter from The Road To Wigan Pier. In it, George Orwell described the experience of your average coal miner, from surface to coal face. Of course, to get this rich description, the writer had to hop a 60 mph free-falling “cage” — packed with miners — to the bottom of the mine; he had to then duck, squat-walk, and crawl some three miles to the coal face, dodging railroad ties and low ceiling props while trying to keep from dropping (and extinguishing) his Davy lamp; he had to bear the insufferable noise of the conveyer belt racing chunks of coal to the cage, as well as the tubs of shale and dirt also bound for the surface and on to the myriad slag-heaps that surrounded pit and community; and he watched in awe, when finally he arrived at the coal face, a group of nearly naked men, “fillers,” kneeling in the muck, black from head to toe, shoveling ton after ton of newly dynamited coal over their shoulders and onto the machine-gun rattling conveyer belt. “Caryatids,” Orwell called them, propping up the entire Western world by excavating, through the strength of their bodies, the fossil fuel that burned in factories and fireplaces all over England.
I thought, this might make an interesting little movement-theatre piece.
Then I read the entire book, The Road To Wigan Pier. Not only did Orwell report his journey down the mine, he wrote of the conditions of whole mining communities. He wrote of the inadequate housing, the poor diet, the dreadful and life-threatening working conditions. He described the beer, the tea, the gambling, the sport. He offered glimpses of the daily dangers of trying to survive in a world of smoke and slag-heaps and ferocious unemployment. He explained that there was a way of life that the miners and their families and their communities had lived for centuries. There was pride and folly, but it was their life. And it was slowly being eradicated by those with power, hundreds of miles away.
The process of eradication accelerated after Orwell’s time. I was living in Scotland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in the five year’s I lived there, I saw Margaret Thatcher become all-powerful; it’s amazing what a little war can do for your popularity.
I left Scotland in 1983, but returned to live in London in 1985-86. In the two years I’d been away, the country had changed markedly: the unions were as good as dead, and there was almost no mining industry to speak of. In 1985, after a year-long strike, the miners’ union had been defeated and Thatcher used her increased authority to clamp down on the Left. As for the miners, the hundreds of years of their way of life had been summarily ended, without any real alternative. What were those people to do?
It’s not as if mining was a romantic life. It was hell. On the men who worked down the pit, and on everyone else in a mining community who, luckily, never had to brave the depths, but still struggled to survive. When the industry was pulled out from under the community, the community died.
After reading Orwell’s account, and considering my own memories of living in Britain, I felt compelled to respond and thought the best way to put this story on stage was as a sort of music hall entertainment or something you’d see if you happened into a working men’s club (a glorifed pub, really) during the middle 50 years of the 20th century — something fun. Well, why tell a sad tale sadly?
Your typical evening’s entertainment at your local working men’s club was hosted by a Master of Ceremonies. There was a small musical combo. There were raffles and wrestling matches and cups of tea and sketch comedy and political consciousness raising and melodramatic scenes and everyone knew everyone else and it was all a load of fun — taking your troubles and turning them into something you could share a laugh at with people you knew.
And, hopefully, that is what you’ll get should you happen into our working men’s club for The Road To Wigan Pier: A (Socialist) Tea-Time Travelogue & Historical Musical Revue.
— Mr. P