When I first started asking if there were former miners in the King’s Arms pub, Paul politely mentioned that he used to work in the mines right before I got whisked off by Mike Selway and James Hogan. While they told me their stories, Paul wrote down the following while sitting with a few other older guys:
“My name is Paul Carter. I left school at 16, I worked in a local factory for about 6 months, I then joined the National Coal Board at Nantgarw Colliery, Taffs Well Caerphilly, I worked underground on many jobs, I worked at the colliery for 13 years. That colliery closed in 1989, I was transferred to Penallta Colliery nearby in Ystrad Mynach. I was there for 2 ½ years until that closed. I took redundancy as there were no more local collieries to go to.
I then found a job in a local saw mill, reforming logs etc. into quality fencing [Paul later mentions that the sawmill was largely dependent on making timbers for the mines and that they switched to fence work after the mines closed], I worked at the sawmills for approximately 11 years, then due to lack of orders etc. that closed, since then I have been in the pub and club sector managing and running pubs and clubs and still doing that to this day.
Mining has been a very important and informative part of my life, from learning about industrial accidents, diseases, disasters etc. Also the skills of working day to day with colleagues and learning new abilities, I used to love mining and all its aspects, and I missed all these when the mines closed. I think the government could have done more to rehabilitate ex-miners to the realization that beyond mining there were other jobs readily available and training, assistance could and should have been offered.”
I was surprised and grateful to see that he had so concisely (and legibly!) written down the condensed version of his life story. I sat and talked with him a bit afterward, although he had already recorded the essence of what he had to say.
He said that people’s lives were centered around mining in the South Wales valleys and that they didn’t know anything else. It was devastating when the mines closed, because it was community work that tied people together. The miners were fighting for better conditions and better pay through hardcore dedication to the unions, and that didn’t sit too well with the conservative Tory government. Maggie Thatcher decided to kill the unions and therefore kill coal mining in Great Britain with cheaper imports from abroad replacing the local coal. This would come to be a story that I would hear over and over.
James Hogan is the son of Mike and Lucy Hogan, from the former colliery town of Bedwaun in South Wales. He was probably in his late 40s/early 50s when I met him in the King’s Arms pub in Caerphilli. I had started to ask if people there knew of former miners in the pub, and he informed me that I needed to talk to him before I left. I ended up sitting adjacent to him to eat my dinner, so we were able to have our exchange sooner than later, though it turned out to be a rather lengthy one.
James is dyslexic, but despite this and the constant derision from schoolmates and teachers alike, he was eventually able to complete “college in 13 years.” College means high school here, so I’m not completely sure if he means K-12 in 13 years or just the 4 grades of “college.” He went on to get an IT degree in 3 years (the normal time to be in university in Britain) and then worked in a few teaching positions before taking his current job with ”Can Do,” a non-profit citizen’s advice bureau, AKA poor man’s solicitor.
Mike Hogan, James’s dad, was an underground coal miner for most of his working life. At some point he went to fight in South Africa after World War II and received a valiant medal. He and his wife Lucy are originally from Ireland, where Mike began his working career as a house builder until that line of employment dried up. Lucy’s sister Bridgette had married an Italian who had moved them to Wales to work in the mines, and Bridgette let Mike know about the opportunity for colliery work in South Wales.
Several year’s into Mike’s time in the mines, a rockfall occurred that caused serious damage to his lower back. He was in the hospital for a few weeks, but the men were expected to get back to work as soon as physically possible and so he was in the mines before he was truly healed. However, this was to be the least of his worries. There was a serious TB outbreak happening at the time in the UK; many of the people in the hospitals were infected. Mike contracted TB while in for his back, and soon after returning to work had debilitating coughing fits while working. The bosses just cursed him and told him to stop being lazy, until one day he completely collapsed and had to be hospitalized again.
This time he was accurately diagnosed as having TB. A new “wonder drug” to combat TB had just come onto the market, though it was not yet thoroughly tested. Stricktomycin was being tested on the working poor, and Mike was a prime candidate. Miraculously, it did cure him of TB and effectively saved his life. The psychotic side effects were unknown at that time, and a dear price would be paid for the ability to continue living.
The early form of stricktomycin affected the nervous system in such a way as to cause irrational anger and extremely short tempers. The outcome of these effects was felt acutely by the adolescent James. During the several years that Mike was taking the medication, James endured frequent cursings and beatings, one of which put him in a wheelchair for two years. Eventually the makers of the drug changed its formula to avoid this psychosis, but the damage had already been done.
James made a point to tell me that it’s not always true that those who are beaten as kids grow up to be beaters as well. He said that he wasn’t like that at all; but throughout the whole time that we were talking, he was constantly calling me and almost everyone else around us names. “Don’t be an asshole, you have to eat all that food on your plate, that’s an order.” “Well aren’t you a bloody wanker, getting to travel about for a year on somebody’s dime?” “I wouldn’t talk to Johnny over there, yeah he was a miner but he’s full of shit, they’re all bloody assholes.” This was not typical British crude humor, this was much darker and more cynical. I was very grateful for him sharing his story and experience with me, but I could tell that the years of abuse had very much affected his ability to interact with other people.
Mike Hogan died several years ago at the age of 64. The full truth about the side effects of the early stricktomycin had only come to light a few years before his death. Although James had borne a deep grudge against his father for many years, he was able to work through that anger and fully forgive his father before his death, largely due to finding out about the reality about the early phase of the drug. Just as Mike was getting close to receiving his pension and being able to enjoy retirement, he found out that he was seriously ill with emphysema and scolied dossiss (? James said it was from breathing rock dust). Within a year of getting out of the mines, he had passed away from complications associated with diseases that were a direct result of working there.
James spoke about his father’s work and life with a deep pride. He was obviously grateful of the livelihood and community that work in the mines had provided them, and he still cursed the age when “bloody Thatcher” shut all the mines in the area. All of this in spite of the difficult and tragic life that he and his father had led, which was largely due to issues around the mines.
When I asked to take his picture for the story, he insisted that we go down to Caerphilli castle, and that he be shown in some kind of philosophical pose with me listening intently. We parted as friends, and I hope that he lives the rest of his life contentedly.