Hilton Dawson: A way of life is gone - and some of us are still grieving for it

Journal columnist and former MP Hilton Dawson says coal-mining may be a museum piece - but the community spirit that went with it is not

Hilton Dawson of the North East Party
Hilton Dawson of the North East Party

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the feast of music, marching, pageantry, politics and sheer community enjoyment, known as the Northumberland Miners Picnic is now held at Woodhorn Colliery Museum.

Times have changed; but there’s no reason at all why this should not continue to be a memorable day out, an extravaganza for the whole family.

Among this year’s vast range of attractions, on Saturday June 13, will be the world premiere of ‘Haa’lin’ the lines’; a celebration in songs and stories of Northumbrian fishing and mining communities.

It is being undertaken by that splendid Newcastle-based musician, Tim Dalling, in collaboration with people from Newbiggin by the Sea and a range of truly excellent musicians and singers from South East Northumberland.

Funded by the ‘Bait’ project at Woodhorn, ‘Haa’lin’ the lines’ is an evocative title which draws heavily on the ties of family history and which goes to the heart of a critical dilemma.

Workplace stress is sometimes regarded as a modern phenomenon but please consider the common experience of the skipper of a mid-19th century fishing coble.

You’re one of 24 cobles which set out in the early hours; in the others are friends, neighbours, relatives - but when it comes down to livelihood and the price for your catch you’re in competition.

Your wife and bairns spent four hours yesterday cleaning and baiting those thousand yards of line now trailing in the sea. Eight hours into your day’s work you’re eight miles out at sea, using only sails and oar and now there’s the unmistakeable signs of a mid-March storm.

On board is Uncle Bob, at 54 he’s an old man. Along with you is your lad, the oldest of your seven bairns. John is all of 15. None of you can swim; indeed it would be hard for the strongest man to stay afloat for long in a cold, rough sea with everything you’re wearing.

Do you cut the lines and run, hopefully saving your lives but losing catch and gear, your family going hungry, and risking ridicule from others who made it home intact? Or do you stay to haul them in and take a chance on death and disaster? There’s no lifeboat; of course the men in the other cobles will bravely try to help you but they may well be preoccupied with saving themselves. Either way you face a gut- wrenching, lung-bursting, back- breaking row to shore.

When you get towards land you’ve got another choice; whether to risk the hazards of the rocks around the Point to reach the fish dealers in the bay or to come ashore where you can, and carry your catch miles home overland ?

‘Haa’lin’ the lines’ should be a good show.

It’s something which is now far from our common experience. However, only four or five generations ago that was many of us out there. Many of our forefathers, who were reliant on the solidarity of others, when the storm was over.

I’m the grandson of two men who both vowed that their sons would never follow them down the pit. However, even for those of us who merely grew up in sight of the pit heaps, within the sound of the pit buzzer, it seems extraordinary how quickly such a vital industry, a way of life, has receded into the past.

The daily, arduous, dangers of coal mining must be almost as remote for new generations as that of 19th Century fishermen out on the sea without an engine, unable to imagine being rescued by a helicopter.

Coal mining, with all its hardships, has gone but as I talk to people across the North East I am struck by the sense of loss, not just nostalgia, you could almost call it grieving, for the Picnic, the Welfare, the Club, the model pit villages, for a community life that was known and trusted and loved and under control.

The world is already very different now. However, it would be a mistake, unhistorical, a misunderstanding of our humanity to consign such community spirit to a museum.

While great bonds and resilience were formed from the privations of fishing and mining villages, there is surely something in our being which looks outside even comfortable homes, which reaches out beyond our secure front doors?

One hard lesson I’ve learnt is that a sense of community has to come from within; it can’t be imposed from outside.

It will only develop from the needs and the priorities of people with something profoundly in common.

And despite all the claims of ‘online communities’ I still think that common sense of community comes mainly from where we live.

‘Community’ can’t be imposed but it can be encouraged. Wherever we live people benefit from opportunities to share family and community history.

Our communities need effective advocates speaking up for our causes and our people, and we need to ensure ownership and identity by helping people plan.

Who cares about ‘consultation’? The wonderful community spirit of North East England will flourish in future generations if its people have real power to plan.

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