Stories collected from a small but crowded cemetery once servicing the northern coalfields
ARTHUR FREDERICK PLATT
Born 12 May 1872, Seaham, Co. Durham
Departed this life 23 August 1942
“Fought The Good Fight”
Arthur Platt, at sixty nine, was the oldest of the stay-in strikers of 1941. Barely able to walk because of his lungs, Arthur was wheeled into the pit, smuggling under his blanket a flask of medicinal blackjack of high alcohol content. Arthur had no shirt. He wore a holed woollen vest under a buttoned suit coat. Complexion near-blue, he rattled, breathing in short bursts which sounded about to stop. The men remained underground for two hundred and three hours, an industrial record, at which point their demands were met. Fred Platt proudly proclaimed his father also to be one of the strikers who had applied gelignite to the Catherine Hill Bay loading jetty in 1917. Arthur denied the claim but admitted to knowing the identity of the heroic party.
Durham born and bred, fluent in Pitmatic, Arthur resorted to the shaft-dialect of the north east when not wishing to be understood, or in retelling his father’s tale of marching four abreast, in black, to the pithead at Pelton Fell, where an explosion of firedamp in the Busty Bank seam, ignited by a miner’s safety lamp, had killed twenty four men and boys, including Arthur’s grandfather.
Arthur was dusted. “Lungs like concrete”, a doctor, unfortunately not the company doctor, had opined. Arthur swore it was blackjack - evil looking, evil smelling, ostensibly herbal, in the main a tincture of licorice and methylated spirits – that kept him alive. His cousin was a veterinary chemist who worked the Wyong track. Arthur sweetened the coal-dark elixir in tea with milk and three sugars.
On his stronger days, Arthur worked the Old Men’s section. Management could not get rid of him. “More seniority than Methuselah”, Arthur crowed, laughing. When Arthur laughed, comrades held their breath in case it killed him. Heaving, hacking, changing colour, he belted his chest as if something was trying to get out, which never could. Then he spat. What Arthur spat was indescribable. Younger miners topped up his skip when he wasn’t looking.
When the aged pension was introduced in 1941, Arthur retired. The Old Men’s Section quickly disappeared. Equally quickly the Retired Miners Association was constituted to monitor pay and conditions, and agitate if necessary. Meetings were held all day every day in a militant corner of the pub. Arthur spent three years in retirement with nothing to do but drink. Beer with a blackjack chaser.
Arthur’s original white timber cross having flown north on a southerly, his barrow today is denoted by a brass roundel bearing a number, and crowned by a Fowlers Vacola preserving jar hosting a spray of dead flowers. Lost cross notwithstanding, that his barrow has largely resisted the elements, remained solidly convex, asserts that Arthur knew what he was doing in requesting interment, as far as possible, given the greater difficulty of digging, in clay, not loam. A number of graves, occupied, it must be said, by later vintages of miner, have turned mere patches of disturbed ground, at best low bumps, rather than mounds. Several have become subsidences.
Arthur was buried with a goodly supply of blackjack in his coat pocket.
STANLEY MORRIS SMITH
b. 30 June 1922 d. 5 March 1963
“Rolling home, rolling home”
Stan Smith’s headstone is crowned by a pair of pigeons, rampant. Rudely executed, the species of bird appears indeterminate, but in the mind’s eye of the interred, amid tenure as local gravedigger having befriended a reclusive sculptor occupying nearby bushland, the memorial avians are without shadow of doubt Birmingham Rollers.
There was no woman, were no women, in Stan Smith’s life. There were Birmingham Rollers. Rollers are, by nature, imperfect Homers. The better they roll, the worse they home. And vice versa. A vision of massed Birminghams not merely homing but rolling home – that is, backward somersaulting, whilst dropping from the sky as though shot or, as some theorised, experiencing mid-air fitting - at the last instant to pull out, ascend and reunite with feathered colleagues, the kit, all the while still homing - would haunt Stan for a lifetime. And furthermore, might a third sub-species, Tumblers, be taught, or bred, to roll as well as to tumble? And, thence, to home? The performance pigeon trifecta?
By accident of birth destined to labour underground, Stan preferred to hew alone. Commencing working life at fourteen, the populous environment of the pit, the incessant humanity, did not sit well with him. How could a man think? The proliferation of talk perturbed. What was there to talk about, trapped two miles underground, possibly – probably - for life? Loud talk, the dominant form in The Pit, drove him to drink. Alone. Silence, instead, spoke acceptably. Stan sought silence and, keeping an ear out, was first to hear of a notably silent, notably solo employment opportunity at the local cemetery. Stan’s first task upon securing the post was to bury his predecessor.
Working alone, more or less overground, in God’s weather, furnished Stan with the freedom to think he had long sought. And what Stan thought about, was pigeons. Pigeons were all Stan had thought about since the discovery, at age ten, of a storm-diverted bird roosting overnight on the Smith verandah rail, the refreshed bird in the morning taking to the air and rolling homeward. Stan had never seen anything like it.
Several years spent in wrestling the dialectic of low gravedigger’s wages and high pigeon prices, the saving of sufficient to acquire good breeding stock, and anticipation of entry to the elite world of Pigeon Digest, Pigeon Record, Pigeon Monthly, Australasian Homing Pigeon, and the like, were interrupted by the bombing of Darwin and the unwanted presence of the Japanese in Papua/New Guinea and environs. The vision of his Birminghams being devoured by hungry Japanese was a significant factor in Stan’s enlistment. The unlikely figure of Ronald Borthwick was appointed wartime gravedigging locum.
Returned from hostilities bearing makeshift mechanical claw, sleeve fashioned from a shell casing, not wishing to resume his pre-war employment, Stan instead took the TPI pension, built himself a hut in bush on the far side of the lake, on the back road to Cessnock, and bred Rollers. Birminghams. With the occasional Galatz or Oriental in the cause of genetic diversity. It was said that one seldom saw Stan Smith but knew where he was from the orbiting, plunging, somersaulting, pigeons.
Stanley Morris Smith died at the age of forty from snakebite garnered in disturbance of an Eastern Brown seeking a lunch of fledgling pigeon. The bodies of Stan and snake – its back broken in several places - were found side by side. Local folklore has it that, pursuant to his decease, Stan’s Rollers shat a circle of guano around the cemetery, and that the circle of shit grew smaller every day, Stan’s grave being the bullseye.
BRIAN JAMES TRELOAR
born 24 September 1925 died 12 April 1985
Beloved Son of Elizabeth and Robert
No birth certificate for Jimmy Treloar is known to exist. This much is known. Brian James Treloar according to school enrolment, “Skinny” to friends (few), enemies (many), and an ever-flourishing local mythology, Brian to his mother, only, some extension of Jimmy Treloar was forever encased in plaster or makeshift bandage, wired in approximate position, or defying gravity within a foul, ragged sling which doubled as a snot rag in addressing permanent yellow speed stripes on Jimmy’s upper lip. “Chalky-boned”, as the affliction was then termed, serial bone fractures, imperfectly repaired, had bequeathed Jimmy a flailing, Cubist walk, propelled by insecurity. All of which, it was decreed by those who knew, would fail to render the Treloar’s only child ineligible to enter the tiny coal-hamlet’s sole reason for existence, the pit, at the age of fourteen. In consequence, for the duration of a notably limited schooling, Jimmy sat at the back of the classroom, gazed out the window, and dreamt expansive schemes of alternative employment, schemes which, not having come to fruition by age fourteen, saw Jimmy’s occupational dreaming persist throughout a difficult, injury-plagued time underground, the years of pariahdom following expulsion as a scab and blackleg, and, finally, deep into enforced semi-retirement on a disability pension supplemented by part-time employ as bowling club glassie and target of industrial drinkers’ scorn.
Averred best friend Ronald Borthwick, upon first meeting it was clear that Jimmy Treloar was a man with a plan. And, adds Ronald, a clot of the highest order.
Thus, at the onset of the nineteen eighties, infused with the entrepreneurial spirit of that dawning decade, having several plans already under his belt, Jimmy came up with what Ronald came to regard as possibly his finest ever get-rich-quick scheme. Run emus. Within the confines of a tiny company-owned hamlet on the fringe of the northern coalfields, Jimmy was going to run emus. Run emus, Ronald would intone, again and again, in patent awe of his mate’s entrepreneurial daring. Moreover, Jimmy’s declared intent was to run as many of the giant flaming birds as he could fucking lay his bloody hands on. That the pit was scheduled to close within the year, throwing a hundred or so fellow villagers out of work, only added spice of irony and return serve of scorn, to scab and blackleg Jimmy’s business plan.
In the words of Ronald Borthwick:
“Bloody Jimmy had done his research. All the livestock gurus – at least, the ones Jimmy sussed as in total agreement with the Treloar Economic Outlook - reckoned there wasn’t a single part of the emu that humans couldn’t use. Eyeballs. Toenails. Arsehole. Feathers. Everything. The whole fucking emu. The newly hatched plan of monopolising the local Outdoor Home Improvement market once The Pit closed and the village gentrified, was suddenly right out the window. Jimmy was getting himself a herd of emus. Herd? A mob. Running the birds where they used to run the pit ponies was my idea. Fix the fences first, I told him. Emus love to kick down fences. Hand it to Jimmy, he was way ahead of me. He’d figured out a way he wouldn’t need fences at all. He was going to brand the emus and free range them. He never specified exactly where on the emu body he was going to apply the J.B. brand. In the event that branding the emus was not a goer, Jimmy was going to tag the birds. Somewhere. Emus don’t have ears, but there’d be somewhere. Wait, there’s more. Free Range Emu was only part one of his plan, which was a work of genius, even if he did say so himself, but part two was even more genius. You know what he was going to feed J. Treloar Premium Grade Free Range Emus? Agapanthus. Agafuckingpanthus! Those flowers like purple and white toilet brushes you see all over the place now. South African. Like Bitou Bush. And Cape Daisy. Jimmy reckoned emus and agapanthus were a natural fit and it was only a fucking miracle no-one had thought of it before. He had a point. Agapanthus were growing like topsy everywhere. Out front of every home. Up every suburban driveway. Wild in the bush. Throughout the National Parks. On top of Uluru. Everywhere. Jimmy planned to free range his emus in and around the village, fatten them up, then muster and drove the birds to market, tucking into agapanthus - with a side salad of bitou bush and cape daisy - if only emus ate lantana! - all the way to the killing floor. He was serious. You just wanted to punch him. He’d lost his marbles. He wasn’t the only one. In 1981 they gave him one of those credit cards.”
Jimmy Treloar never married. His father having drowned in the channel at The Entrance when Jimmy was three, son and mother Betty would share a four room miner’s cottage for the entirety of Jimmy’s life.
Paradoxically, perhaps, Betty’s boy was to display early promise, outwardly at least, in relating to local females. Upon turning twelve, all but overnight, as though in compensation for his bone-related afflictions, it became necessary for the twin yellow streams on Jimmy’s upper lip to traverse a dark Mediterranean shadow, inky eyebrows to loom over a small head on a long neck featuring pointy lump at the front, shorts and sleeves suddenly to become too short, truncated channels from which limbs protruded as though attempting escape, as Jimmy awoke one morning an ‘Early Developer’. Confidence receiving a fillip, advantage gleaned over peers, Jimmy proceeded to a notorious forwardness in promoting his maturity. He was, as far as is known, largely unsuccessful in practice.
The odour of industrial pariah, garnered at fifteen, saw the feminine market, such as it was, rapidly dwindle, and confidence wane. Later relationships, pursued beyond municipal limits, were rumoured more business arrangements. Lifelong best mate Ronald Borthwick, familiar with the names of Jimmy’s various liaisons – Judy in Cessnock, Monica in Greta, Helen in Rothbury, and, consistently, for several years in Jimmy’s early thirties, Fay of Wallsend – was never to meet the assorted objects of his friend’s affection. The names became fewer and farther between with passing of time, ceasing in Jimmy’s late forties.
Unexpectedly predeceasing his mother, the passing simultaneous with that of best mate Ronald, responsibility for realising burial arrangements fell to Betty. Emptying a bedside box, she discovered, as always, that her son had a plan.
Jimmy Treloar’s grave is fenced in by rusty chain, draped at shin height between stumps of angle iron locating the four corners of the allotment. The deterrent purpose of the chain is unclear. A large, rust-coated iron cross, welded from the frame of a relic skip, spears skyward from the head of the grave. Jimmy’s mother knew a man who knew a man in metal fabrication. An accompanying mat of artificial turf, a nod to Jimmy’s early commitment to mowing as a career plan, is long vanished. The plaque welded to the cross has been defaced, scratched with industrial pejoratives.
ROBERT WILLIAM TRELOAR
12 December 1903 - 1 January 1929
Beloved husband of Betty, father of Brian
Drowned in The Channel
Bob and Betty Treloar rest side by side beneath a featureless concrete slab more king single than double, their cramped proximity the unintended consequence of Betty’s longevity, the delayed excavation of her allocation allowing territorial encroachment, by a good foot and a half in the measurement of the time, by a neighbouring grave occupied by the late Mervyn David Ferris. Miscalculating under the influence of Red Mill OP Rum, in more sober light noting the error, then incumbent bone orchardist Ronald Borthwick dismissed remediation in conclusion that once a hole is dug, it stays dug.
It was whispered by certain parties, loudly denied by others, that Bob Treloar bore the blood of both invader and invaded, in long forgotten ratio, although it was thought probable that the blood of the invaded had become part of the mix, mingling with that of the transported criminal, early in the piece. How it was the conflicting parties knew what they knew, or didn’t, or what it was about being a Treloar that led to their particular conclusions, was never revealed. Perhaps it was simply that Bob had darkish skin and a freakish sixth sense when playing football. Heritage, whatever it was, was largely irrelevant in The Pit. Solidarity was everything. Coal miners - particularly those in isolated communities – were bottom of the pile, despite furnishing civilisation with its power, heat, and light, and, when not making a noise, were forgotten. Or disdained. Unsurprisingly, the miners positioned themselves at the cutting edge of industrial militancy and made a very loud noise. Embracing assorted tendencies of communist, socialist, or very least, hard-core labor, the principal acknowledged social division, by a long chalk, was economic. Which did not mean the miners did not curse each other with racial epithets. They cursed and swore at each other foully and constantly. But when the crunch came, they were more solid, more willingly to take on the ruling class, for longer, at greater cost to themselves, than anybody.
Bob Treloar worked from the age of fourteen, followed the traditional path of underground advance from trapper boy to hewer of coal, before his untimely passing.
As the year 1928 came to a close, or just as 1929 began, Bob caught fire on New Year’s Eve in The Entrance and either burnt to death or drowned in the channel trying to put himself out. Enacting a traditional New Years Eve ritual, Bob and several other parties were endeavouring to raze the wooden bridge connecting the southern half of the town with its cross-channel twin. Alertness of police and fire brigade to local history had thus far thwarted years of attempts to burn the structure to the waterline. For no seeming reason other than it was there. And constructed of timber. On the New Year’s Eve of Bob’s death, however, an uncontained bushfire sparked by a nicotine-addicted tourist had torn across the western ridge to threaten the fringe of several coastal towns, and concentrate the minds of local services. In consequence, while a red glow outlined hills on the inland horizon, closer to the coast, flames leapt at several points from The Entrance channel bridge. Success finally tasted, festive exuberance led Bob Treloar to celebratory dance in Christmas pyjamas which proved inflammable. The channel was running hard under a king tide.
In Fond Remembrance Of
ELIZABETH ANN TRELOAR
b. 3 October 1906 d.15 April 1989
Much loved wife of Robert, mother of Brian
Betty Treloar, née Elizabeth Ann Appleton, of Anglo-Saxon mining stock, was reared to be a coal-winner’s wife, so to embrace misadventure – lay-offs and cavil outs, strikes - always strikes - sickly children, injury, sudden death – as a permanent feature of life. The duty of the miner’s wife was to be prepared. Two weeks prior to her husband’s death, Betty had persuaded Bob to invest in a dairy cow obtained cheaply from a new friend. Betty had planted a vegetable garden using seed procured at no cost from the same unidentified friend, and similarly sourced three chickens. Bob fox-proofed the chicken house and at Betty’s insistence covertly drowned a neighbour’s cat. That the resultant healthy home-grown diet seemed to have no beneficial effect upon her son’s chalky bones perturbed Betty.
Following Bob’s fiery but wet demise in The Channel, inconveniently preceding onset of The Great Depression by a matter of months, Betty took in the washing and ironing and cleaned the offices and residences, of several echelons of mine management, duties resulting in encounter with mine undermanager Willy Goldfinch, in the wake of which Betty continued discreetly to befriend Willy on mutually convenient occasions. For his part, Willy looked kindly upon her fatherless, chalk-boned only child Jimmy and when opportunity arose, secured his brittle de facto stepson work ‘up top’ as token-collecting boy and billy boiler, occupations less challenging to chalky bones and a fear of the dark than labour underground.
Willy Goldfinch would in short time abandon wife, children, and Betty, to shack up, post-impregnation in sand dunes following particularly robust Remembrance Day celebrations, with 17 year old village sex bomb Nerys Ferris.
As her son ventured early, prodigiously so, into physical maturity and attempted engagement with the opposite sex, Betty seized upon the notion of teaching her son to cook, more particularly to bake, in the hope that a home-based creative activity would concentrate the boy’s mind on a subject absent the opposite sex, and consumption of the produce address his lack of osteo-strength and avoirdupois. Jimmy responded to his mother’s urgings toward the oven with unexpected positivity, mastery of Anzac biscuits being quickly followed by facility in scones, tarts of varying fillings, and assorted species of cake, for reasons only to become clear when it was too late. Betty was not witness to Jimmy’s first sponge, flooded in toilet-roof passionfruit icing, being entirely devoured by best mate Ronald Borthwick, he further enthused by the thought that cream buns and other sugary confections surely lay in the near future. Over time, Jimmy’s bones continued to break, his weight to remain negligible, as he elected to displace meagre youthful dining not with baked tasty treats but with smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish.
It was said that Betty had an eye. Much as, immediately prior to Bob’s death, she had made the acquaintance of a man with a cow, seed and three chickens, thence to source ingredients for Jimmy’s baking, Betty continued to make the acquaintance of helpful male friends following her abandonment by Willy Goldfinch. Before the dream of a lawnmowing empire was supplanted by that of free ranging emus, Jimmy was able to obtain discount replacement blades from a Belmont mower spares supplier acquainted with his mother. As Jimmy’s cakes tended liquor-soaked, largely in response to best friend Ronald’s growing predilection for alcohol as an accompaniment, Betty came to know someone in the liquor trade. On infrequent occasions when pork found its way onto the Treloar table, via an acquaintance in the abattoir, or the befriending of a wild pig shooter who was passing through, Betty, also knowing a man who knew an applegrower, could always accompany the pig with apple sauce. A close friend gifted Betty a leaky boat, deployed by Jimmy and Ronald in crabbing by night on Lake Macquarie, until the vessel sank. Determined that she and son would never go without, from time to time, Betty also worked nights in Swansea.
Having spotted husband Bob’s burnt body tearing through the heads on an outgoing tide in a choppy Entrance Channel, Betty’s eye was known to be keen.
MERVYN DAVID FERRIS
b. 12 November 1897 d. 25 February 1974
Beloved husband of Olwen and Sian
Devoted Father of Nerys
Mervyn Ferris came through Gallipoli and the Western Front unscathed until June 1917, when, as his unit positioned itself prior to the Battle Of Messines Ridge, he was caught under a gas shell barrage in Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Wood. Unable to take part in the ensuing hostilities, prelude to the third Battle Of Ypres, later to be more commonly known as Passchendaele, Mervyn was to conclude that, although sleeping with an oxygen tank by the bed for the remainder of his life was an inconvenience, his heavy gassing had been a most fortunate occurrence.
Invalided to a hospice in south London, Mervyn found himself closely attended by nurse Olwen Matthews, her interest in the Australian and from where he came stemming from her valleys family having been caught on the Southampton docks, mid-emigration, by the outbreak of war. Mervyn and Olwen married the following year, only for Olwen to die six months later, of Spanish flu, as did their unborn child.
Returned to The Pit, damaged lungs rendering him unable to work underground, Mervyn was offered employment up top, on the screens, later in the washery.
A comrade of Joe Keats, Shug Meiklejohn, others, in the communist-directed Militant Minority Movement, Mervyn never formally joined The Party. Wary of joining anything except an army, he remained leery of civilians all his life, not least Party Member civilians. Whilst active in endeavouring with comrades to outflank, on the left, both the Socialist Labor Party and mainstream Labor, he was, unlike others, loathe to refer to the less militant as “social fascists”, “labor fakirs”, “boss’s lickspittles” and the like. In his view, despite differences in militancy, they were all workers, exploited as a class, in the mines. A framed quote from Jack London greeted visitors to the hallway of the Ferris cottage: “A Strike Breaker is a Traitor to his God, his Country, his Family, and his Class.”
During the 1929 Lockout, batonned at Rothbury, arm broken, cheekbone fractured, neck and face savaged by a police dog, ex AIF Sergeant Ferris had no compunction in joining more than four hundred fellow war veteran coal miners presenting their honourable discharge papers at the door in Kurri Kurri and enlisting in the newborn Labor Defence Army. A motion was passed pledging the LDA to act “in the interests of the working class” and to follow the directions of the Miners’ Federation. In practice, the army’s mission was to prevent repetition of the retreat of Rothbury, to counter the brutality of police and mobile ‘Basher Gangs”, largely imported from Sydney and devoid of local empathy, and to deter scab labour by any and all means necessary.
Mervyn was soon supervising LDA drilling, albeit weapon free, on the Kurri Kurri rugby league football ground. The assemblies were frequently monitored by police, who would loudly mock the absence of weaponry and the seemingly antique Great War drill procedures. In response, at training’s end the tightly-mustered units would loudly repeat the chant heard at Rothbury. “Guns. Guns. Give us guns!” The government took pains to ensure as few guns as possible fell into their hands.
Some guns there were, however. Mervyn had been gifted a shotgun on his sixteenth birthday. His finest peacetime hour came at the legendary Ashtonfields confrontation. With the main body of police, imported from Sydney and unsympathetic, diverted elsewhere by a ruse, Mervyn and fellow soldiers marched in front of civilian miners to the East Maitland colliery where they found a free hand in dealing with the 7 am shift of scab labour. Local police, sympathetic, oversaw the operation, ensuring violence was effective but did not go too far as Mervyn and fellow war veterans, variously-armed, covered other miners while they persuaded scabs of the error of their ways, torched sulkies, drove off horses, stripped men and harried them through the bush. The remaining blacklegs agreed to leave the mine. Management agreed to keep Ashtonfields free of scabs in future.
Made to look like fools, in reaction embracing the most marginal interpretations of the late, purpose-built Unlawful Assemblies Act, baton-wielding Basher Gangs thereafter attended to any gathering larger than the legal three, finally, en masse to sweep the South Maitland coalfield - Kearsley, Abermain, Kurri Kurri - in waves, charging popular assemblies, clubbing and trampling under horses’ hooves men, women and children. Having previous experience in being ranged against superior force and firepower, clear that the cause was lost, Mervyn remained unshakeably solid as the lockout dragged on.
Solidarity, in the form of defensive patrol in the main street of Cessnock, led Mervyn to witness the ghost of Olwen in the doorway of the co-op. Waving and calling his name. Mervyn froze in his tracks. The apparition revealed herself to be Olwen’s younger sister, Sian. The Matthews family, upon cessation of hostilities, had at last made it off Southampton docks. Indeed, “Da” Matthews himself had been at Rothbury. Sian, unfortunately, was unable to live up to the memory of her sister. Not long after giving birth to a daughter, Nerys, Sian departed Mervyn and returned to Cessnock. Once able to talk, the habit of a lifetime, as it turned out, Nerys Ferris indicated a preference to live free-ranging with her father rather than cossetted tight in the maternal family bosom.
In later life, Mervyn sought solace in the embrace of The Queen Of The Nile, the bowling club poker machine. The Queen Of The Nile remained well ahead, always, Cleopatra only coughing up begrudgingly, in what appeared small change. Subscribing to talk of a management fix, which occasionally seemed to afflict the cigarette machine and the public phone, Mervyn found himself ripping down Cleo’s arm in mounting disquiet before the heart attack.
He died as the first oil shock saw a recovery in the prospects of coal, which like previous industrial recoveries, was not to last. Avowed atheist Mervyn, curiously, is interred in the Anglican sector, his grave denoted by the white timber cross and tinplate escutcheon popular with miners and bereaved relatives on a budget. Mervyn thus joins Joe Keats in finding himself a communist lying in perpetuity beneath the cross. That Mervyn was in all probability christened Methodist, or some other variant of protestant nonconformism, only adds a further frisson of mystery. Nerys Ferris disavowed responsibility for her father’s location, scoffing at the suggestion greater social cachet might lie in being seen to rest in Anglican rather than Non Denominational, or even Methodist.
NERYS DAWN FERRIS
born 23 November 1926 died 7 August 2017
“A Tower Of Strength”
Nerys Ferris bunged on, radiating airs and graces the source of which remained forever mysterious to those familiar with her true nature and less than salubrious upbringing. That she was single-parented by her father Mervyn, coal miner and noted red ragger, added to the mystery. Whatever the source, Nerys Ferris was known from cradle onward to have bigger fish to fry. It was said her sneer could boil a billy. It was said her hair shone on a dark day and she knew it. It was said she would come to a sticky end. The less diplomatic tagged her a shandy pisser and a scorn monger.
A bolster to her superior attitude, Nerys Ferris appeared to luxuriate in teak vocal chords, gifting her the seemingly contradictory ability to put on airs and graces at eardrum-lacerating volume, in coruscating tone, with ballistic upward inflection, so to create an unique, overwheening screech, the yowl of a lass who needed to be centre of attention, and would bully attentiveness out of anyone deemed not according her elegant sufficiency of same.
Almost from first meeting, Nerys Ferris claimed to be the love of Ronald Borthwick’s life, frequently, to his face, a notion with which he was in general, befuddled agreement. Their particular intercourse continuing for nigh on fifty years, Ronald’s prospects, however, never came within coo-ee of making the Nerys Ferris grade, which stipulated mine management, brick house included in salary package, as a minimum. Nerys Ferris nevertheless would derive lifelong utility from cultivation of Ronald’s ardour, cognisant of the fact that, as long as the ardour remained unreciprocated, strategic deployment of a particular gap-toothed smile, exposure of a milk-skinned, strawberry freckled shoulder could always convince Ronald he was definitely in with a chance if he was only to do her this one special little favour. In their shared school years, her encouragement of his affection would annually peak on April Fools Day: Will you be my boyfriend, Ronald? Would you like to see my undies, Ronald? Meet me behind the slack heap, Ronald. I’ll show you my growler. April Fool.”
Ferris juvenile cruelty was not solely reserved for Ronald Borthwick. Numerous credible witnesses attest to Nerys Ferris christening short-sighted and bespectacled Craig Goldfinch “Four Eyes” and his little sister, “One Eye”. Felicity, being amblyopic, sported a brown paper patch over one lens of her spectacles. Throughout schooling, One Eye Goldfinch’s arms would daily evidence blue bruising from the pinch of Nerys Ferris. The end of schooling offered but brief respite to the Goldfinch torment. That the sixteen or seventeen year old Nerys Ferris, over a six month period, would attract the attention of their father, mine undermanager Willy Goldfinch, finesse the sacking of his secretary so to take her position, oust widow Betty Treloar as Willy’s bit on the side, see off wife and mother Adrienne to parts and fate unknown, move up, socially as well as geographically, into occupation of the Goldfinch residence atop Snob Hill, there to speedily produce a daughter, ostensibly to Willy, did not sit at all well with the variously-eyed Goldfinch youngsters. On the other hand, it was widely known that when Willy and the junior Goldfinches entertained important visitors, Nerys Ferris was made to eat in the kitchen, alone, and in this, Four Eyes and One Eye achieved some small revenge.
Nerys Ferris’s daughter was christened, as publicly as possible, Dimity Dilys Ferris-Goldfinch. Nerys Ferris overrode Willy’s Germanic presbyterianism to insist upon an anglican christening, in light of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, architecture in the Gothic Revival style, being the showiest building in the region. By the age of four, Dimity featured bluebird earrings to match her mother’s. Soon after, residence atop Snob Hill unfortunately not granting immunity to afflictions of the day, Dimity contracted rickets, leading her to wear braces on her legs and click as she walked. Below Snob Hill, it was freely remarked that Dimity did not in any way resemble Willy Goldfinch. Whom she did resemble varied according to taste. Ronald Borthwick did not rate a mention.
The reign of Queen Nerys Ferris lasted a bare eighteen months. If nothing else, it was the scarifying screech of ballistic upward inflection, echoing indoors, in rooms never big enough, and the fleeing children, which in short time drove Willy Goldfinch back into the spidery arms of his wife, who had not been chopped into fish food, nor buried under a goaf fall, nor done in by Nerys Ferris, after all. Adrienne had simply relocated to Snob Hill in Wollongong upon discovering Willy’s near-paedophilic philandering. Not wishing to unsettle her children, she had left them as well.
Dethroned but defiant, Nerys Ferris descended Snob Hill, daughter Dimity in tow, and resumed fibro cottage residence. On the single bus stop, outside the single store, deep in the single coal pit, it was as if Nerys Ferris had never been away. As ever, she made herself the centre of attention. In a bonus to communal discourse, she now also had the hot gossip on Goldfinch’s ex-ex, Mrs La De Da Goldfinch, Adrienne, and what sort of name is that?, to wit, gossip that Mrs La De Da G resented poor little Four Eyes and One Eye Goldfinches because Mrs La De Da G wanted to be an artist and not have to make school lunches, which was why she abandoned Willy and sight-deprived children and ran away to an artists’ colony in Wollongong. Nerys Ferris also had the good oil from the southern coalfields artists’ colony that Mrs La De Da G was a crap artist, because Mrs La De Da G couldn’t stand untidiness, which, Nerys Ferris asserted, was essential to being an artist, and which explained why Mrs La De Da G took Willy back. Or went back to him. Or met him halfway, on Hornsby station.
By closure of the pit, in 1983, all the miners with whom Nerys Ferris had grown up and grown old, if found not important enough to step out with, were dead. Mine management was long gone. The urban fly in, fly out administrators, Nerys Ferris quickly discovered, were cold fish. Reluctantly she was compelled to take up with Bowling Club Manager Alan Goodge, divorcee, retired suburban solicitor and recent village blow-in, until the man’s stroke, in the wake of which Nerys Ferris gave up on the opposite sex. Most village women, too, were dead, or had moved away to follow their children. Daughter Dimity Dilys, legs more or less straightened, had long disavowed her parentage and moved to Bangkok to become a flight stewardess for an Asian airline.
Nerys Ferris, however, remained. Face pale and powdered, her hair, once strawberry blonde, now behaving like hydrangea in oscillating from pink to blue and back again, the tint not pH dependent but rather the outcome of a dash of whimsy or more commonly in reaction to the tint of coiffure sported by next door neighbour and rival Dot Borthwick. The hairdos of Nerys Ferris and Dot Borthwick bloomed in a perverse opposition. Dot had been wise to Nerys Ferris all along, but her brother had refused to believe her.
The unique teak screech of the mature Nerys Ferris was to furnish resounding climax to the funeral of Ronald Borthwick, an uncrowded and otherwise low key event. In a glowing yet patronising tribute, Nerys Ferris demonstrated her outstanding ability to endow the monosyllable Ronald with a minimum two, explosive syllables – RO-ON! – sometimes three, RO-O-ON! - no matter how proximate the monosyllabic subject was, not least prone in his grave. Although Ronald and Jimmy perished on the same day, Nerys Ferris chose not to attend “Skinny’s” funeral, an event even more uncrowded than that of his best mate.
In a final public broadcast, rocking on the verandah after midnight to a population largely comprised of working class ghosts, Nerys Ferris loudly promoted the view that Herbert Hobbs, son of former school headmaster Hobbsie, retired regional banker, home renovator, four wheel driver, white-clad-wife rarely seen, was having an affair with local conservationist Mrs Greenie Fucking Blow-In. Nerys Ferris had seen them talking, swore on The Bible she had heard words fossil fuel, pollution, and condom, and ventured to suggest that perhaps Herbert, Mrs Greenie Fucking Blow-In, and Herbert’s white-dressed woman-wife, might constitute a green threesome.
Nerys Ferris died early next morning. Her death, while rocking, was only discovered two days hence. Daughter Dimity arranged for her mother to be cremated and the ashes scattered in the creek behind the cottage. Recent rain rendered Nerys Ferris’s final destination uncertain. The Ferris home was promptly demolished by the parent company, for future real estate purposes.
Nerys Ferris’s life is celebrated by a standard metal alloy plaque on the red brick memorial wall. Dimity decided against substituting, for the pithy summation “A Tower Of Strength”, the equally pithy, if not pithier “Always At Her Best”, such adjustment, she felt, perhaps coming back to haunt her.
PERCIVAL FLEETWOOD FROST
b. 5 June 1906 d. 27 August 1958
“What Are The Odds?”
The final resting place of Perce Frost lies at the intersection of Anglican and Roman Catholic Lanes. While not the equal of a pyramid of Egypt, it remains an imposing edifice, which of all domiciles in the cemetery appears most likely to deter tomb robbers. A massive slab of granite, sparkling quartz, surmounted by polished black marble headstone featuring golden Gothic inscription, it constitutes a sepulchre befitting the bones of an SP bookie acquainted with several trainers and jockeys and sadly missed by a large family. Every villager who happened to survive Perce Frost knew Perce’s grave. They had paid for it.
Doing his SP rounds, redolent of Californian Poppy, swept back hair glowing yellow, Perce wheezed, sometimes coughed, and spat, his odds. Perce had been medically assessed as twenty five per cent dusted, for which he could derive twenty five per cent compensation. Deeming the figure insufficient, Perce opted to remain in The Pit, and in consequence lost an arm to a falling floater in E Section. He and co-workers heard nothing. The pony hauling the chain cutter panicked and snapped a hind leg. Shot and snigged to the surface, the animal’s destination became thereafter the subject of rumour.
Elected checkweighman pursuant to this misfortune, a convenient crossroads for punter and bookie alike, Perce stored turnover within his folded coat sleeve and counted cash and wrote tickets one-handed. He wheezed sympathy to requests for credit, his clients being neighbours and workmates, all of whom considered welching worse than murder.
During the record-breaking Stay-In Strike of 1941, Perce fingered Johnno Jones, still in the pyjama shorts and singlet he was wearing when dragged drunk out of bed, as the mongrel who had got Perce’s daughter, Nell, “up the duff”. Mid industrial action over the critical issue of no mechanization in pillars, Perce and several mates with both arms convinced Black Sheep Jones Boy Johnno to do the right thing by Nell upon completion of the Stay-In. Johnno Jones became, overnight, superbly militant, and determined to Stay In as long as humanly possible. Nell gave birth to a baby girl, Janice, the day after Johnno’s secretly enlistment in the army. The baby grew up to be Moaning Janice Jones. Johnno was blown to bits by a grenade in Borneo.
Late career Perce Frost had the misfortune to come up against stiff competition for SP custom in the swarthy, black-curly-haired-all-over form of George the Greek. George operated a barber’s shop in Belmont. Miners had their hair cut on saturday morning. Saturday was also race day. In the end, Perce could not compete. By then, it did not matter much. Perce was a goner, it transpiring that he was a great deal lot more than twenty five per cent dusted. Perce had for a time worked at Metropolitan on the southern field, where they called twenty five per cent just a good start, but the assessing quack was management-appointed, notgto mention a Pom. Nevertheless Perce hung on like buggery, laid bets from his bed, while his grave, readied by gravedigger Ronald Borthwick in anticipation of a swifter demise, remained unoccupied.
It was acknowledged in Retired Miners Corner that Perce Frost, had he not died of the dust, would have fucking detested local dishlicker “Mystery Man” for the crime of consistent success – the bookie’s nightmare - on the nearby Wyong track. At least until the Wentworth Park Debut Incident. It was whispered that the career-ending injury was the result of ‘a swift kick in the kennels’. The Man was never to race again, his dead, inflated body being located, too late, by several other dogs of non-racing breeds, at the bottom of Troy Meiklejohn’s backyard well
ALAN CHRISTOPHER GOODGE
b. 1 March 1948 d. 15 July 2014
Alan Goodge, it was opined out of earshot, was of that type of man who appear to be middle-aged all their life, a disadvantageous characteristic when young, potentially profitable in retirement. Squeaky clean, giving off no odour discernible to humans, in dark suit and elastic-sided boots, Anglo-Australian church-going solicitor Alan Goodge had about him the aura of a clergyman who had sat too long upon cold ground. Quickly identified by locals, man and beast, as a Creeping Jesus, Alan was also seen as having bureaucratic skills which might prove useful to a village in decay.
Alan had not anticipated passing eternity in the cemetery once servicing The Pit. He had expected, having worked hard, to have moved on long before decease, and in the fullness of time been buried beneath far more upmarket pasture. Such, he planned, was to be the final outcome of substantial capital gains on recently acquired properties in a declining nearby village, to wit three former miners’ cottages, free of miners, and the former mine accountant’s residence, a superior property, with views, atop the village hill, free of accountant. Tipped off by a regional city councillor that town water might soon be connected to the village formerly known as The Pit, thus removing the only reason that the quaint and now pit-free hamlet had not yet become a target for the gentrifying class, Alan believed he had purchased well, very well, only to discover that the regional councillor had been conducting a twenty year regional affair with his wife and decided, finally, enough being enough, that Alan had to go, which, in financial distress, he did. Town water had no intention of coming to The Pit. Alan’s wife took their two children.
A proud, short man, determined to make the best of circumstances mysteriously arranged in heaven, or at the least avenge himself upon his ex wife via conspicuous success without her, Alan moved himself into the mine accountant’s former residence, commuted to work in the regional city, and prayed with stolidity, all the while, on weekends, networking, doing favours, joining working bees, bestowing glad hands, attending church, and in every other way possible insinuating himself into The Pit community, so to rise, barely three years on – allegedly by vote rigging, more probably by bean-counting - to the office of Bowling Club President and begin stepping out with Nerys Ferris, the two events not unconnected. The relationship ended less than a week after Nerys Ferris moved into Alan’s house.
Perhaps sensing absence of empathy, animals seemed not to respect Alan Goodge whilst, unlike humans, not hiding how they felt. Taking no notice of water-filled plastic bottles geometrically scattered by the President, local dogs persistently defecated, en masse, upon the close-shaven bowling green. That the worst offenders, in a pack, seemed always to trail Ronald Borthwick onto club premises saw Alan Goodge develop an understandable set against the alcoholic gravedigger and repeatedly threaten to poison any and all of his dogs, should they crap on his green one more time.
Alan Goodge’s long wait for earthly reward was, in the end, rewarded. The sudden death of mentor Ronald Borthwick seemed to dispirit local dogs to the extent that they no longer fouled the bowling green. Simultaneously, gentrifiers willing to pay top dollar for decaying four-room cottages began to arrive, despite there being no town water. The conveyancing arm of Alan’s business began to thrive.
Post Nerys Ferris, seeking solitude, he took up golf. That The Pit had no course, that no-one in The Pit played the game, proved no impediment. Locals frequently were to witness their Club President tramping the dune line brandishing a club, every now and then halting to dig feet into the sand and wiggle his rear like a cat about to pounce, before taking an ungainly swing at a clump of spinifex. At other times he was observed walking the tide line, clubbing cuttlefish and dry kelp into the sea, or dried bluebottles following an overnight south-easter.
Alan Goodge died as a result of breeding season magpie attack, falling from a bicycle, having neglected to don the plastic ice-cream container mandatory in late spring. The assailant, dropping from the iconic Norfolk Pine in Alan’s ex mine accountant’s front yard, was a direct descendant of the notorious Fritz, he who early in the twentieth century had conducted forward defence of his family from the angophora between creekbed and schoolyard. Fritz’s great great granddaughter had, like the youthful Nerys Ferris, seized an opportunity to move uphill to a more salubrious neighbourhood, and breed.
Unique in having funeral insurance, Alan Goodge lies beneath black marble, gold lettered and featuring, behind oval glass, a coloured photo of himself, smiling. A local wit has added a Hitler moustache.
HARRY FRANCIS BUTCHER
4 August 1883 – 16 May 1961
Beloved Husband of Elaine
Father of Sarah
Grandfather of Dorothy and Ronald
Great Grandfather of Shelley
Harry “Pop” Butcher sported a mediaeval-seeming leather helmet with shoulder flap and slopped shit everywhere, or didn’t, in the case of friends, as after midnight he ferried cans to and from backyard dunnies in the smaller coalfields villages. He enjoyed the work. The night air. The exercise. The solitude. In the face of a shrinking market for his services due, as he termed it, to the “creeping menace of septic tanks and sewerage”, he remained reasonably confident the more isolated pit towns and their primitive facilities would last just long enough to see him through to the end.
Harry’s padding down the sides of the cottages, delivering the empty and slinging the full onto his shoulder in a single motion, to pirouette and pad back, laden, to the cart, was an oft heard, infrequently seen sequence, comforting to clients abed in the rhythmic familiarity and practical result. Referring to his cart, initially horse-powered, thereafter by less reliable, noisier internal combustion, Pop was heard to say, more than once:
“It’d be a humdinger if it had a bell on it.”
Pop possessed a number of favourite sayings with a tendency to emerge irrespective of relevance to a current situation.
“How did I get into nightsoil? Fell into it. Haaa.”
The British army having extricated him from Bedminster, Somerset, to insert him into Ladysmith, South Africa, Harry Butcher, at a young age, found himself on the unfortunate inside of proceedings, during the siege.
“Don’t be vague. Blame General Haig.”
In later life he would claim to have witnessed the then Major Douglas Haig boarding the last train out of Ladysmith, leaving everyone else behind and besieged, in reward for which supreme act of command, Pop would declare, Haig was duly promoted to the rank of Field Marshall.
Ladysmith relieved, duty done, honourably discharged, Harry returned to Bedminster, nearby Bristol and environs, to labour in a proximate pit and on the docks, finally to man the production line at the Wills tobacco factory, all of which he could see leading nowhere except Bedminster, Bristol and environs.
Australia beckoned. He had encountered Australian soldiers in South Africa, appreciated their crudeness and apparent freedom, the possibilities therein. Enthusiastic, easily persuaded that Newcastle, Australia, with docks on river and ocean, coal multitudinous in the hinterland, would be not unlike Newcastle, England, perhaps even Bristol, but at the same time very different, he decided the future lay on the underside of the world. A week later, returning to Bristol by train, sea passage booked, he met Elaine.
Elaine Hammond, of Bath, was the only daughter of a widowed and impoverished draper who feared for the economic future – his and his country’s - and wished his daughter off his hands, for her sake. Harry found Elaine to be exotically skittish, and damned pretty. Possibly too damned pretty. She in turn was attracted by his strength and adventurousness, of which a ticket to the antipodes furnished significant evidence.
Perturbed that he might have to choose between Elaine and Australia, Harry took a chance – an approach which habitually was to sit well with him - and pursued the relationship in spite of the approaching date of departure. A somewhat urgent courting, encouraged by Elaine, in respectable fashion, was, to Harry’s great surprise, promoted still more enthusiastically, volubly so, by the intended’s s father. The couple married three days in advance of Harry’s Australian ticket becoming void. Unstinting parental encouragement led Elaine also to embrace relocation to Australia as, at very least, character-building. As insurance, she obtained Harry’s vow “on a stack of Bibles” that if she were not happy in the antipodes, they would return home.
Harry Butcher became more earthy with time. He simply smiled and didn’t care. In a good way. He believed he had married up, and worshipped accordingly. He had no ambition beyond providing, within reason, for his beloved. And later, daughter Sarah. War had taught him that anything could happen at any time and it did no good to worry.
“It’s all shite, son, then you die.”
“Harry, for goodness sake.”
“What’s the definition of enthusiasm, Ronald?”
“Come with Nan, Ronald. Quickly.”
“A dunnyman who throws himself into his work. Haaa.”
“Your Pop lost his manners in the war.”
“Don’t be vague, blame General Haig.”
When another war called, Harry would later claim, a night before moving up to the front, he had once again bumped into the now Field Marshall Haig, well to the rear of a battlefield located in a foul bog on the western front known as Wipers.
“Don’t be vague, blame General Haig” was near to all Pop would say when later questioned about the wars he was in, before diving back into his newspaper. Upon grandson Ronald asking how many Boers and Bosch he had killed, Pop would declare that he had only winged a few, and deliberately, so that they got to go home. He declined to march in post war parades. In later years, he would watch the Anzac Day celebrations on television.
Not a miner, apart from a brief unhappy stint in the Bristol, Pop Butcher was nevertheless union solid. During the Rothbury Lockout, assorted general strikes, local industrial actions, he would steadfastly refuse to collect the shit of scabs. That the working by scabs of Rothbury occurred amid a particularly intense summer heatwave added zest, in the form of dysentery, stench, flies and mosquitoes, to Pop’s protest. The hum, the buzzing, became apparent well away from the scab camp.
Pop and Nan Butcher never recovered from their daughter Sarah’s predecease, the result of pneumonia contracted in seaborne flight from Wales and failure of her second marriage to Short Owen Jones. Unlike the Borthwick in-laws, particularly Gramma, Harry and Elaine had taken a shine to short-lived second husband Short Owen, as a welcome distraction from Sarah’s first husband Malcolm’s failure to reappear, or at least at a distance explain himself.
Nan’s several nervous breakdowns left Pop with little choice but to soldier on, staying in the Butcher cottage after Nan was moved on. Shrinking, hair turning white, he utilised only two rooms. The others he piled to the ceiling with newspapers and boxes of empty beer bottles. Every morning, he read the paper. Every afternoon he drank beer. In between he visited Nan, every day, religiously, in the face of her late-emergent scatalogical abuse of all and sundry. His job was to protect. She thought he was Satan.
Smaller than Nan in the end, Pop fell asleep amid towers of newspapers and beer bottles and never woke. Grandson Ronald squeezed Harry and Elaine Butcher into the same bed, beneath the slab of concrete topped with colourful commemorative vases within which Harry had weekly arranged fresh flowers for Elaine until his own demise. The vases, rarely seeing flowers except by serendipity, now exist in contravention of cemetery rules. The receptacles predating the new regulations, however, the superintending powers, to be respectful, are willing to wait until the vases crack and fall apart before considering removal.
ELAINE ELIZABETH BUTCHER
born 20 October 1890 died 12 June 1959
Beloved Wife Of Harry
Mother of Sarah
Grandmother of Dorothy and Ronald
Great Grandmother of Shelley
“In God’s Garden”
In later years, before the breakdown, “Nan” Butcher bore a scent of The Bible intermingled with whiffs of pot pourri, lavender, and pressed local annuals, according to availability, Bible and pot pourri always to hand on a bedside table, lavender sprinkled in linen cupboards and under clothing in drawers, annuals pressed between pages of the Word Of God, marking Nan’s favourite passages. There was an Anglican propriety to her demeanour. Leavened when younger by desire not to be seen as proper as all that, the stiff-backed characteristic solidified in her middle age, when she would appear as dressed for church, in mid winter, in far off Somerset, most days of the week.
If Elaine cared to look at her marriage as the broader society of Bath might have viewed it, which she did not, or not often, it may have seemed that she had wed beneath her station. Yet the difference in elevation between a draper’s daughter and an ex army man embracing a range of later occupations, in Britain and abroad, was not terribly great, especially if the draper himself had encouraged the union. And Harry was undoubtedly a fine, reliable man. That the robust adventurousness Elaine admired would culminate in the role of night soil collector to a cluster of tiny pit towns in Australia, Elaine could not possibly have foretold. Nor could she have predicted husband Harry more specifically collecting the nightsoil of their daughter Sarah and coal miner husband Malcolm, such union itself being unlikely in Elaine’s eyes. Let alone that, after a decade and two children, Malcolm, of whom she, his mother-in-law, came finally to approve, would disappear one night while fishing, never to be seen again.
Arriving in the northern coalfields, seeking common ground, Elaine and Harry found fellow refugees from the West Country scarce, whilst a stroll down the main street of most pit towns would encounter a raucous discourse threaded with any number of northern, north-eastern, and midlands accents, more or less peaceably coexistent with Scots, Welsh and Irish burrs and brogues.
Upon Harry securing the first in what was to prove an elongated chain of jobs, leading to rental of a tiny home in an antipodean enclave of Northumberland. Elaine set about establishing a landlocked island resembling, as far as possible, a country cottage in Somerset, featuring, in particular, a rapprochement between an English country garden and Australian conditions, a challenge which was to prove lifelong. Flowers made Elaine Butcher happy.
Elaine’s youthful prettiness, in Nan Butcher, became vase-like. Wherein cracks appeared, manifest in what was then termed a “highly strung” demeanour. In short, Nan Butcher began to fuss. Finding comfort, even enjoyment, in the state of fuss, she soon vibrated with it. Fuss, with remnant Somerset accent, became the embroidery of Nan Butcher's life, adding colour and line to diminished circumstances. Fuss cost nothing, could be manufactured out of nothing, was applicable to everything and available to everybody, no matter how humble. In Nan Butcher's quivering hummingbird hands, fuss was both everyday and ceremonial, equally irradiating births, deaths, cups of tea and what to wear.
The journey from fuss to nervous breakdown gained impetus with a letter from an aunt, less than a year after emigration, to say that her father had killed himself. In encouraging the union with Harry, and their travel to the far side of the world, Nan concluded that her father had simply wanted to clear the decks first.
Nan suffered her first nervous breakdown in the wake of daughter Sarah’s early death. Missing, located aboard a city-bound train, shuffling up and down the aisle while swearing at anyone who dared look at her, Nan had never before, in her entire life, been heard to swear. Nor was her cursing sourced from the mild end of the spectrum. Nan’s mouth became, without warning, foul. F*** and c***, you f****** c***, much in the vein of pit men when something went truly, dangerously haywire. Where she had heard or read such language was a mystery. Her deployment was noted highly credible in its vehemence. She swore at Pop Butcher as well, called him a f****** c***!” and cursed him as The Devil. When he took her flowers or chocolates she would hurl them back screaming “Get thee behind me, Satan, you f****** c***!” Pop visited Nan in the safe unit every day.
A second breakdown, followed by electro-convulsive therapy, reduced but did not eliminate Nan’s affliction. Her profanity seemed to quieten, appear more resigned.
Harry, with great affection, would recall, perhaps apocryphally, that Elaine’s last words to him were a trembling whisper, “You little shit.”
Aware that heaven, in the mind’s eye of his beloved, would be an infinite flower garden, eternally scented, forever in bloom, Harry selected a grave featuring plain flat slab of concrete, topped with numerous commemorative vases, within which he would weekly arrange fresh flowers, until his own demise.
SARAH MAY BORTHWICK
1904 – 1958
Wife Of Malcolm
Beloved Mother Of Dorothy and Ronald
“What shadows we are
What shadows we pursue”
Sarah May Borthwick (née Butcher) was conceived aboard the mail ship S.S. Ormuz en route to Australia as, in an uncommon demonstration of co-operation by the elements, the vessel traversed a calm section of ocean. So would claim her father, Harry “Pop” Butcher, out of earshot of her mother, Elaine “Nan” Butcher. As to how conception was managed in steerage, Pop Butcher did not go into such detail. Her parents being unable to locate an antipodean enclave of Somerset, Sarah was transported overland to be born and raised in “Geordieland”, an enclave of Tynesiders recruited to the southern hemisphere by a fellow Northumberlander, a manager in charge of hiring and firing, who liked to know what he was getting, and when the time came, getting rid of.
That “Geordieland” and its twin pits came to be the satellite settlement of the antipodean Newcastle was pure coincidence. Whether or not new life in the hinterland of the new Newcastle was an improvement on the old was in many respects open to debate. Pits remained pits, foul, dark and dangerous, work remained hard and underpaid, and miners themselves disdained by society at large as begrimed leftist troublemakers who did not know their place, which was to provide power, light and heat for civilization, and not complain. What was undeniable, however, was that down under, when not underground, more time could be spent outdoors, in sunshine, than back home.
Sarah was possibly unique in having run away to, not from, The Pit. The only daughter of a sometime soldier and unsettled later occupations, who was finally to discover a permanent calling in nightsoil collection for the wider northern coalmining community, Sarah accepted that, chances were, she would become a coalminer’s wife, her only stipulation being that she should become such as far away from her mother as possible. At eighteen, in Kurri Kurri attending a dance to raise funds for miners gone out in the “Major Crane”* strikes, the opportunity to bolt presented itself in the shape of flame-haired Malcolm Borthwick.
Sarah hated fuss. Her mother Elaine vibrated with it. Aware, however, that fuss may rush in to fill a marital vacuum, Sarah would forgive her mother, forgiveness turning to screaming after an hour in the same room.
To which her mother's reaction was incomprehension followed by affront followed by guilt, all of which, after extreme show of penitence by her daughter, subsequently proceeded into storage. For to fuss, for Nan Butcher, was to love. Such love, in the form of a maternal near-nervous breakdown outside St Mary’s, Weston, came close to ruining Sarah's modest wedding.
Determined to keep fuss out of her marriage, yet hearing herself utter an expression like "Into every life a little rain must fall", tinged with Somerset, not Geordie, or upon seeing herself rearrange Malcolm's shaving things, or wipe a speck of food from the corner of his mouth with the corner of her apron, in horror Sarah saw her body inhabited by the spirit of her mother. She shuddered the presence out and away, and stiffened her defences. Malcolm made a joke of it, said he didn't care. Sarah did not believe him. Sarah did permit herself one area of fuss: cleanliness. Malcolm was known to remark that his wife smelt like a bluebag.
After giving birth to Dorothy and Ronald, Sarah, with Malcolm’s assistance, took pains not to conceive again. Of the many reasons for wanting birthing over and done with, her mother's unstoppable appearance on the doorstep of the shrinking cottage, with intent to stay for the duration, even then to linger after, was arguably most potent. Dot’s birth, initially complex and noisy under grandmother’s micro-management, became straightforward after Nan Butcher was escorted from the premises, in a state, by her husband. Ill fortune, in Pop Butcher being absent from escort duty due to recurrence of piles garnered in wartime, dogged the second birthing. Ronald’s entry to the world was slow and fraught, the grandmother’s nervous condition seemingly transferred to the mother as the hovering fuss caused Sarah's insides to clench and the child to show no sign of wanting to greet the wider world. When the youngster did appear finally to stir on the evening of the second day, Sarah felt that she and impending offspring were, finally, in accord. The sooner the fuss died down and returned to Geordieland, the better. With, for Sarah, the coda: this was absolutely the last time.
Graduating from miner’s wife to putative widow upon Malcolm’s disappearance, Sarah opted to continue residence in the tiny Borthwick cottage, alongside Eve, Dot, Ronald and, despite mutual dislike, Gramma, rather than return to the highly-strung Butcher home in Geordieland. Without fuss, Sarah assumed the mantle of Borthwick breadwinner. Little bread was won at first. Opportunity was scant in the coalfields of the lingering Depression, not least for female wage seekers. Sarah dipped into reserves that as a miner’s wife only she knew about. When the reserves ran out, the family relied upon handouts, locally caught fish and rabbit, credit, and curiously, the vegetable garden, which seemed to respond positively to Malcolm’s absence. And, Eve proclaimed, the reading of the Bible to hitherto heathen plants.
Persisting, pestering, Sarah eventually found employment, intermittent, but with supplements of produce, more or less enough, in the Kurri Kurri miners co-operative store. She undertook the hour’s walk to and from The Pit for eighteen months, before being gifted an unwanted bicycle by neighbouring widower Short Owen Jones. Short Owen would also gift the Borthwick family an occasional freshly-dressed rabbit, and when Ronald was deemed of sufficiently sensible age, a brace of rabbit traps. Sarah and Gramma’s dislike of each other intensified upon Short Owen escorting Sarah to a showing, in Newcastle, of “The Wizard Of Oz”. Short Owen’s first wife had died giving birth to Neville Jones, who grew to become the local firebug. Disapproval from above also accompanied Short Owen advancing Ronald the money to buy the second hand shotgun which was to feature prominently in his later life.
Upon elapse of the required seven year period, respectfully encouraged by Short Owen, Sarah applied to have Malcolm declared legally dead. His official demise secured, the widow now available, Short Owen promptly asked Sarah to marry him. Sarah answered in the affirmative, then proceeded to find serial reasons to delay, citing wartime circumstances, rationing and the like, all underlain by the fear, or hope, or both, that legally dead Malcolm might still turn up. The arrival of peace and still no Malcolm saw Sarah run out of excuses. The date set, Short Owen proved himself somewhat of a dark horse, revealing that he had somehow accumulated the funds, not necessarily with complete legality, for an extended honeymoon. In Wales. The Jones’ homeland was not exactly Sarah’s idea of the perfect honeymoon location, but it was definitely away from The Pit. And Short Owen had it all planned.
The marriage lasted less than six months. Sarah hated Wales, the cold, the wet, the relatives and, by the end, Short Owen. Developing pneumonia aboard a ship traversing a route identical to that upon which her life had begun, Sarah died shortly after entering Sydney heads. According to daughter Dot, at night, ear to the slab, Gramma Borthwick can be heard saying “I told you so”, over and over, in reference to the failed marriage. Gramma, stern scots Presbyterian, might also be heard to proffer posthumous opinion on her daughter-in-law being buried anglican, the persuasion of the Butcher family.
At the head of the grave, a lateral block of pale, speckled stone, angled as a lecturn, bears an inscribed quotation from Edmund Burke: “What shadows we are, What shadows we pursue.” Responsibility for the quotation’s inclusion, the nature of Sarah’s relation with Edmund Burke, if any, is unknown.
*Major Crane: NSW magistrate notorious for the ruthless gaoling of striking miners under the Masters and Sevants Act.
SAMUEL MALCOLM BORTHWICK
born 30.7.1901 died
“He Loved To Fish”
Malcolm Borthwick’s gravesite, reserved in late 1934, in Presbyterian, relocated at a later point to Anglican, remains unoccupied and marked by a commemorative headstone lacking in finality.
Submerged in a fontful of cold northern Calvinism, Malcolm was christened Samuel Malcolm Borthwick in memory of ten year old Samuel Horne who had drowned along with twenty five other child workers in the Huskar colliery disaster of 1838. Samuel Horne was a childhood playmate of Malcolm’s grandmother Emma, who insisted upon pit-drowned Samuel’s continued commemoration via her new pit-bound grandson. Malcolm’s certificated appellation was known only to a dwindling few in The Pit as he had seized the opportunity to dispense with the unwanted tag upon enrolling himself on his first day of school. That the gravity of history seemed to elude him persuaded Gramma Borthwick that her son was soft.
His father Charlie’s legacy was red hair, a rubbery crescent smile, dark suit, hobnail boots and collection of tools. Malcolm was ten at the time of the accident. For the better part of the next five years – six months in France excepted, during which time Gramma undertook the task - Malcolm would dutifully lay out, upon his half of the bedroom floor, with the formal precision of a dental assistant, the inherited shovel, pick, mandrills, pinch bar, hatchet, borer, drills and bits, powder tin, crib tin, water bottle, and boots, and proceed to clean and oil the tools against rust and rub dripping into the boot leather, in anticipation of his progress onto the coal.
In 1917, when a wheeler, he joined striking men lining a clifftop to pelt with rocks scab labour arriving by steamship from Sydney, as women kettled the blacklegs with metal pots and wooden spoons. Baton-wielding police pursued the strikers through the town. Malcolm took refuge under the house, in the company of youthful border collie Rowdy, who deemed proceedings a great game until he and master were joined by an unnamed Germanic police dog. Nothing was proven. The police broke three of Malcolm’s ribs expressing disappointment that a gelignite box discovered under his bed contained only an old suit and newspaper clippings dating from 1911.
His mother initially refusing to sigh the papers, upon coming of age Malcolm enlisted and sailed to Europe and the Western Front, despite the government preferring he stay in the pit. He was drilling behind the lines within a day of moving up when the armistice denied him the privilege of facing the enemy.
Upon return to the pit, his graduation to hewer came amid loudening whispers of the role’s extinction as the spectre of mechanisation stalked the pits with post-war vigour. Several early model cutters, electric chains and windy picks, were already deployed in the old section. Despite promises, men had been laid off. There had been accidents. Miners needed to hear the roof talk. Machines were noisy.
On his back in an undercut, cutting deeper with pick or hatchet, one handed, there was almost daily a moment when Malcolm became piquantly aware of the weight of the world inches above his face, and considered that it could render him as flat as a stamp before he knew it. “Bottom-holing” was deemed the most dangerous activity of all in winning coal the old way. It would be simple to kick out the timber supports, he thought. Slam. Gone.
Malcolm rarely spoke when not spoken to. What was new to talk about? Unless there had been an accident or management was trying, again, still, to pull some same old bastard of a trick. He lacked his father's touch in the garden, at times managing to coax a vegetable from the soil, these being undersized misshapen monsters, less tasty and far uglier than the vegetables of his childhood, the type of vegetable that scared children at night. He was not God-fearing, the closest he had come being to pray for the return of his father, whereupon no answer came. He found pleasure in fishing but even then was suspicious of the feeling. Projecting a rubbery smiling nonchalance, infrequently uttering a diverting and humorous remark, The Pit considered Malcolm’s an open face, painted on a closed door.
In his mother’s eyes, Malcolm was ‘soft’, did not, could not measure up to his late father, Charlie. Yet he went down into the pit when the whistle blew, went on the coal ‘deficient’ or not, was solid in dispute, resisted “speed up”, struck against mechanical pillar extraction on the grounds of danger and rejoiced at its subsequent abandonment like every other good man in The Bay. When the whistle failed to blow, he trapped rabbits, caught fish, drank and oversaw a dying garden. Whistle or no, he married a woman he loved. Fathered two healthy children. Played team sport. Smoked like a chimney. Drank like a fish. Spat black phlegm. None of which indicated softness. But yet again, he was soft. It was in his laugh. He could laugh at anything. He laughed when Gramma told him he ‘were soft’. So what was so wrong with being soft?
Miners wanted sons. So it went. The tradition wove as a black ribbon back to the old, dark, cold country. Yet Malcolm felt relief, unexpressed, when Dot was born. Her hair was a light, mousey brown. The later arrival of a violently red-haired son he accepted as fate, delayed. Or rough justice.
He fished to unwind. An activity solitary and above ground, the loading jetty was his favourite spot, favourite time late saturday night, on a rising tide and no moon. No work next day, nothing overhead but stars. A thousand feet out to sea, perched on the edge, legs dangling thirty feet above the high water mark, flask of Red Mill rum at hand, rolling a cigarette inside his coat, he could, he felt, cast over the edge of the world. Despite the exaggerated height required to accommodate large coal steamers, the sea still broke over the planking in heavy weather. On a still night the noise from the pub reached the end of the jetty.
Vanished while fishing, in winter swell, neither Malcolm nor dead body were satisfactorily located. Out of earshot of the bereaved, The Pit hypothesised. Drunk, fell in, drowned. Took a leak, fell in, drowned. Northerly current. He’ll turn up. Maybe he won’t. Shark. Didn’t finish his rum. So where was his tobacco? Walked. Ran.
No theory of Malcolm’s fate was ever proven correct. Sightings of wiry red-haired men thought to resemble missing person Malcolm Borthwick were made up and down the east coast of New South Wales and southern Queensland. Most sightings occurred during holiday periods. Malcolm, or someone not unlike him, was observed drinking to excess in hotels at Ulladulla, Buladelah, Brunswick Heads, and Moolooloobah. He was reported drinking and fishing from the breakwater at Iluka, off the bridge at The Entrance, the rocks at Avoca Beach, and piers at Long Jetty and Greenwell Point. Journeying by bus to a miner’s wedding in Helensburgh, near Wollongong, Betty Treloar claimed to have espied Malcolm hitch-hiking outside the Kangy Angy roadhouse, where, before Betty could intercept, he accepted a lift in a grey Austin with Queensland number plates and garish black and gold fringed souvenir cushions on the back seat, driven by a young woman who, according to Betty Treloar, looked fast. Sightings dwindled after a year or so. Several years later, Malcolm was reported boarding a ship bound for the United Kingdom. According to legend, when in his cups Grampa Charlie had more than once asserted that reliable rumour had it his great great grandfather was the bastard son of a nameless Midlothian Laird, said to possess castle and fortune, and who had violently exercised his extinct! droit de seigneur on a pretty young Borthwick farm girl. Or perhaps the Borthwick lass had been a pretty young coal trammer with half her hair missing at the front, who scrubbed up well on a sunday. Malcolm had vanished in order to claim his birthright, the story went. Twenty five years after the disappearance, seeking a larger than average parking spot on the Gold Coast, Cedric Keats motored past a red-bearded but otherwise balding man, beach rod in one hand, fingers of the other up the gills of a huge flathead, having his photograph taken in front of a “Single Men Only” boarding house in Coolangatta. The man was gone by the time Cedric had parked car, boat, and home-made caravan. The boarding house disclaimed knowledge of a red bearded lodger. No photograph of fisherman and flathead ever turned up. The notice in the corner store window quickly aged in the Gold Coast sun.
The passing of Gramma Borthwick cleared the way for her grandson, gravedigger Ronald, to relocate his father’s open-ended memorial from Presbyterian to Anglican, so to accompany his legally ex wife Sarah.
GEOFFREY WILFRED CLUTTEN
born 22 October 1896 died 11 July 1940
Shortly after arrival behind the lines, “Tinsnips” Clutten was kicked in the head by a Belgian or possibly French horse while attempting to stretch a Belgian or possibly French chicken’s neck in a bomb-blasted barn somewhere south west of Polygon Wood, the powers-that-be thus finding the excuse they had been seeking to ship Tinsnips home and back into the pit. As a coalminer, his enlistment had been officially resisted in the first place but Tinsnips had put his foot down.
Back underground, metal plate holding cracked skull together, ever shirtless above grimy flap-like shorts and hobnailed boots, the post-war Tinsnips seemed never to stop smiling. Co-workers could not decide whether his faculties had been diminished by the horse’s hoof or that the permanent smile merely indicated adoption of simpler attitude to life. His injury did not seem to affect his ability to play the cornet – the only time he stopped smiling - and he remained a stalwart of The Pit Brass Band.
Prior to the rockfall, Tinsnips had been Malcolm Borthwick’s wheeler, Malcolm pronouncing him the fastest wheeler in The Pit and deeming the trait a mixed blessing: “Tinsnips never bloody stops!” Towards the end Malcolm was heartily sick of Tinsnips and his sober haste. “Too many bloody you’ll do’s”, he would say, searching pocket for coins. At week’s end, a good wheeler might receive a “you’ll do” – a small amount of cash – as reward for service. Inheriting the smiling wheeler following Malcolm Borthwick’s mysterious departure, Short Owen Jones mentored Tinsnips’ rise to the position of hewer.
The roof collapse which did for Tinsnips was small by historic standards. Water, neither salt nor fresh, did not gush from above, the tunnels were not flooded. The rock had likely been cracked and loosened by an earlier goaf collapse. Only Tinsnips’ head and shoulders were visible. His co-workers dug him out with bare hands. Eight took turns in bearing him home, the fabric in the stretcher rotten, barely able to support the crushed man. Eleanor Morgan galloped “Moonlight” through thick bush to fetch the doctor from Swansea.
Tinsnips was a bachelor - he had a mother somewhere, but no-one could remember where – and resided in a shanty which sagged in the middle, as though painted on canvas draped over a rope. Inside, flooring dipped where the ground beneath had subsided into an abandoned working. Rent for the dwelling, a patchwork of timber, iron and hessian bagging, was deducted from Tinsnips’ fortnightly pay packet. Upon poking an interior wall, a curious mate’s finger was seen to pierce two layers of ancient paint separated by empty space that was once timber and intrude into the room on the other side, above which a gale had seemingly removed a section of roof sheeting, leaving a hole the size of a horse. Tinsnips simply kept the door closed. His colleagues lay him on the foul single bed and left. He lingered for eighteen months.
The Pit Brass Band took prominent position in the funeral arrangements. Smaller than other coalfields’ bands, its instrumentation further reduced by war, the percussion of Donny Mayfield being particularly missed, now cornet-less, the band yet remained capable of a tidy sound. Miners in hats and dark suits marched two abreast behind, Lodge President Dickie Jones, Secretary Hugh Meiklejohn, Lionel Thorpe and Short Owen Jones, in a lack of planning, bearing the coffin unevenly due to Short Owen Jones’ lack of height. Trailing women wore hats or subdued hair with scarves. Tinsnips’ mother had not been found. The procession crossed the white bridge, broached the cemetery, and wound its way to a freshly-dug slot in the Presbyterian section which, although Tinsnips’ religious persuasion, if he had one, was not known, was considered a reasonable guess and convenient. The band completed The Dead March, Minister Sefton spoke of the promise of the life hereafter, Short Owen Jones sang a beautiful “Abide With Me”. If the remnants of jam tarts and beer bottle on the grave floor were noticed, they were not remarked upon. The casket was lowered, handfuls of clay thumped on the coffin lid. The band played with less rigour as mourners wandered back up the hill, beyond which lay the pub. The women went home. Gravedigger Ronald Borthwick” hand-painted the name on the white wooden cross.
WILLIAM BERNHARD GOLDFINCH
born 4 June 1895 died 30 July 1967
“Lived To Serve”
A prescient Wolfgang Stieglitz, industrial businessman, formerly of The Ruhr, since turn of century resident in London, saw fit to change the family name fully two years before the German army crossed the Belgian border, and further, to locate employment in a smaller, regional precinct, where there would be less chance of his former self being remembered.
Willy Goldfinch, christened Wilhelm Bernhard Stieglitz, late of London, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and, very briefly, Essen, this last only mentioned when sorely pressed, wore a black hat, a brown suit, stiff white Egyptian cotton handkerchief, monogrammed “W.G.”, in blue, protruding from the pocket, and thought himself a soft cop as regards his dealings with the workforce. Educated, managerially accented, cut from superior Anglo-Germanic cloth, identifying post-Victorian, wanting to be liked, Willy had determined on the voyage to Australia that he would not live up to the toffee-nosed bullying stereotype of industrial management, but rather, he would be firm but fair to Englishmen, Scots, Irish, and Welshman alike. This attitudinal balance would be sorely tested, not least upon encountering a number of Maltese men working in The Pit, all of whom, at first glance, appeared politically fractious.
Married to Adrienne, ship captain’s daughter, of Sunderland, the union produced two children, both of whom suffered optical issues, in the antipodes soon earning Craig the nickname ‘Four Eyes’ and Felicity ‘One Eye’. Felicity, sporting bottle-bottom spectacles from a very young age, was also afflicted with what was then termed a ‘lazy eye’, requiring the papering over of the lens to her hard-working eye, so to encourage the lazy one to greater effort.
Management and philandering historically having been found a natural fit, Willy Goldfinch decided he was not one to argue with history. Anonymity proving difficult in a small village, however, there was a price to pay. Whether such price was worth paying only came to trouble Willy long after it was paid, several times over.
To promote a liaison with widow Betty Treloar, who cleaned management offices, as well as securing her son work above ground, Willy saw additional benefit in educating Jimmy in the nature of the industrial/political struggle, as seen from the management point of view. Under the mine undermanager’s comprehensive tutelage, Jimmy learned that, without coal, there would be no civilization, for civilization had been built on coal. He learned that coal miners, indeed any miners, but especially coal miners, had Willy Goldfinch’s respect and admiration, the undermanager, however, admitting to concern that a minority of red raggers was white-anting Australian civilization in the service of foreign masters, and that this was counter to the freedom for which he, Willy Goldfinch, had fought in the Great War. Or had wanted to, but was too young. His German ancestry remained unmentioned.
Willy further instructed Jimmy in the benefits of mechanisation, laying particular stress on management’s awareness of the safety aspect, all the while detailing his understanding of the men’s need for job security, how he too desired security of employ, and how history had proven that the only security was progress. Jimmy learned that The Pit was finished if the mine stood still and he, Willy Goldfinch, would not let that happen. He loaned Jimmy his personally annotated copy of The Wealth Of Nations.
Willy did not enjoy distributing retrenchment notices. ‘Firm but fair’, however, cut no ice with a cavilled-out miner. The social consequences of market-driven management were impossible to avoid in a one-industry pit town. And it seemed in Willy’s later years of employment, the post war decades of mechanisation and overproduction, loss of markets, competition from oil, and export recovery followed by collapse, that the putting off of men, the occasional putting of them back on, only to put them off again, was all Willy did. Never wavering from laissez faire, or ‘firm but fair’ necessity, Willy nevertheless found the interpersonal actuality, in a small community, emotionally exhausting. On the wrong side of a widening class divide, expressed in public and private intercourse, conflict and contempt was unavoidable unless he remained indoors, door shut, atop ‘Snob Hill’.
Willy’s relationship with secretary Nerys Ferris, she then seventeen - or was it sixteen? - was in the main pursued outdoors, in natural surroundings, by night, until the abrupt departure of Mrs Goldfinch in circumstances subject to much speculation. Had Nerys Ferris levered her rival out, as she had the earlier Goldfinch secretary? Then again, it was remarked, with a name like Adrienne, who could blame Willy for admitting mistake and dispensing, by whatever means, with the pretentious cow? Whatever the circumstances of her predecessor’s departure, Nerys Ferris was immediately after to resign her secretarial position as inappropriate for a woman and baby daughter now become resident, with Willy and Goldfinch children, atop Snob Hill.
Nerys Ferris soon not making the grade atop Snob Hill, the unplanned return of Adrienne, while putting paid to variations on her demise, saw Willy, following a brief honeymoon, realise, in the first instance, that he had been glad to see his wife leave, but in the second, tired, could not face re-engagement with Nerys Ferris, Betty Treloar, nor liaison with any other female in order to foment marital disturbance and provide cause for Adrienne to walk out again. Covertly securing transfer to the Metropolitan Pit in Helensburgh, on the southern coalfields, Willy abruptly departed The Pit, yet again discarding Adrienne, and this time, Craig, and Felicity, along with other belongings, he being taken to the cleaners in the settlement, as he knew would be the case.
Managerial work in the south resembled that in the north. Perhaps, probably, it was worse. Mainly, it seemed to Willy, he put off men. Put them back on much less than before. Competition mandated increased productivity, which led to overproduction and further dismissals. Mines were becoming underground factories. Requiring less and less human fodder. Willy did not like not being liked. He was happy to take early retirement when it was offered.
Divorce proceeds enabling Adrienne and children’s relocation to, renovation of, an inner city terrace house in Sydney, Willy found himself, very strangely he thought, embracing the notion of passing his retirement back in The Pit. He was unsure why. Perhaps, he mused, it where he felt most at home. The populace was down to earth. Self-sufficient. He liked that. Maybe, now he was no longer management, his relationship with fellow residents would be different. He returned with sufficient to purchase the cottage once housing Lionel Thorpe and family, and renovate to taste. In the wake of unfortunate incidents involving former employees, evidence that class consciousness, like the state, had not withered away, Willy elected not to patronise the bowling club or the pub. He fished and watched television. Read German history and traced his ancestry. Out walking, he would cross to the other side of the street upon seeing Nerys Ferris and/or Dimity.
Willy Goldfinch died in a Newcastle nursing home. His grave, a reticent, grey granite affair, geometric, evidences a perhaps Germanic stolidity. His name, in its anglicised version, and relevant dates, are inscribed on one page of an open book fashioned in white marble. The other page remains blank. Perhaps not wishing to be disturbed, perhaps still class conscious, his resting place is enclosed within a waist-high spear-ended wrought iron fence.
CHARLES BOYD BORTHWICK
b. 29 May 1878 d. 23 December 1911
Beloved Husband of Alice
Father of Evelyn and Malcolm
Killed By A Runaway Skip
Charlie Borthwick had long concluded that were he to die in the pit it would be while bottom-holing, but in the end, mauled by a runaway skip in E tunnel, it was the slope which did for him. It was said he would have heard it coming, behind. The notice in The Newcastle Herald read: "The funeral was well-attended by members of The Grand United Order Of Free Gardeners, and there were many floral tributes."
That Charlie’s burial was more floriate than was usual in the coalfields, even, perhaps, elsewhere, was unsurprising to the mourners of The Pit. In defiance of foul air and absence of town water, multitudinous varieties of vivid bloom had been seen to spring up, joyful and long-living, for god knows how many years, under Charlie Borthwick’s hand. Best mate Kevin Mayfield was heard to assert, more than frequently, that Charlie could get sweet peas to grow up a shovel stuck in a slack heap. Charlie’s garden was a blaze of colour in the blackened town. But one of several such blazes. There was a secret here, shared by members of The Grand United Order Of Free Gardeners, which, in passing prematurely, Charlie failed to bequeath to his descendants, the garden all but perishing under son Malcolm’s care.
The Pit closed for half a shift on the afternoon of the burial. Representatives of management attended, positioning themselves behind the bereaved. A whiparound was held at the wake. Management contributed by correspondence. In consequence of later arrest and court appearances, the names of several of Charlie's colleagues featured in next morning’s newspaper. Attested by nature of crime and size of fine imposed, Dai “Dickie” Jones appeared least able to hold alcohol, Hector Morgan the ability to hold the most, whilst Hamish Bathgate possessed the loudest and foulest mouth. The Free Gardeners, blind drunk, had, it seemed, run riot in memoriam.
Why Charlie Borthwick, a hewer, was in the haulage way at the time of his death was never established.
Men worked in pairs at the coalface. Father with son, brother with brother, more often than not. Charlie had looked forward to Malcolm joining him underground, upon the boy turning fourteen. The runaway skip severed the familial line. Charlie’s boots and collection of tools, however, along with violently red hair and a partiality to rum, were duly passed on.
Charlie’s marker, a mediaeval-looking slab of stone, lichen encrusted, fast eroding, was donated by the Grand United Order Of Free Gardeners in recognition of a fellow member’s excellence. A garland of assorted blooms, Scotch Thistle at the apex, etched in the stone, are losing definition with the passage of time.
Baptised presbyterian, in life godless, Charlie’s gift in the earthly garden seems not to have followed him into his lying below and/or, indeed, into the beyond, his barrow today being profoundly weed-infested. Tended for a time by widow, Alice, thereafter by grandson Ronald, invasive plants, non-floral, were for a time kept at bay. Seemingly, however, only to lie in wait. A regular visitor might conclude that the eventual interment, nearby, of grandson and grave minder Ronald, was seen by feral vegetation as a sign. The way was now open.
Charlie’s headstone, loosening over the years, today is capable of tilting both back and forth, in the manner of a reclining aircraft seat. Until his disappearance, son Malcolm was known to enjoy terrifying grandchildren Dorothy and Ronald with the assertion that, late at night, Grampa Charlie would emerge from the earth to sit in the seat, tilt back and survey, with disapproval, the landscape of a dead working class.
ALICE MARY BORTHWICK
born 3 August 1882, Elsecar, Yorkshire, U.K.
died 17 June, 1941
Beloved Mother of Evelyn and Malcolm
Grandmother of Dorothy and Ronald
“All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”
Alice Mary “Gramma” Borthwick, nee Rankine, was a Barnsley lass. Coal was in the blood. Her grandmother, as a girl, had been a hurrier, crawling on hands and knees, topless, dragging a coal tram on a chain between her legs, while her sister, a shunter, shoved the tram from behind, with her forehead, and lost the front of her hair.
“They sent little children down the pit too, until Huskar. Twenty six dead.”
Statistics too were in the blood. The death by drowning of twenty six children in the Huskar pit had led to the 1842 Mines Act and prohibition of the employment of women and children in UK pits. If a woman was inescapably born to produce sons for the pits, while fortunate enough not to lose any to their fated occupation, remembering those who had lost, and been lost, was proletarian duty.
Migrating with family in 1894, gravitating to the northern coalfields and like-accented folk, fifty years of sunlight and sea water and detached cottages on grassy ground had wrought negligible change in Gramma. The West Riding clung to her grimly. A letterful of bad news would arrive from Barnsley every month. Gramma kept a scrapbook. Dutifully, the Borthwick matriarch also took on board the darker arithmetic of antipodean coal mining. Mt Kembla. Firedamp. Ninety six dead. South Bulli. Eighty one dead. Bellbird. Twenty one. Wonthaggi. Thirteen. She had worn black since husband Charlie’s death beneath runaway skip in 1911.
Traditionally, chronicles of exploitation, rebellion, history, also passed from father to son whilst working together at the coalface. Charlie’s premature demise derailed communication of the miners’ legacy to son Malcolm. To Gramma’s dismay, despite serial endeavour and deep knowledge of subject, she found that the detail and gravitas of pit heritage could not be transmitted to a boy, in the home, by a widowed mother. Thus, Gramma believed, Malcolm had grown up soft. He smiled a rubbery crescent smile too easily. Gramma was never to realise that Malcolm smiled when disappointed.
Discovery that daughter Evelyn, at fifteen, was with child, embellished Gramma’s disappointment in men. Eve - who was deemed simple – was unaware of her circumstance. Nor, when informed, of how it might have happened. Gramma had carried the feeling that such an event was likely, sooner or later, given Eve’s unguarded simplicity, but had held a flickering hope the Lord might allow her daughter to make it through teenage years unscathed. A Hexham woman who made home visits sorted out the situation. Deploying arithmetic and a calendar, Gramma ascertained the identity of the father, but kept what had occurred from the rest of the family. The underpinning to Eve’s obsessional stalking up and down the creekbed, her ritual “burial” of new baby nephew Ronald on the bank, thus eluded them.
Years later, on an Anzac Day, in the throes of senile volubility and talking in her sleep, Gramma was heard through closed bedroom door to round ferociously on her brother, Bill Rankine, M.M. Curtains drawn, Gramma spent the entirety of that Anzac Day hissing at the ghost of Uncle Bill, who had survived Gallipoli only to perish at Fromelles, repeatedly declaring him a cowardly bastard and vowing to scratch his name off the Honour Roll on the school wall, with her fingernails if she had to. Gramma continued to give Bill holy hell long after the sun had gone down.
Unwilling to smile or drink her way through disappointment, Gramma embraced defensive-aggressive knitting. Blue-veined wrists twirling with arthritic violence, arsenal of needles spearing balls of wool within Charlie’s ancient Gladstone bag, Gramma glowered over her work like a mantis over its forelegs, eyeing the mate it was about to kill. Daylight rarely admitted to her bedroom, bed shared with daughter Evelyn, Malcolm was heard to remark more than once that his mother smelt as though she had spent twenty years in a suitcase under the house.
In the end, failing to heed a dinner call, Gramma Borthwick was discovered perched stiff on the edge of the bed, knitting in hand, curtains parted, staring through the window as though Uncle Bill was outside, looking in. In the words of grandson, Ronald:
“I tapped her on the shoulder and her head flopped. Eve got the bed to herself. I buried her in the Kirk quarter.
She’d been lying there quiet as a mouse for forty years, until Arthur Scargill took on Margaret Thatcher. Then, when you put your ear to the ground, you could hear her spinning in her grave, knitting like there was no tomorrow. Which it looked like there wasn’t, for pit men. It’d been a bad forty years. The writing was on the wall. Every wall. Everywhere. Finally, it looked like the fightback was on. In the UK anyway. And where did the strike begin? Cortonwood Pit, south of Barnsley. Where Gramma hailed from. We probably had relatives there. Poor bastards. I wanted to go out in sympathy but I was unemployed. Going out of the pub in sympathy didn’t make sense.
Anyway, Thatcher got the chocolates, Arthur holed up in a house the NUM had paid for and refused to talk, the UK miners went back down to pass the time before the pits closed for good, Gramma turned over in her grave so fast she drilled her way to the surface, stalked out of the fog in her long black dress yowling that the NUM defeat was the beginning of the end back home, then strode off into The Pit to haunt Mrs Greenie Fucking Blow-In and Herbert Hobbs and anyone else opposed to coal and coal miners, to hound and bark at them forevermore on behalf of the boys who would now never work beside their fathers who worked beside their fathers who worked beside their fathers. Gramma Borthwick loved coal. True.”
Alice Mary opted to be buried alongside, not atop, her husband. Although revering Charlie, that he was ungodly may have influenced her decision. The matriarch’s headstone remains firmly upright, unwavering, unlike that of her partner. Eschewing decoration as flippant, if not popish, Gramma Borthwick’s memorial combines the humility of The Kirk with the temerity of Marx and Engels, a comingling generally unwelcome to both faiths, but successfully accommodated by Gramma throughout her life and, should she have had her way, thereafter.
RONALD CHARLES BORTHWICK
born 12 November 1924 died 12 April 1985
“Who Digs The Gravedigger’s Grave?”
In his pomp, Ronald Borthwick sported a bushfire of red hair atop a head more cube than globe, milk-white skin constellated in freckles, translucent eyelids through which he claimed to be able to see, pale lashes fringing eyes the grey of overcast sky, all of which foretold a life to be eked away from sunlight. Born to mine, it was remarked, only partly in jest, as had been remarked in respect of earlier red-haired Borthwicks, the recessive traits of which Ronald carried to a hitherto unseen extreme. Baby Ronald’s first fiery tendrils of hair had shocked even his father, Malcolm, a known card who, proudly outdone, declared:
“Your great grandfather and grandfather had red hair. I have red hair. But you have the reddest hair of all, son. You are the culmination of the great and longstanding tradition of red-haired Borthwick coalminers, none of whom ever had a clue why they worked in the pit.”
Ronald’s formal education tended inadvertent. From day one, his hair, poor choice of seating - back of the class – and attraction to outside scenery and events viewed through the nearest window - confirmed him as a Born Troublemaker. A serial querying of orthodoxy - the seeming contradiction between education and the hewing of coal, depiction of the pit head on the school badge, he found notably troubling - underpinned a schooling largely spent in attainment of a duster-scarred head. The hurling of blackboard dusters at errant pupils was considered legitimate discipline at the time. Ronald’s iconoclasm, not least his suspicion of the dignity of labour, found itself clouded in a mythology which has burgeoned over time. In the industrially militant milieu of The Pit, from where, it might be asked, did the boy’s provocative irreverence spring? A possible source has been identified in a domestic dialectic concerning the nature of work: the mordant humour of a red-haired Borthwick, the father, Malcolm, conflicting with the political reverence of a coal-haired Rankine, the grandmother, “Gramma”, the family friction sealed and bubbling under the lid of a tiny, overpopulated miners cottage up until Malcolm’s mysterious disappearance, this event leaving Gramma with no choice but to battle irreverence in her grandson, dialectical struggle further inflamed by Ronald’s possession of the most virulent red hair of all.
It is unarguable that the youthful, enthusiastic Ronald Borthwick did indeed make trouble. Equally unarguable, to the objective witness, of whom there were none resident in The Pit, is that the sum of blame accruing to Ronald well exceeded his personal output of malfeasance. The rebellious symbolism appertaining to red hair, the unfair reputation so earned, saw Ronald frequently held responsible for the misdeeds of others, most notably mates Jimmy Treloar and Cedric Keats. It was not unknown for the pair to consciously take advantage of their friend’s profile.
In keeping with tradition, Ronald was enrolled for the mining workforce simultaneous with enrolling for his first day of school. He was one of very few to question this confluence. No satisfactory answer, in his view, was forthcoming. Any thought of avoiding destiny was scuttled by the disappearance of his father. Being rendered the extant family male mandated commencement of underground employment immediately upon turning fourteen.
Born troublemaker, born to mine, provided a further problematic dialectic, this opposition coming to a head two miles underground. Had the proclivity toward making trouble been directed to serving the interests of the working class, Ronald, having such political heritage, and consistently reminded of same by his grandmother, might well have become a prominent figure in the industrial struggle. Such was not to be the case. Underground, within eighteen months, mishap and misplaced loyalty facilitated graduation from Born Troublemaker to Class Enemy. At a young age finding himself a fringe dweller, then pariah, with friends rare, consistent loyalty became a self-made test of character for Ronald Borthwick. It would consistently lead to his downfall.
From first meeting, Nerys Ferris was the love of Ronald’s life. So Nerys Ferris encouraged him to believe, an encouragement which proved lifelong successful in the main. Even his discovery of Nerys Ferris in flagrante with mine undermanager Willy Goldfinch, in sand dunes, did not deter Nerys Ferris’s continued insistence that she and Ronald were made for each other, and his continued acceptance, despite nothing intimate occurring between them for over fifty years, that this might in fact be the case.
There was, however, a truer love of Ronald’s life, in the form of Maria Vella, niece of pit deputy ostler Alberto “Wingnut” Vella. Flowering on a memorable afternoon spent at the first postwar Sydney Royal Easter Show and ensuing evening in the Bellevue Private Hotel, for Single Gentlemen Only, deep in Surry Hills, the relationship was over by early morning. The more he drank, the more Ronald afforded Jimmy’s description of events that night the benefit of the doubt
Curiously, in spite of his state of socio-political exile, sorely alcohol enhanced, Ronald later would appear to unearth, rediscover in himself political sensibilities decidedly in tune with those yet labouring underground. As communism devoured itself, socialism failed to eventuate, the Labor Party tended bourgeois, and mechanisation killed off labour-intensive, family-worked pits, Ronald Borthwick and The Pit would, in the mind of the exile, stay forever solid, a union in actuality manifest as a decline in tandem.
Ronald’s decline was considered spectacular. So spectacular as to become entertainment for former active tormentors and fellow travelling scorn-mongers, and thus, in maturity, afford the onetime pariah renewed access to social avenues for many years previously proscribed. Defying prediction, reaching sixty years of age, morbidly obese and alcohol-sodden, the former exile would, as soon as asked, sometimes without prompting, perform The Dance Of The Flaming Arseholes atop a bowling club table, make concerted attempt on the Guinness Record for keeping a live cat down a pair of shorts, the garment being worn at the time, remove bloated, long-dead greyhounds from the bottom of backyard wells, mummified flying foxes from clogged gully traps, and transistor radios, tuned to sporting stations, from the dark depths of thunderpit toilets, in return for alcohol of any kind, of any quality, and of any amount.
In harmony with his mature life, if harmony is the word, the final resting place of Ronald Charles Borthwick is a shambles: spectacularly untended, more depression than mound, stabbed by a flimsy white wooden cross, the identity of the interred painted in unsteady hand upon an arm secured by a single loosening nail, destined to detach in a stiff breeze, if not already having flown.
Ronald located in Presbyterian, best friend Jimmy a distance away in Anglican, their differing denominations further separated by a scantly grassed and potholed pathway, the casual visitor is unlikely to notice that the pair share an identical date of decease.
EVELYN LEITH BORTHWICK
born 6 May 1899 died 14 February 1986
“In Jesus’ Car”*
Evelyn shortened herself to Eve following an encounter with The Book Of Genesis. Red-haired, two years older than brother Malcolm, Eve was deemed to be simple, but could read, slowly, and draw. Her waking hours were spent with The Bible and in the steering of charcoal across butcher’s paper, sketching flowers harvested on a daily stride up and down the dry creek bed snaking behind the house. White lilies were her preferred subject. A flattened trail indicated the daily trek, upon which Eve accrued myriad scratches and insect bites, leaving her, after treatment, redolent of eucalyptus and goanna oil.
On April 25,1925, her baby nephew Ronald’s first waking Anzac Day, Eve stuffed the infant in Gramma Borthwick’s gladstone bag, smuggled him out the back door and up the creek bed, to inter the boy beneath leaf litter at the base of a mature swamp paperbark. Noting the absence, promptly displaying a sixth or even seventh sense, Gramma Borthwick proceeded directly to the burial location to exhume the child, he asleep and, thus far, seemingly untraumatised. Eve swore she had not seen her nephew all day.
Family whisper – which routinely slipped beyond the family and over next door fences - had it that something had happened with Eve and a soldier when Eve was younger. Only Gramma Borthwick and Eve knew what. It was quite possible Eve did not know, exactly. Eve and her mother, Gramma, slept in the same bed. Under pressure, Eve rocked.
At the age of thirty three, Eve experienced what was later to be confirmed in her eyes as a miracle. Malcolm, missing for seven years, had been recently declared officially dead. His widow Sarah was freed to marry longtime admirer Short Owen Jones, somewhat her senior. Eve was anointed head bridesmaid. Ferried across the hinterland lake for a fitting, nearing the far shore, Eve’s hitherto limited attention was gripped by a cluster of variously aged females on the pier, clutching Globite suitcases, black and white uniforms billowing in a breeze blowing across the lake, beaming and wittering, red-cheeked in excitement at wherever they were going and whatever they would be doing once they got there, both of which were ever to remain a mystery. Resisting efforts to drag her away, threatening to rock, Eve closely observed the joyful clutch board a sizeable cabin craft, chug away over the lake, and disappear.
The women, explained dressmaker and maternal aunt, Nan Butcher, were Brides Of Christ, an expression and phenomenon wholly new to Eve. As was the notion of a miracle. Historically, papists had been well warned off Borthwick premises.
Eve having been christened methodist after the presbyterian cleric’s horse went lame, her awakening to the role of divine spouse was Damascene in its intensity.
The pied, billowing vision on the pier became A Sign. Eve was being called. Centuries of cold Borthwick protestantism facing apostasy, it was made clear to Eve there were problems associated with being called, notably that conversion to Catholicism would occur over her mother’s dead body. Gramma Borthwick was adamant papists and coal barons were in league in conspiring against the working class. “Spain! Spain!!”, she would declaim, as if nothing more need be said, then to venture a great deal more, referencing at length the outrages of Francoists, Falangists, Carlists, Papists and their fellow travellers.
The burning of churches and priests, on the other hand, Gramma declared understandable under the citcumstances.
Barred from formal conversion, Eve in rebellion assumed the outward trappings of Catholicism with a devout gusto, decking herself in an expansive collection of home-made crosses fashioned from sticks of all sizes and species, bound with vine and grass, dangling at various heights, rustling and rattling, such that, to most, rather than a Bride Of Christ, she resembled some sort of Bush Witch. She learnt by heart and daily recited the name of every saint and of what occupation or practice they were patron saint. She read The Bible to garden vegetables, miserable since Grampa Charlie’s death, but which, under ecclesiastical illumination, Eve claimed, subsequently stopped dying. She hung lurid, glowing depictions of Jesus and Mary on the bedroom wall, for Gramma Borthwick to tear down on sight. Gramma’s developing cataracts aided the Roman cause. Several times in her mid-to-late thirties Eve ran away to join a convent, without successfully locating one.
Casting a wider net, Eve was eventually taken in, after a fashion, by an obscure priory in the hinterland of Port Kembla. Unable to take formal vows, she was nevertheless permitted to don an approximation of the habit, call herself Sister Eve in private, and take the communion. Taught to drive by an elderly Holy Mother, Eve went on to become a sometime chauffeur to Illawarra Brides of Christ, on occasion returning home to The Pit behind the wheel of an Austin A40 replete with Christ’s harem, driving, averred terrified relatives, like a “Holy Maniac”.
At age eighty seven no longer permitted to drive, successfully bussing to The Pit to visit niece Dot, sole occupant of the Borthwick cottage following the death of brother Ronald, overnighting in the bed she once shared with her mother, Eve died in her sleep.
In compliance with Gramma Borthwick’s written instruction, according to which Eve’s conversion had simply not occurred, Dot ensured that Auntie Eve was interred in the Presbyterian sector alongside her mother, Gramma, enabling the pair to sleep in death as they had in life. A cement cross, chunky, encrusted with a variety of coloured stones, shells, fragments of glass and tile, locates Eve’s grave. In later years, cement crosses, painted white, otherwise plain, supplanted timber versions as the popular option for those on minimal budgets. Dot Borthwick added by hand the extensive and colourful embellishment apparent on Eve’s cross, perhaps in recognition of the dilemma that her aunt, although christened Methodist and laid to rest in Presbyterian, could equally have rested in Roman Catholic.
* A prankster - knowing Eve - has erased the 'e'.
DOROTHY ALICE BORTHWICK
born 3 February 1923 died 17 March 2009
Dot’s red-haired father was relieved to find his newborn daughter’s hair a light, mousey brown. Red hair was dangerous enough atop a male. The temperamental volatility associated with red hair, whether or not such existed, was or was not self-fulfilling prophesy, or convenient myth, had long played on his mind. Malcolm was further encouraged to learn that the birth had been painful but straightforward, a co-operative effort in a difficult time for all parties, an approach that sat equally well with mother Sarah.
From early on, mouse-haired Dot was tempted, when opportunity arose, to torment her flame-haired younger brother by encouraging him, in some way, to trust her, only to find such trust gravely misplaced. The process more often than not took the form of Dot swearing “God’s Honour” that some mysterious physical practice - a horsebite, a Chinese Burn, a sharp pointy knuckle to the bicep – would not hurt, thence for pain and lasting bruising to result. That Ronald persevered in trusting his sister saw Dot deem little brother thick. Upon his growing more able to look after himself, physically, Dot changed tactics, embracing psychological torture whilst retaining overall strategic aim of forcing the sibling at least to acknowledge her superiority, if not to drive him insane. One particular example of mental assault was to have deep and lasting impact: lifting her dress, Dot would revel in pointing out that she, being female, was not doomed to enter the pit.
“Frontbottoms don’t go down the pit any more. Ha ha.”
After which Dot would poke out a pointy tongue in highlighting her point, which was historically undeniable. At this young age, Dot did not follow the chain of logic any further, to query what employment opportunities were available to those who did not go down the pit any more, apart from housewifery to those who did, an existential dilemma that was to plague Dot’s later years.
The early Dot also took prepubertal fancy to her brother’s second best friend, Cedric Keats, the fancy, reciprocated, leading to exploratory liaisons in the Keats and Borthwick chicken coops. Brother Ronald’s dutiful warning, revelation that since the age of seven, perhaps even six, the precocious Cedric had been leading a secret love life with multiple partners in a veritable plethora of coops, avaries and pigeon roosts throughout The Pit, and hinterland, proved no deterrent to Dot. Even after catching One Eye Goldfinch wiping feathers and birdshit from her school uniform, Dot’s fancy remained constant.
The fancy, thought obsessive by some, stretched to twenty years. It was suggested that Dot’s ardour, in pursuing Cedric to Newtown, Sydney, was all the encouragement Cedric needed to volunteer to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. Training as a nurse facilitated Dot’s subsequent stalking of her fancy to a hospital bed in Brisbane. Bayonetted in the close Owen–gunning of a charging, yowling Japanese soldier, Cedric, heavily sedated, appeared not to recognise the mouse-haired nurse who more than routinely dropped by to flick his drip feed. Caught in flagrante with the Head Nurse, not as heavily sedated as he appeared, Cedric professed to be trying to let Dot down lightly. Dot let him down heavily with a metal meal tray.
The decision to forget all about Cedric, to wipe him as a waste of time and space, and to step out with a good looking, comparatively flush airman from Boise, Idaho, proved a temporary incursion of good sense, terminating with Dot’s discovery of a postcard to her brother announcing that Cedric was back down south, working on the docks, and living in Balmain. Promptly remembering previous dealings with great fondness, Dot recommenced stalking her girlish fancy, while also stalking his latest flame, a nurse at Callen Park Mental Hospital. Shirtfronting the young, buxom Jane in the carpark of the Balmain RSL, Dot claimed to have married Cedric before the war. Further, that he had bribed a mate to say he had died on the Sandakan Death March, so to avoid taking responsibility for Dot and their several children, all under five years of age, or thereabouts, and enable him to do a runner to Balmain. Dot was able to boost conubial credentials with intimate knowledge of the size and location of Cedric’s bayonet hole, which, she informed Jane, was in actuality an injury sustained during a passionate pre-war domestic after which they made up and conceived the twins. Jane concluded that Dot was unbalanced and probably dangerous. This, too, was Cedric’s position. Unlike her peers, Dot for mysterious reason did not drink to make the imbalance go away. It was remarked that her mental health did appear to improve after she took up smoking - cork tipped tailors, two packs a day, another at night - instead of eating, and came, said her brother, to resemble a scrawny heavy industry.
Further improvement was noted when Cedric finally did the honourable thing and shacked up with Dot at a boarding house in Coogee. The improvement was short-lived. In the aftermath of Cedric doctoring her evening Horlick’s with a New Zealand Scotch Whiskey doing the rounds of the docks, and his running away while she was asleep, not to be seen again until 1985, Dot returned to the family bosom in the northern coalfields.
The end of the war, the return of men, decreased demand for hospitalisation all leading to sharp decline in nursing positions, Dot found herself effectively cavilled out of the care-giving industry. Switching to bar work, which in many respects she was to find similar to nursing, Dot secured employment at the Long Jetty Hotel, where she worked within a cloud of smoke. Ordered to quit by her GP, a regular at the Long Jetty waterhole, Dot switched to chaining menthols, one in her mouth, a reserve behind her ear, with a split second light-up between the two.
A million packs later Dot took up and off with a Vietnam veteran by the name of “Crank”. Crank rode an ex-NSW Police Triumph 500 motorbike, with a fat kelpie bitch answering to Kay (for Khe Sanh) seated on the petrol tank. Crank and several other Viet vets with loud bikes had pooled resources to purchase a small ghost town in the far west of NSW. Featuring a creaking pub, dead service station, a couple of shacks, and aboriginal name, the vets rechristened their bolthole The Da Nang Alamo. The Alamo was busted by police the following year. The operation, big, at night, with loud hailers, half a dozen cars and vans plus helicopter with searchlight, ended in a shoot-out. One vet was killed, another wounded. The helicopter was holed by a shotgun - Crank would claim it was his - and made a forced landing. Dot received a suspended sentence. A few years following release from Long Bay, Crank visited The Pit with a hundred other rebel bikers, sunglassed and bandana’d, in a funeral procession for fellow biker Geoff Phillips. Dot made a point of saying hello. Crank was about forty but looked sixty. His teeth, she thought, resembled a historic graveyard.
With the death of their mother, Dot and brother Ronald garnered the family cottage to themselves. Doted opted to sleep across the road, at the Mayfield’s. Dawn and dusk would see her crossing, to and from, in dressing gown, clutching a plastic toiletries bag.
During the day, her brother asleep, or out, Dot assumed occupancy of the front verandah, crocheting colourful but practical household items, enjoying the company of a white cat, Whitey, palsied by close quarter exposure, as a kitten, to home-brewed flyspray, and a near-featherless galah by the name of Neville. Neville had been christened in honour of Neville Jones, Captain, The Bay Volunteer Fire Brigade, whose 1970 Captain Cook Bicentennial Burnoff - “Black Sunday” – had resulted in the galah's lack of plumage. Adversity had also bequeathed Neville a larynx of iron. Dot found it hard to get a word in edgewise. Her disadvantage later increased in having to project via a prosthesis. Sentences emerged from the device – seeming permanently overdue for service – as a croak within a wheeze inside a whistle. Such utterances until later years were accented by a jet of cigarette smoke from the neck. Dot hated doctors. She fingered the prosthesis as though a treasured cameo choker.
Dot produced a single offspring, a daughter, late gift from a rogue wandering Mayfield who kept wandering. Shelley became a blonde airline hostess whose original hair colour was a meek, mousey brown.
Rival in longevity Nerys Ferris was heard to remark, prior to her neighbour’s decease, that Dot might crochet for herself a monogrammed headstone cover in the mode of a tea cosy, or hot water bottle sleeve. In the event, by default, Dorothy Alice Borthwick was assigned the chunky cement cross, white-washed, name and dates stencilled in black, which had supplanted the white timber cross in recent years. Daughter Shelley Borthwick-Mayfield flew from Bangkok to make the necessary arrangements.
LIONEL BALTHAZAR THORPE
born 2 February 1887 died 23 September 1952
Lionel Thorpe lies in an unmarked grave, tinplate marker on white wooden cross having corroded beyond legibility. Lacking the waterproofing of, for example, the tomb of Perce Frost, Lionel’s burial mound has subsided to ankle depth, become concave rather than convex, such that following decent rainfall, the grave becomes a pond with protruding timber cross, reminiscent - to those who fought - of The Third Battle of Ypres.
The name Balthazar had been Thorpe family tradition since early Georgian times, when a first Balthazar was christened after one of the Three Magi, in the hope of bettering family fortunes. As a teenager, the pioneering Balthazar was transported to Australia for theft.
Lionel’s working week face was a black planet, in midst of which oscillated a pair of eyeballs, permanently frantic, in raspberry-rimmed sockets. Lionel had nystagmus. He cackled without smiling. A nocturnal methodist and staunch bolshevik, devout and accusatory within both, Lionel’s long black fingers pointed like arrows. Methodism and Communism – unlikely bedfellows – the opiate and the god killer – had achieved an accommodation in his mind, he simply choosing to focus upon the similarities – the embrace of the working class, the dignity of labour, personal discipline, organisation - and ignore the contradictions, of which there were, of course, many. In a particular situation, if one system of belief were to fail Lionel, he always had back up in the other. Lionel was also a contract man. Time was money. Following shot firing, dust in the bord nowhere near cleared, Lionel and Fizzer Phillips, hewing mates of long standing, would scamper like gnomes into the cloud of dust to rip coal.
Two miles of more or less solid earth underground, Lionel proclaimed the ability to pinpoint, with dark arrowing finger, at any moment in time, the precise location of the sun overhead. Money had changed hands in verification of the accuracy of this ability.
Lionel also claimed, when working one of the many veins of the pit honeycombing deep offshore, to be able to hear waves breaking overhead. Viewing sunlight and sea as the enemy, a popish combination, breeding dangerous relaxation of mind and spirit – an observation shared in generality with two of three Meiklejohns - the Derbyshire man yearned for return to the midlands, or at least the above-ground portion of it, but in vain, his extensive family not sharing the patriarch’s longing for leaden skies, dank streets and foul smells. That he hankered for a drizzling home but remained on the sunny side of the earth evidenced a state of pleasure in sin, mortifying to Lionel whilst sober, which he mostly was, in light of his methodism, but which, in also happening to frown upon dancing, on the morning after a social occasion, saw Lionel turn to communism for the antidote to guilt.
When overtly expressing mortification at his state of sin, Lionel’s Derby roots might be heard to deepen and spread across and under the family county, his basso rumbling through the streets of historic Chesterfield where resided any number of coalmining Thorpes, including John Thorpe, one of twenty seven to perish in the 1871 explosion of firedamp at the Renishaw Park colliery.
That the coal-encrusted eminence noir was blessed with fair skin and carrotish hair only became apparent once a week, in church, post bathing. Every year, April Fool’s Day saw Lionel claiming to be Ronald Borthwick’s real father.
In the end, colonial sunshine in the form of a melanoma took Lionel Thorpe.
WILLIAM EDWARD BURNS
born 16 November 1907 died 2 March 1957
Billy Burns’ Wigan accent would thicken noticeably as he wound his way back, in memoriam, to the High Brooks and Ince Hall collieries where explosions of firedamp had accounted for thirty seven miners, including Jeremiah Burns, and fifteen including John Burns, respectively. Upon getting a second wind, Billy would oft-times move on to the Douglas Bank colliery and a lift cage accident where five men fell two hundred dark yards to their deaths, whence he would assert that he was a lucky man, having been a trapper boy in Douglas Bank at the time. Pausing for effect, the Wigan expat would then whistle an extended descending note in illustration of a heavy object plummeting to earth, raise an eyebrow several times to indicate a singular good fortune in avoiding terrible death by cage cable failure, before sucking his pint in loud punctuation as the peripatetic eyebrow continued underlining the point.
Easily lubricated, Billy was a man of many words, all of which were familiar to comrades from regular rotation. But listening to him passed the time.
Billy claimed to have bitten off the ear of a rugby league prop while packed in a scrum – “in scroom” - in the days when Billy had teeth. The prop played for Hull. Had he been from St Helen’s, Billy bellowed, a curiously high pitched and bird-like bellow, gums dripping, he would have bitten off both ears. Much amused by himself, Billy would then cackle like a frayed squeeze box, toddle to the window, spit clear over the verandah rail despite his shortness of stature, and announce “I were King of Friggin’ Wigan. Abdicated to experience dignity of labour. Friggin’ Wigan.”
Billy also taught pit-and-pub novices how to open a beer bottle with an eye socket. Having himself left mastery of the skill too late, in consequence suffering dental damage, he had, he avowed, formed an intent to save the teeth of the younger generation.
Further, Billy had a pet theory on the mysterious disappearance, while fishing, of Malcolm Borthwick: Malcolm had not drowned, nor been taken by a shark. Malcolm had run away. From The Pit, from his family, from working class fate. Whereupon Billy would reveal for the umpteenth time that he, Billy, might know of another miner – no names, no pack drill - who may also have run away. Thirty years ago. Leaving behind a family in Wigan. Without, however, abandoning a fishing rod on Wigan pier. Because only a halfwit would fish from Wigan pier. Maybe not even a halfwit. Billy would then wink, severally, sweat glistening on the eyelid, before revealing that the unnamed fellow in question had another family now.
Billy died of the dust. Only one of his families attended the funeral. His local widow, Ida, passed away soon after, the result of a particularly rich meal on a World Discovery Cruise funded from sale of the miner’s cottage to Herbert Hobbs, son of the late school headmaster who, following closure of the pit, had returned with visions of renovation and capital gains.
Billy’s other widow, Shirley, ex Wigan, now Rotherham, having crossed the Pennines to remarry in haste, got nothing. During the 1984-85 UK Miners’ Strike, one of Shirley Burns’ sons by her second husband was injured at “The Battle of Orgreave”, when mounted police charged miners’ picket lines.
Billy Burns’ burial mound, today, is settled flat, a bald patch of earth, stony and resistant to vegetation. A white timber cross clings to life.
In Loving Memory of Our Parents
CORA DELL MAYFIELD
born 26 May 1880 died 12 September 1949
KEVIN ALBERT MAYFIELD
born 2 June 1878 died 28 November 1943
Beloved By Coral, Roy, Ben and Noah
Ma And Pa, Together Still
Short, body shape a triangle – squat, isosceles, erect on sharpest point - Kevin “Pa” Mayfield was built for hard work in limited space. Whether this was natural selection over generations of Mayfield miners, beginning in Nottingham in the previous century, or an accident of birth, was never debated. It simply was. Kevin and coal simply suited each other. That there were no other options for fourteen year old males from struggling families made the arrangement more fortunate.
Cora “Ma” Mayfield was pencil thin when she and Kevin met, the depression of the 1890s having taken a toll. She was seventeen, he twenty. Over fifty years of marriage, Cora went on to become stout, in all respects. As became most pit wives. Stoutness and the miner’s wife suited each other. Stoutness enabled wives to face down police at strike gatherings, bar doors to debt collectors, argue with management wives on rare occasions the classes met, and congregate in number on pub verandahs to glare at errant husbands. In straitened times, when a man ought to be drinking less, the number of spouses on the verandah could be taken as an index of the national economy, within which coal was king. More than half a dozen wives on the verandah was an infallible sign that the government of the day would lose an election.
Cora and Kevin met at a strike meeting in Kearsley, both standing at the back, listening, not shouting, sharing a solid moderation. Solid moderation in a coal mining community being well to the left of solid moderation elsewhere, Ma and Pa would consider an industrial issue on its merits, vote accordingly, and if they happened to be on the losing side, still remain solid.
Frugality was the norm in The Pit. The few exceptions drank to excess and generally stayed single or navigated an unhappy marriage. Ma and Pa were seen to elevate frugality a notch, carefully, not such that a Mayfield lacked for something that someone else in The Pit had, but such that, for example, in planning their life together after The Pit, they might order a memorial befitting the strength of their bond when alive.
In consequence, the couple rest beneath what appear twin concrete armchairs with seats of greatly exaggerated length or, perhaps, concrete recliners which do not, as it happens, recline. Dark, heavy, of granular concrete, seeming half buried, or sinking, in the earth, the commemoratives cannot be said to sit lightly upon their site. A touch of art deco may be detected in the stepped shoulders of the headstones, and curved, stunted armrests. The family name is given on a small plaque at the toe of the slab, while individual details are etched on the headstone/backrest. The style of memorial, inexpensive but immovable, is evidently popular with family groupings. Ma and Pa’s son Roy “Jockey” Mayfield similarly interred alongside, the grouping becomes not unlike a three piece suite of sunken lounge furniture. A modest metal-grated slot, also at the toe, allows for the disposition of flowers.
Pa predeceasing, of undiagnosed or well hidden pneumoconiosis, the dust, Ma - an institution in the Ladies Auxiliary, the Ladies Saloon at the pub, later the Women’s Lounge at the Bowling Club – was to show no haste in occupying the space allocated alongside. Not while Una Meiklejohn remained alive. Ma Mayfield and Una Meiklejohn were not speaking for forty years.
An initial incident, some cross-purpose, a specific catalyst, if such occurred, is now unremembered. The feud may have been a simple case of opposites repelling. What is known is that the pair rubbed each other up the wrong way, over issues mostly lightweight, the friction expressed in numerous subtle ways, obvious to all and denied for forty years. As wives of miners, when industrially required, the antagonists were as solid as oak. But the undercurrent was always present, tugging.
A particular nexus of rivalry, which matriarch could claim the most family males on the coal, at the one time, resonates today, at the cemetery. A simple count of graves yields the honour to Una Meiklejohn, she able to boast of five males simultaneously labouring underground - husband Thomas, sons Shug, Alec and Leonard, and grandson Andy – all now resting in Non-Denominational.
Ma Mayfield, by contrast, is accompanied by only three Mayfield males – Kevin, Roy, Donny - in Methodist. (A black sheep daughter, Coral, lies in Non-Denom.) Examination of the senior Mayfield inscription, however, reveals the existence of two additional males – Ben and Noah - who, further investigation reveals, laboured alongside others of the clan, before seeing the writing on the wall, uprooting from family history and moving elsewhere, distant, to glean labour above ground and interment in cemeteries there or thereabouts. The coal production competition is thus tied at five-all.
The Mayfield/Meiklejohn record will never be broken. The Second World War, mechanisation, intermittency, pit closure, served to cruel the chances of any other family coming close. The achievement, however, seen in broader perspective, remains very much a parish figure, a local and minor claim to fame, at the time not broadcast widely. Not least because it was demonstrable, statistically, that immigrants of protestant persuasion tended to travel to the northern coalfields in search of familiar folk, whereas catholic arrivals tended more to the southern fields, the Illawarra. The division was not absolute, merely a tendency, but being so, comparisons of northern reproductivity might best not be made with that of the southern, more Romanised pits.
The Jones family were to bury the most women.
ROY AUBREY MAYFIELD
b. 4 April 1901 d. 25 May 1965
Much Loved Husband of Faith
Father of Donald, Stephen, Barbara and Susan
The typical coal miner was not tall. Coal seams tended narrow, tunnel ceilings low, height disadvantageous, leading to muscular-skeletal problems. Venturing underground at an even shorter height than the typical, Roy Mayfield became “Jockey” within a week. His lack of height was found useful in areas of extreme low ceiling. The only horse he was ever to encounter was a pit pony.
Height-challenged late developer Jockey did not sprout his first whisker until seventeen and a half, more than three years after his entry into the pit. His body, seeming to appreciate the longer layoff, perhaps given greater preparation time, then proceeded to more than make up for the delay. Hormones freed at last, Jockey shot up thirteen inches within eighteen months, finally to attain a height of six feet three. The Pit seam was six feet deep at maximum. Jockey toiled underground for a further year, green bones bending, before making apprentice carpenter up top, where, constructing and repairing wagons in the sea air, peppered by cinders, he straightened out. The pit wheelchair, designed and manufactured by Jockey Mayfield, featured a timber frame and bicycle wheels but no braking system. Users of the wheelchair required close monitoring.
Jockey Mayfield was Malcolm Borthwick’s best mate. Commencing school together, graduating at fourteen to the pit, becoming trapper boys together, the pair would have worked their way up the hierarchy of pit occupations in tandem, as did their fathers, Kevin and Charlie, had not belated explosive puberty shot Jockey to an untoward height.
It was Jockey who in an act of mateship slipped Malcolm’s toddler son Ronald his first taste of black, a seven ounce glass, while his father was having a leak. Ronald was reputed to have got through the full seven ounces. After which Jockey would slip the boy a taste every time Malcolm sat him on the bar. Ronald was viewed as a regular by the age of eighteen months.
“Don’t tell your old man, young Ronnie.”
“Is he pie-eyed? He is! He’s pie-eyed!”
“It was only a seven ouncer.”
Jockey and Malcolm remained close until Malcolm’s disappearance, which, if not an accident, was as much a mystery to best mate Jockey as to anyone else. He could not imagine his mate simply, and without hint of explanation, taking off. Let alone taking off with another woman, as some, or at least one, had mooted. Jockey captained the local search, negotiating a dinghy between jetty piles and, alarmingly, out to sea until, attending a large, dark, floating object, the dinghy found itself caught short of the outer bar and a heavy breaking set. An inaugural member of the Caves Beach Surf Lifesaving Club, always strong on the reel, at his peak a senior belt man, Jockey made it safely to shore. The dark floating object washed up with the tide and was found to be a charred log, roughly the length of a man.
Jockey married Faith Phillips who was to prove less eccentric than brother “Fizzer”, at least until Faith attained The Third Age, during which journey to The End, stabilising influence of Jockey removed, eccentricity was more or less to be expected. Conversion to an obscure variant of evangelical christianity permitting earthly joy assuaged Faith’s inner discomfort for a time. Jockey and Faith produced four children, of whom only Donald - “Donny” - followed his father into The Pit, and then not for long, escaping to wartime service. Second son Stephen departed to become an unmarried council gardener in Singleton. Daughters Barbara and Susan married their way out of The Pit and, if now deceased, are buried elsewhere.
Jockey was never able to find it within himself to forgive Japanese treatment of eldest son Donald. Export of local coal to the blast furnaces of the former enemy, despite its contribution to a recovery of local mining, the active lobbying of the Coal Industry Tribunal by Japanese representatives, opposing Miners Federation claims, denouncing industrial action, barely two decades after the end of war, did not sit well with many in Retired Miners Corner. Japanese ownership became the last straw for some. “Won the war, lost the peace”, Jockey would declaim, frequently. Any recovery of local mining, export led, foreign owned, or not, was only temporary, as it turned out.
Jockey drank as much as anyone but “could hold his drink” and, it was said at his funeral, never embarrassed himself. Retired, he bowled competitively, if not completely honestly, and continued to drink. He died of a heart attack late at night, en route to the toilet, which in 1965 remained outside, the terminus of a lengthy unlit pathway. His body was not found until early afternoon. Being a Sunday, Faith had departed on the early bus to attend religious observance in a hinterland town. Husband long gone, children disinterested in the cottage, evangelical christianity proving only a short term restorative, Faith would in her final years sell up and move to a nursing home run by the catholic church, in Wyong.
Jockey is buried alongside his parents, his grave stylistically consistent with theirs in resembling a dark concrete recliner with seat of exaggerated length. Emphasising the semblance, grandchildren have been photographed seated, smiling, legs stretched, on the memorial. Barbara, Susan and families visit annually, en route to Hat Head, their preferred camping holiday location. Stephen, still unmarried and resident in Singleton, visits the cemetery infrequently but was known to phone his mother at the same time every second Sunday until her passing.
DONALD JOHN MAYFIELD
b. 7 September 1921 d. 12 October 1947
Our Beloved Donny, Taken Too Young
At an early age, Donny Mayfield became aware that another world lay beyond The Pit, and determined to experience it. Not for a lifetime, of course. He would always, he believed, be a hewer of coal, but while young, he felt a desire to experience such of that world as was available to someone of his class, before accepting the destiny of that class and joining his father on the coal. Starting in The Pit at fourteen, the wider world was not yet available, but Donny had a plan. War.
War was, traditionally, a popular way out of The Pit. Donny had embraced the option long before war broke out. For years, pundits had been saying it was coming. Hitler’s Germany, Imperialist Japan were darkening clouds. Donny took the prophets at their word and planned accordingly. With officialdom confirming that seniority would be preserved in wartime, he could enlist in the knowledge that The Pit would be waiting with open arms when Donny came marching home.
Informed of his son’s plans, father Jockey, while not wishing to appear resistant, felt duty bound to explain that for a coalminer, there were certain industrial complications accompanying enlistment. In the first place, miners’ politics framed war as a capitalist enterprise, an imperialist battle for economic power, in which the working class did the dying. Further, the necessary nationalism was dangerous, a “false consciousness” inimical to working class interests, whilst government and business both would use war as an excuse to attack established wages and conditions. It therefore followed, Jockey continued, suggesting Donny take the point into consideration, that action to preserve if not improve wages and conditions should not necessarily be curtailed in a state of war. Seen in this light, therefore, worker solidarity was all important, this mandating miners’ continued presence in the pit. Further, added Jockey, turning to specifics, such viewpoint was the prevailing wisdom in Donny’s home pit, held not only by international socialist Lodge President “Dickie” Jones and Moscow-aligned communist Secretary “Shug” Meiklejohn, both men democratically-elected, but also by the majority of miners, less ideologically motivated, but who nevertheless knew their industrial history, knew that struggle came with the territory, and trusted their more politically articulate Lodge officers to see them right. Class consciousness, whatever the individual miner’s degree of radicalism, necessitated solidarity. In the end, declared Jockey, solidarity was all the miners had. He suggested Donny might bear this in mind in considering his future.
And then, and then, averred Donny’s father, there was the vexed question of Russia. More particularly, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. This admittedly unexpected alignment had imposed rigid strictures upon the “Hands Off Russia!” faction of left politics, in light of which Lodge Secretary Shug Meiklejohn and other zealots of the Comintern were certain to make strenuous attempt to dissuade Donny from enlisting, an outcome within which his father, if he were to be frank, could discern a certain good sense. Although in the end, he added, it was of course Donny’s decision. Further adding that while not all shared Shug’s uncritical embrace of all things Soviet, nevertheless for many, including Jockey himself, the USSR still represented the pioneering of a new classless society and, for all its faults, and Stalin’s duplicity, was to be respected. In the end, however, as he, his father, had said, enlistment was of course Donny’s decision.
While not wishing to make this decision any more difficult, Jockey went on, there was yet another obstacle to Donny’s enlistment: the intransigence of the Australian government. Wartime necessitated more coal, much more, and as in the first war, the government was resistant to miners enjoining battle. Japanese expansionism, restricted thus far to China, but in the opinion of many not destined to remain so, added a potency to governmental anxiety. There was every chance the government would oppose Donny’s enlistment. The final obstacle, explained Jockey, was that Donny would need parental permission to enlist, which his mother and father were not about to give.
Donny Mayfield duly forged signatures, lied about his age, and sailed to active service in Malaya before Prime Minister Curtin’s ‘industrial conscription’ could become law.
Donny, a drummer, self-taught but adept, was a backbone member of The Pit Brass Band. A sporadic assembly, smaller than other coalfields’ bands, The Pit Brass Band was yet capable of the sound required for strike marches and pit funerals. Donny’s kit comprised a gigantic ex-Scottish Marching Band bass drum, a snare which seemed a cake tin by comparison, and hi-hat cymbals of dubious origin. It was remarked that Donny’s right leg and left arm became significantly more muscular than their partner limbs. If nothing else, if the war petered out and he did not see active service, Donny reflected, a place in an army marching band, for a spell, might not be out of the question.
Donny also constituted one half – the rhythm section - of the more regularly deployed Donny and Chocko Combo. The Combo’s other half, Chocko Vella played piano accordion while scatting lyrics in Maltese-inflected Australian English. Notably catholic in its musical adventures, The Combo boasted a repertoire ranging from ‘The Darktown Strutters Ball’, through a Strauss waltz or thereabouts, a generic foxtrot, or thereabouts, to recognisable, loose swing, or thereabouts, and finally, late at night, lunging ambit claims upon Cab Calloway’s “Hidey Hidey Ho” and the like. On a good night at the RSL Memorial Hall, confidence up and audience drunk, The Combo might make a move on an Ellington-ish jungle jump, in execution of which the pair would usually find common ground after several bars. The accompanying thump of boots on floorboards, hooting and cheering, would segue, later, into the yowling of drunks in the street.
Donny all but died of multiple diseases in Changi. Repatriated, he returned to The Pit but could not work. Infrequent, brief appearances on drums alongside Chocko Vella, sapped his strength. In recognition of his military service, Donny is commemorated by a military-standard white headstone engraved with the AIF symbol.
HENRY VERNON HOBBS
1900 – 1948
“At Rest, At Last”
Henry Hobbs – “Hobbsie”, forever, to those he taught - was a quiet Department of Education communist who welcomed a first posting to the one-room school of The Pit as a potentially fruitful and two-way educative engagement with the working class. Henry’s radical politics were learned, not, as with those born in The Pit, inherited in his mother’s milk. He quickly realised that incentive to learn, to broaden outlook, was in short supply in The Pit, depiction of the pit head and loading jetty on the school badge emblematic of the limited horizon. What was taken to be working class destiny seemed his major educative obstacle. That his efforts to implant other possibilities appeared appreciated by many of his pupils – who upon leaving school proceeded to follow traditional paths into pit or kitchen - added to the ambience of futility which was, in the long run, to bring Henry down.
A first day of learning thrown to the winds proved typical. Most challenging to Henry’s determination not to resort to caning was a troika of disruptive individuals – Ronald Borthwick, Cedric Keats, Jimmy Treloar – two inventive recalcitrants, one fellow traveller - unwashed, unshod - who, lurking within Henry’s orbit for nine of his ten years in The Pit, seemed hell bent on flaunting not mere disinterest in learning, but an active inclination towards anti-learning, whilst gleefully herding ovine classmates onto the field of rebellion with them. His day one classes for some reason punctuated not only by human miscreancy, but also by the odoriferous, even frightening presence of wildlife, dead and alive, Henry exited school to discover his bicycle stripped of parts, its frame wedged immovably in a deep cleft of the storm-blasted Monterey Pine dominating the dirt playground. The frame, over time, would become part of the tree. The evening of day one saw Henry’s discovery of a flaming paper bag on his front stoop, inducing a flurry of stomping before realisation of upon what, inside the bag, he was stomping.
Numerous ensuing variations on the theme of educational impotence would undermine Henry’s adherence to theories of environmental disadvantage, but if one particular misdeed was simply the last straw for Henry Hobbs, schoolteacher, it was the Empire Day Incident of 1939. Formerly celebrated as Queen Victoria’s birthday, Empire Day evidenced the weekly ritual flag-raising and oath of allegiance - “I honour my God, I serve my Queen, I salute the flag” – augmented by massed patriotic singing, a half day holiday, and “cracker night”, a dangerous time for both man and beast.
On the particular morning of May 24, 1939, the eyes of Henry Hobbs and assembled school were reported instantly to pay more than routine Empire Day attention upon witnessing the ascending national flag come to an abrupt halt, at half-mast, following which a curious procession - three youthful coal-grimed figures - bearing a coffin –proceeded to deposit the casket – home-made - at the school gates. The student assembly, obviously primed, fragmented and dashed to the fence in riotous humour, where Dot Borthwick trilled a birdlike version of The International while Nerys Ferris hurdled the barrier and threw herself upon the casket, where, overdoing the role of widow, she sobbed at volume. Only three of Henry’s twenty three pupils remained assembled. Son Herbert tried unsuccessfully to hide amusement. Management children Craig and Felicity Goldfinch, tempted to join the insurrection, were held back by class upbringing.
Nerys Ferris quietening, the tallest pallbearer intoned a eulogy over the casket:
“Here lie the mortal remains of John Smith.Who worked hard and died poor, supported throughout the trials and vicissitudes of life by The Reflection that He Was The proud Inheritor of a share In The Glorious Empire Upon Which The Sun Never Sets.
At his death he was placed in this grave and his share of the Glorious Empire was reverently shovelled on top of him so that he came by his own in The End.”**
The pallbearers then deposited handfuls of earth atop the coffin and fled. Classmates cheered. Henry remained reduced to dumbstruck. Cracker night was more explosive than ever. Today, Empire Day, 1939, is regarded in The Pit as a triumph of communist youth organisation, Cedric Keats identified as the mastermind, Ronald Borthwick the mastermind behind the mastermind. The third party to the atrocity, later a confirmed strike-breaking blackleg, is never mentioned. News of the revolutionary act alarmed the Department of Education. Severely reprimanded, Henry faced the thorny question: how to discipline a restive mob? Something snapped.
Mr Hobbs explained, several times, that the mass caning did not necessarily indicate a personal disapproval of uprisings, he in fact being generally in favour of rising up, but that there was a time and a place. He did not cane the girls, instead instructing them to calculate, in their heads, how many cuts in total had been administered in the session. Girls wrongly calculating the product of twenty three times six were detained after school and made to read a novel by Joseph Conrad. “One Eye” Goldfinch was first to arrive at the correct total of one hundred and thirty eight. Three canes having splintered in the administration of said one hundred and thirty eight cuts, Mr Hobbs further instructed his female pupils to deploy this statistic in deducing the average hits per cane before occurrence of splintering. “One Eye” Goldfinch again was first to compute the correct figure of forty six. Mr Hobbs then asked, if he possessed a total of twenty canes, how many cuts could he administer before running out of canes?
“Nine hundred and twenty cuts, sir.”
“One Eye” Goldfinch thus completed the arithmetic trifecta.
For the remainder of the year, every monday morning, Mr Hobbs lined up all class males for pre-emptive caning, six times, the recipient’s hand dropping from the perpendicular, flick-caning knuckles on the upstroke, whilst female classmates chanted the arithmetic. Despite the scale of his behavioural correction, Mr Hobbs never ran out of canes. Bi-annually supplied by the Department Of Education, the experience-tempered educator maintained a seemingly inexhaustible store of corrective weaponry in an old golf bag locked in a cupboard.
That Hobbsie’s worst-behaved pupils actually liked him, that their actions might have been tests of his commitment to themselves, and an ignored and disdained community, did not seem to occur to Henry Hobbs. Yet a fondness lay beneath the persecution, evident in the eulogy given by tormentor Ronald Borthwick at his would-be educator’s funeral:
“Hobbsie was on the ball. He could spot red hair with his back turned. He was a terrific long-distance shot with a duster too. There were always little flecks of white foam in the corners of his mouth. Not just when he went mental and belted us. It stretched like elastic as he crapped on. I always stared at it when he yelled up close. The foam stretched but never busted. He never wiped it away. Also, his tongue made this little click, like water dripping, when he talked. His head was dark red and shiny, like he'd been polished by a grocer. His thumb and finger on his left hand were yellow from pipe stuffing. He always gave the pipe bowl a suspicious sniff and scooped a finger inside before he packed. Log Cabin. In a round yellow tin.
Mrs Hobbs was rarely seen. When she was, it was but briefly, usually passing a window. It was rumoured she played the piano.
^ Enervated, Henry resigned and departed The Pit in 1941. Unwinding in Singapore, absent his wife, unable to escape the island before it fell, he was interned by the Japanese. With no communication beyond a short, pessimistic letter to Alec Meiklejohn, this missive arriving several years after posting, it was assumed “Hobbsie” had died in Singapore.
In 1948, barely recognisable, Henry Hobbs returned to The Pit. He died a few months later. Respectfully laid to rest by former pupils, he lies beneath a suitably modest granite memorial, proportioned to the golden mean, funded by Alec Meiklejohn.
** John Smith's "eulogy" was later sourced to a 1921 trial edition of Common Cause, the Miners Federation newspaper, a copy preserved in the collection of Joe Keats.
^ As reported by Nerys Ferris, Henry Hobbs was replaced by Mrs Deirdre Pleasant who had “thick eyebrows, wore a raffia hat and sandals, did not eat meat and sat on the verandah in the nude reading D.H. Lawrence.”
HERBERT VALENTINE HOBBS
7.9.1922 – 14.4.1999
“It was difficult being the headmaster’s son.”
Such was Herbert Hobbs’ summation of his schooling. Apart from the higher expectations thrust upon the offspring of an educator, Herbert’s very difference from his peers – difference which he took pains, unsuccessfully, to hide - was, by his father, from time to time held up as something to be emulated:
“Herbert is seeking a trainee position in a bank. You could do something like that, Borthwick. Work with your brain. You’re brighter than Herbert, you know. Herbert simply pays attention.”
Such public exposure, well meant, only brought Herbert playground grief. As did attempts on his part to fit in with the children of The Pit. His playground “dacking”* of Ronald Borthwick, an act of desperate bravery by which he hoped to ingratiate himself with the many, elicited more horror than amusement due to the state of Ronald’s underwear.
Herbert departed The Pit at fifteen, duly armed, thanks to his father, with the competence in arithmetic and mastery of pen and ink germane to traineeship in a bank. Garnering a position at the Wallsend branch of the then Rural Bank Of New South Wales, Herbert vanished in the regional financial milieu, there to remain unseen for forty five years, never venturing back to The Pit until impending retirement led him to seek his roots.
Herbert married twice. First wife Amanda, upon the twins commencing university, in 1969 left Herbert to explore her sexuality. Amanda’s belated reconnoitring was likened by Herbert to “exploring the Congo on a pogo stick”, the expression, coined by a fellow abandoned male, picked up during attendance at a men’s group. Herbert attended the group but once, opting not to return after a colleague suggested that, if it was good enough for their ex wives, why do not he and Herbert explore their own sexuality, together?
Herbert first encountered second wife Denise when she backed her Volvo into his Saab in the carpark of a suburban pentecostal church. Denise took pains to reassure Herbert that, having explored her sexuality in earlier times, she was content to stay put.
Perhaps in reaction, perhaps being a mandate of banking, Herbert did not share his father’s politics, being steadfastly conservative and convinced of the existence of God. Physically, however, the son seemingly had no choice and grew into the spitting image of the father, albeit with the addition of a cricketer’s moustache and sandals.
Herbert returned to The Pit via purchase, with intent to renovate and gain capital, of the cottage once housing Billy Burns’ antipodean family. As a former banker, aware of the economics of local coal mining, events in mid-eighties Britain had served to further convince Herbert that fossil fuels were a thing of the past and that real estate in The Pit was set to “take off”.
“HOBBSsie! ’s aLIVE!”
Fifty years on, in March 1982, dacker Herbert could yet recognise the sodden shriek emanating from the darker bowels of the pub as belonging to dackee Ronald Borthwick. The good fortune of being mistaken for his father, despite Hobbsie being long dead and buried, served initially to deflect resurfacing of the school dacking incident and delayed recriminations. Herbert had viewed attendance at the pub as a matter of facing his demons. Perhaps, he later mused, it may have been better if Denise had not ordered concoctions the barmaid had never heard of.
“NO! ‘Is HERB’t! HERBt! DACK’d ME!
Herbert’s response, a whinny resembling a spooked horse, confirmed Ronald’s correct identification of his schoolyard assailant. Recognition duly stimulated a torrent of pejoratives from assorted corners of the bar:
“Teacher’s pet.” “Dobber.” “Square arsehole.” “Cube shitter.”
Where the schoolyard Herbert would have galloped inside and reported to the office for safety, the mature man gathered himself. This was a test he had to pass.
“It was difficult being the Headmaster’s son.”
Herbert painted his cottage white, inside and out, wore white shirts, and drove a white car. Denise wore white calico. Thus, in the eyes of The Pit, Herbert’s belief that coal had no future was made clear. Not that this was news – most of the workforce having been cavilled out, permanently - but to dress in white was to rub it in. That Herbert later offered his support to Nerida Humphries’ “historic mining village” proposal, tutted longtime residents, was only to be expected. Reports sourced to Nerys Ferris promoted the view that Herbert, more than being in political league with Mrs Greenie Fucking Blow-In, was having an affair with The Pit’s radical conservationist. They had been seen talking. Nerys Ferris swore on The Bible that she had heard the words fossil fuel, pollution, and condom, venturing to suggest that perhaps Herbert, Mrs Greenie Fucking Blow-In, and Herbert’s white-dressed woman, constituted a green threesome.
Herbert’s low granite headstone, trapezoid in section, firmly engraved, without ornament, atop a matt black slab with step-edged detailing, is, as befits a regional banker, forthright in its claim on respectful middle class memory.
* the downing, without warning, from behind, of another person's shorts
DAI RICHARD JONES
born 12 December 1895 died 2 March 1961
At age fourteen, simultaneous with his hair being cut, savagely, Dai “Dickie” Jones signed up to the Victorian Coal Miners Association. Barbering when not labouring underground had been taken up by the activist Coal Creek Miners Lodge treasurer, Ernest Yardley, he having found the presence of cutthroat razor and scissors to concentrate the mind of a potential unionist. His barber’s “shop”, such as it was – a wooden chair in canvas premises – had previously serviced Outtrim, thence Jumbunna, thence Coal Creek, Korumburra, finally Wonthaggi, seeming to follow, accompany, even perhaps, it had been suggested, to instigate a succession of militant unionist actions - strikes – which were to occur in those centres.
Dickie’s father, Ellis Jones, victimised for union activism during the 1903 Lockout, never made it to the Wonthaggi pit, but had hewn and been seen at the barber’s at Coal Creek, Korumburra, and before that, Jumbunna and Outtrim. Ellis’s frequent attendance at Yardley The Barber’s was, as attested by a continued hirsute state, infrequently for a cut or a shave. Blacklisted out of Victorian pits, Ellis eventually obtained part-time work in an abattoir on the fringe of Melbourne, then in a related tannery, from where he remitted limited funds to his family one hundred miles away in South Gippsland. Employment in distant abattoirs or tanneries soon fading in appeal, Ellis Jones changed his name to Gary Lewis, headed north, and in the larger, more established northern NSW coalfields, concealing his past, sweet-talked a job underground in the village known as The Pit. Promising better times, not least better weather, than was to be found in South Gippsland, Ellis sent for his family.
Son Dickie, pursuing a relationship with Gia Zanetti, her Italian father and brothers miners at Coal Creek, was not keen on leaving. Discouraged by both families, the liaison was conducted in covert fashion, but in the tiny community, word of a rendezvous always got back. Bowing to destiny, and threats, Dickie travelled north.
Socialism was inevitable, Marx had declared. It was bloody well taking its time, as well as a very circuitous route, declared Ellis, who had read enough of The Mentor to grasp the essentials of historical determinism. Enough of The Mentor was plenty, for Ellis, if not too much of a good thing. Yes, struggle was inevitable. But not the outcome. That depended on how hard you fought. And on luck. Much luck. Then again, if historical determinism did sometimes operate, Ellis may very well have agreed it did so in framing the future working life of son, Dickie:
- In being the only son of Welsh immigrants, winners of coal over generations, including women if you cared to go back far enough;
- In initially seeing daylight during the Maritime/Shearers Strike, seen as a first great battle between Capital and Labour, ending in utter defeat and dispirit for the workers;
- In a childhood spent in the Great Depression of the 1890s, the family breadwinner only intermittently employed, then victimised for industrial activism;
- In moving north to join Jones’s of all stripes, no doubt relatives, depending on how far back you sought connection, in one of several waves of ‘free labour’ encouraged by travel subsidy to emigrate to the coalmines of post-convict NSW;
- Finally, in his father’s identity and disruptive history in Victoria being brought to the attention of NSW management by an informer, leading to banishment from the industry for life.
Dickie cut his political teeth during the “Peter Bowling strike” of 1909-10, an action framed as a re-run of the Capital versus Labour battle of 1890, and “a fight to the finish”. Colliery Employees Federation president Bowling, an advocate of the “Wobbly” (I.W.W.) creed - “that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common” - proved an inspirational figure, but one whose leadership revealed a strategic planning and tactical sense not up to the task he had assigned himself. The strike being more show of class defiance than planned action with clear goals, the outcome was defeat, the “Coercion Act”, the placing in leg irons and gaoling of Bowling for two and a half years, and the all but complete re-population of the pits by scab labour.
Declared black, Dickie returned to Gippsland on foot, cadging lifts, odd jobbing en route, and, finding Gia Zanetti amenable, resumed the relationship. Being a refugee striker from the north did not improve his employment stocks in the south. Lacking skills in dairy and logging, the alternatives to coal, Dickie subsisted via general labouring, leavened by inexpert building, fencing, felling, and clearing. Relief came with Capital’s re-discovery that the productivity of scab labour left much to be desired. Scabs cost money. Word that the north was again taking on men who knew what they were doing, including union men, catalysed Dickie and Gia’s elopement.
Bowling’s failings had not gone unnoticed by Dickie. Viewing himself as a “lapsed Wobbly”, Lodge President at 35, re-elected until retirement, Dickie planned in detail, kept his head under duress, and, as a Welshman, saw it his responsibility to speak calmly in any intervals left by his ranting Scottish Secretary, Shug Meiklejohn.
A bass, profoundly, Dickie sang in The Pit Male Choir alongside fellow Jones’s Short Owen and Johnno, a cohort of Davis’s, Davies’s, Davys, Dodds, Evans’s, Hughes’s, and Jenkins’s, and a smattering of non-Welshmen. That the choir came close but never topped the Sydney Eisteddfod podium was attributed, in the pub, by Welshmen, to choral miscegenation by non-Welshmen. With a run up, down, Dickie could hit a very low G, several tones lower than any other bass in the coalfields, and possibly wider, this talent raising, again in the pub, the question of exactly how many testicles Dickie might possess. One for each note lower than everyone else was a repeated suggestion. That his colleagues, in their cups, never tired of the joke, fatigued Dickie.
Dickie and Gia were married for forty seven years. They had two children. Both died in infancy. The parents thereafter dedicated themselves to union activism.
OWEN DAVID JONES
b. 12 December 1898 d. 5 February 1964
“Short” Owen Jones lies beneath what might be taken for a raised garden bed, walled by concrete blocks, wherein sprout a variety of weeds from a seam of small, coal-coated pebbles. Numerous relatives rest nearby, in a small but historically informative Jones precinct.
There being innumerable Jones’s on the coalfields, particularly in the north, which tended nonconformist protestant, and more than several Jones, Owens, Owen Jones of The Pit became more specifically identified as Short Owen Jones. Short Owen resembled an oversized bath toy in a shabby suit. He was frequently seen shirtless under the ancient single-breasted garment, both on the coal and above it. The Pit being a contract pit caused him to walk, on short legs, with a briskness few could match. Laughing, frequently, at anything and everything, Short Owen would roar and shake like a tickled toad.
Short Owen, living up to stereotype, if not exceeding it, was able to maintain perfect pitch under extreme duress, his tenor rippling with beauty even in company of a less talented chorus. In consequence, he was the preferred vocalist at funerals of fellow miners, these not infrequent occasions, while at the pub his sweet tones would routinely form glissandi over the evening as it grew late. The West Cessnock Miners Choir, regular Eisteddfod winners, had several times attempted to poach Short Owen but he was solid. Being but a smattering less than replete with Welshmen who harmonised like angels, The Pit Male Choir was also a social gathering, further excuse for solely male company, out of the house, to talk shop, if such was needed, or not, whichever, as, for some reason, often seemed the case.
Jones’s Short Owen, Dickie, Johnno and Neville - not to mention the cohort of Davis’s, Davies’s, Davys, Dodds, Evans’s, Hughes’s, and Jenkins’s – would, now and then, under influence of wine and song, be heard melodically to return to assorted home vales, with perhaps a sidetrack up the Rhymney to pay respects at Senghenydd – which only they could pronounce – where of the record four hundred and thirty nine who died in 1913, forty four were named Jones, or at times tread the valley of the Taff, to burrow into the anthracite of Merthyr Vale, nearby Aberfan, and the highest rates of black lung, contracted at a younger age, within the United Kingdom.
Short Owen’s wife Gwen died in giving birth to son Neville, he later to become a noted regional firebug as captain of the volunteer bushfire brigade. After decent interval, widower Short Owen then fell to longtime covert admiring of putative widow Sarah Borthwick, her precise marital status in flux while the fate of her husband remained indeterminate. Mentoring Sarah’s son Ronald Borthwick upon his entry into The Pit, later lending the lad the wherewithal to purchase a shotgun, Short Owen deemed it proper to wait until Malcolm Borthwick was declared legally dead before venturing to invite Sarah to a screening of “The Wizard Of Oz” in Cessnock, as a first indication of his interest.
Several popular movies later, Short Owen Jones and Sarah Borthwick seized the festive opportunity of Short Owen’s retirement after forty six years underground to announce their engagement and impending relocation to Swansea – Wales - taking the pension with them. The northern venture was not a success. The couple returned to Australia on separate ships, Sarah dying shortly after arrival. Short Owen became a stalwart of the lawn bowls team. That he could sing and bowl at the same time unsettled opposition teams.
JANICE LYNNE JONES
born 4 March 1942 died 11 October 1999
“Moaning” Janice Jones is commemorated by a simple white cross in concrete, crudely etched with her details, protruding from a mound of compacted sand, colonised and stabilised against the wind by red-tipped pigface and dandelion rosettes amid clumps of assorted mongrel grasses.
The Janice Jones story begins before her birth, in one of many twists in the Johnno Jones story. Johnno Jones drank too much on the night preceding the 1941 Stay-In Strike. As he had drunk too much the night before. And the night before that. Such was the drift of Johnno’s life at the time. Throughout the two hundred hours of the strike, Johnno wore only the pyjama shorts and singlet within which he was clad when Uncles Dickie and Short Owen dragged him out of bed and underground, to the strike. It was not that Johnno did not want to stay in. He in actuality wished to stay in as long as possible, being The Black Sheep Jones Boy who had got Perce Frost’s daughter, Nell, in the family way and was faced with compulsory hitching to Nell upon completion of the stay in. Underground, for two hundred hours, Perce Frost kept close eye on Johnno, but post-strike, perhaps distracted by industrial victory, failed to prevent Johnno secretly joining the army* on the day prior to Nell producing a baby girl. It was remarked that Johnno would rather face the Japanese. The baby was soon to become Moaning Janice Jones.
In spite of reports to the contrary, from close friends, along the lines of “Janice could moan for Australia!”, adequately sampled statistics would clearly demonstrate that Moaning Janice Jones did not moan any more than anyone else in The Pit. Nor in near environs. The appellation – of which she disapproved but for obvious reasons did not moan about - simply represented the fact that Janice’s normal speaking voice – a flat bovine drone, occasional fog-horn – on one deep, uninflected note - captured perfectly at all times the tone of authentic moaning. Janice’s regular compliments to fine weather, for example, would ever be taken for actually moaning about sunshine and cloudless skies.
That Moaning Janice was a source, an oracle, a transmitter, daily, of village news, a trusted reporter of inappropriate personal behaviours and social infractions, true and false, did serve to ensure that her vocal chords were deployed more often than those of others, familiarity breeding, if not contempt, misrepresentation. Prolixity also may have contributed to her failure to shake the “Moaning” tag. Moaning Janice’s first broadcast of the morning was invariably over the fence, at sunrise, to Nerys Ferris, Queen Of The Pit, gateway to the world.
Moaning Janice would then retire to domestic duties, the raising of her four rat-tailed children to Andy Meiklejohn, content in the knowledge that, by courtesy of Nerys Ferris, morning’s end, at the latest, would see important information at the fingertips of the entire population of The Pit, and environs.
Moaning Janice married Andy Meiklejohn, son of Angry Leonard Meiklejohn, but nevertheless remained Moaning Janice Jones, not Moaning Janice Meiklejohn. Moaning Janice Meiklejohn lacked nasal sonority. It was also highly doubtful the Meiklejohn clan would have permitted a Meiklejohn to be denoted as Moaning. Meiklejohns did not moan. Meiklejohns were legitimately angry.
Married Moaning Janice kept house, raised her four rat-tailed boys, and stood by her man, not least when aspersions were cast as to Andy’s solidarity vis a vis mechanisation of the pit, a solidarity which to miners of earlier vintage appeared pale in comparison with the defiant anti-machinery of his Meiklejohn forebears. All of which duties, domestic and beyond, gave Janice headaches and an upset stomach of alarming regularity, these conditions promoting sachets of Bex and Vincents powders, jars of Eno and Andrews Liver Salts always to be at hand upon a window ledge of the Meiklejohn kitchen, in all probability majorly contributing to the prominence of Janice’s kidneys and liver in her eventual demise. In the early days, it was the tearing through the house, with weaponry, the split heads and near drownings and dog bites, above all the exhausting and constant yowling noise, which would prompt Janice to take a powder or down a tumbler of fizzing antacid or, frequently, both.
Later, approaching mid-life, the demise of the pit and dearth of prospects for her early-school-leaver sons became the primary driver to medication. The Pit was staggering. With luck, Andy might make it to retirement. Might. Just. But it was clear the offspring would need to move away. As end of schooling approached for each son, Moaning Janice stalked the larger surrounding towns, combing workplaces, shirtfronting and/or sweet-talking any and all possible sources of an apprenticeship; failing that, possible gateways to employment as council worker, road ganger, chippie, ditch digger for a utility, and the like. Meiklejohn males, not indoor types, nor cerebral, were not cut out to be bank tellers or retail assistants, the traditional destination for less physically-inclined early-school-leavers of the time. Meiklejohn males might once have harboured thoughts of working out of the sun, but not like that.
* Johnno Jones was blown to bits] by a grenade in Borneo in 1944. The body not being shipped home, Johnno was denied the privilege of interral by Ronald Borthwick.
NEVILLE BLEDDYN JONES
1927 – 1981
“Singing With The Angels”
Mother Gwen Jones died giving birth to Neville. Following a sporadic and shortened education, inessential prelude to shoving up skips into bords at fourteen, Neville grew in maturity to become Captain of The Pit Volunteer Fire Brigade, with an unofficial sideline as regional weekend firebug. An uneasy relationship with wife Shirley presenting soon after youthful marriage, shifts in the mine successfully dividing the couple during the working week, regular local bushfires served to get Neville out of the house on weekends. The arrangement suited both marital parties. Well aware of Neville’s proactive training methods, more than a few spouses in The Pit were heard to actively encourage the regular call outs of their men. The curl of gumtree-scented smoke on a weekend afternoon, post sporting commitments, post Wyong greyhounds, was reassuring notice that Neville and crew were on the job. The extramural activity only became a darker issue with the 1970 Captain Cook Bicentennial Burnoff, “Black Sunday”.
In commemoration of Black Sunday, more particularly the stray ember which rendered his recently-fledged pet galah all but featherless, Ronald Borthwick christened the charred bird Neville. In recovery, under Ronald’s tutelage, the bird learned to say its name and, roosting on the verandah rail, to raucously and repeatedly remind anyone within earshot – a large range - of the reason for his lack of plumage below the neck: “Black Sunday! Black Sunday!”
Neville’s second claim on infamy was that of being thought the only tone deaf Welshman on the northern coalfields. The disability noted by an alert teacher early in Neville’s schooling, he was thereafter instructed to ‘goldfish’ during annual singing of “God Save The King” on Empire Day.
An enthusiastic punter at regional canine level, perpetual loser at same, Neville remained an avid subscriber to the Greyhound Recorder. In his unfortunate hands the organ would over time prove to be of no value in assisting in the picking of winners, but could always be put to use starting a fire on weekends.
Cremated in Broadmeadow, Neville’s ashes were returned to The Pit. It was remarked at the wake, several times, by several persons, that reduction to ash was an apt conclusion to Neville’s career in local fire. While not the first of The Pit to undergo cremation, those preceding him had then been scattered to the winds, sometimes with unfortunate results. Neville became the first to be commemorated by a metal alloy plaque mounted on a short, squat, brick wall resembling the architecture of letterboxes outside urban blocks of flats in the mid 20th century.
In being the first resident of The Pit to replace the original timber verandah posts of a cottage with ferro-cement Grecian-esque columns, Neville was recognised, posthumously, as the herald of a popular later trend.
LEWIS LLEWELLYN PHILLIPS
b. 9 August 1921 d. 15 July 2012
“Fucking come on! Fucking come on you bastard! You bastard! You bastard!”
The screech of shot-firer “Fizzer” Phillips encouraging a damp taper was tradition in The Pit. Comforting, like a magpie carol at sunrise. But at the same time aggravating. With several water sources overhead, not least in certain eastern sections the South Pacific Ocean, The Pit was a wet pit. Damp tapers were not unusual. Somehow, however, Fizzer Phillips managed to produce significantly more and damper tapers than any other shot firer. It was said his pockets, deep, were permanently sodden in liquid of unknown origin.
“Fucking come on you bastard! You bastard! You bastard!”
Post-failure, Fizzer would ritually hurl the sodden taper at the coalface, to join numerous others of varying age littering the pit floor, a puzzle for industrial archaeologists of the future.
Shot firing was a dangerous job, said to require acumen, instinct, and experience. Fizzer Phillips was considered, by his colleagues, a prize galoot. An unfunny prize galoot. Specialising in missed shots which, left uncleared, as frequently happened, might later explode in a hewer’s face. How Fizzer gained entry to night school, let alone passed the exams and attained a Deputy’s ticket, was a daily source of scatalogical consternation.
Shot firing without the prerequisite of nous had rendered Fizzer acutely deaf. Prior to his entry into a world of silence, it appeared Fizzer may have been partial to some form of popular music or traditional air as, between oaths, all shift, every day, he would over and over whistle the same semi-melody which he himself could not hear and workmates could never identify.
Early in the Second World War, the sighting of a German U-boat surfacing off the coast, east of The Pit, was reported by an unidentified source.* The converted liner “Queen Elizabeth” being in Sydney to pick up troops, thought to make a juicy target for torpedoes, a Wirraway was despatched from Williamtown to investigate. The presence of the enemy having stirred The Pit like a stick down an ants’ nest, the loading jetty crawling with heavily armed locals well before the arrival of the air force, Fizzer Phillips blew the head off a surfacing cormorant he took for a periscope. Sudden explosions, close to the face, had also rendered Fizzer’s eyesight less than exact.
Like any number of miners, perhaps the majority, Fizzer was politically left agnostic. If communism got him more money and better conditions, well, he’d vote for them. And bugger what the government said. Russia, Schmussia. Over his forty years in The Pit, Fizzer was invariably among the first to scent which way the wind blew, and turn.
Significantly alone in seeming to put on weight during the 1941 Stay-In Strike, Fizzer boasted that, in staying underground, he was eating more and better than was his habit on normal weekends above. Normal weekends above saw him drink himself senseless on friday, saturday and sunday nights, after which he would return home to a cold meal which he passed on to the dog. In consequence, Fizzer’s dog became so fat it was unable to sit, the animal’s back legs shooting out sideways. Fizzer, on strike, replete, hoped the stay-in would last until Christmas, or longer. As did, according to several local sources, Mrs Myrna Phillips and son Geoff. When in 1955 Geoff joined his father in The Pit, he did so in the absence of choice. Like most, Geoff regarded his old man as a prize galoot. With a fat dog. With whom his father communicated in far more complexity than he did with his family. The accidental death of Geoffrey, at eighteen, catalysed the departure of Myrna for pastures less grim, or, given her husband’s absence of good sense, less ridiculous. Her history thereafter is not recorded. A Myrna Phillips is known to be buried in Stockton Cemetery, Newcastle, amid numerous former steelworkers.
Fizzer Phillips observed all his peers pass over the white bridge before him. In the end, a solitary fixture in Retired Miners Corner, resembling a stick insect with a beer, he became, in the new, gentrified pub, a tourist attraction of sorts. Visitors were informed they would need to watch for a long, long time to see the old contract miner move. But it did happen.
Fizzer departed this life direct from Retired Miners Corner. Descending with glacial slowness from the RMC pew, he lay on the floor, beheld a vision of his dead mother calling him from behind an old timber fence, and died. His grave, in characteristic distressed state, is unmarked, a southerly buster having uprooted the timber cross donated by the cemetery trust and deposited it, along with numerous others, markers of former workmates, in parts unknown.
* Nerys Ferris would in later life attribute the unconfirmed submarine sighting to attention seeking - the seeking of her attention, in particular - on the part of Ronald Borthwick. Nerys Ferris never venture a view on how remaining unidentified would gel with attracting attentionm, hers or anyone else's.
GEOFFREY BEVAN PHILLIPS
b. 30 March 1941 d. 5 July 1959
“Live To Ride”
Geoff Phillips died aboard a 1951 Harley Davidson 750 Wr, on a wet road overtaking a turning coal truck with a faulty indicator not far from the Wangi power station where Geoff had worked since being cavilled out of The Pit in 1958. For his part, Geoff was happy to be rationalised as it meant he no longer had to work beside the dangerous old goat that was Fizzer Phillips, his father.
Decease at eighteen, by means of motorbike, ensured that Geoff Phillips’ main claim to fame would be his funeral. The procession, a hundred or so fellow bikers, most on Harleys, in reflective sunglasses and bandanas, rode through The Pit, deathly slowly, five or six abreast, on both sides of the street, emitting an ear-splitting racket and forcing coaltrucks onto the footpath. The coffin, black, embellished with a red skull going up in flames and hot snakes crawling from the eyesockets, rode in a sidecar up front. It was remarked that having Fizzer Phillips for your old man would cause snakes to crawl out of anyone’s eyesockets. Dot Borthwick’s ex boyfriend Crank, not long out of Long Bay, was among the two-wheeled mourners.
Geoff’s father attended the funeral in a state of petrification. His mother stood well away from her husband. The balance of The Pit, respectfully situated behind the picture window of the newly constructed bowling club, atop the hill, observed the distant bikers behave themselves, one read a poem about freedom, another speak of what a good mate Geoff was, another sing a flat “Lost Highway”. Being a still day, it took hours for the dust to settle following departure of the bikes.
Geoff’s headstone is topped by a ferro-concrete rendering of a motorcycle bearing scant resemblance to the machine upon which he died. Nevertheless, in combination with the legend “Live To Ride”, Geoff’s final resting place gives strong indication that his days were probably numbered.
The 1958 cavil was followed by another record stay-in at The Pit. Two thirds of the men who broke the record came out to find themselves rationalised.
NADIA LUCIA VELLA
born 11 October, 1894, Siggiewi, Malta
passed away 4 February, 1943
In 1913, the scream of an injured miner accompanied an accident involving the assembly of empty skips near the drift mouth. The high pitch attracting more than usual attention, the injured miner was discovered to be a woman, Nadia Vella. How long a woman, not least a woman of Maltese extraction, had been working in the pit was never determined. Management dispensed with her services.
Decline of the British Empire having darkened Malta’s economic future, the island government, English, encouraged emigration. Nadia’s silence on mode of travel indicated that she and husband Joseph most probably had stowed away, and by nefarious means avoided the restrictions of White Australia. A number of other Maltese, male, had pioneered the illicit path in response to information, English, concerning a shortage of labour on antipodean coalfields. The itinerant Maltese occupied tents on the pit fringes, moving to other pits according to demand. Nadia never revealed at what point she began to pretend to be male.
Nadia and Joseph produced a son, Peter Paul, before financial pressures motivated Joseph’s travel to the remote goldfields of Western Australia, his stated intent to remit funds to his family in the east. Joseph vanished without trace, and without remittance, after less than a year. Peter Paul was with Nadia’s assistance able to fudge the figures and enter the mine well before attaining the legal working age of fourteen.
Her son gainfully employed, she after persistent application taken on trial by a cake shop in Gateshead, Nadia in time became a popular figure in local food and beverage, dispensing pies and sausage rolls, cream buns, vanilla slices, jam doughnuts, Neenish tarts and the like, wielding mock cream and tomato sauce with alacrity, until her untimely heart failure behind the counter.
It was Nadia’s misfortune – moreso, that of her surviving family – to require cemetery space during the period Jimmy Treloar was installed as gravedigging locum, the incumbent Ronald Borthwick loosely on active service, fortunately for a short time, against the Japanese. Cemetery all but overnight falling into disarray, bereaved Vellas found it necessary themselves to complete the excavation for Nadia’s interment, during which time the deceased lay at rest in the front room for longer than was usual. The family were also required to fill the grave. Sabotage was suspected, Treloar being an enemy of the family for an untoward episode concerning Vella niece, Maria, at a Miners Lodge fundraising dance. Jimmy claimed to have mislaid Nadia’s booking.
Nadia’s grave exhibited perfunctory marking for many years. Today, featuring a modest ornamental cross with approximate image of The Virgin, it evinces a budget conscious catholicism. The memorial, installed a decade after her passing, was commissioned by son Peter, at mates rates, through a close friendship with monumental mason Vincent “Jumpy” Bates.
ALBERTO GIORGIO VELLA
b. 28 December 1899, Siggiewi, Malta
d. 6 June 1986
“Requiescat In Pace”
As a youth, Alberto Giorgio “Wingnut” Vella was one of the number of Maltese miners who sailed to Australia, evaded immigration restrictions on persons of colour - some Maltese appearing lighter than others - and mined coal in the northern fields in the years before and during the Great War. Wingnut had mined limestone in Malta. Coal, in Australia, he had imagined, would be no different. Much in the same way, seeing goats as little different to ponies, he saw no difficulty in taking on the position of deputy ostler at The Pit.
Nicknamed “Wingnut” or “The Maltese Wingnut” because his ears protruded further than was deemed normal, even for a New Australian, the taxi-door effect was magnified by the wearing of a blue cloth hat, pulled down hard and low, and never removed, indoors or out, so to camouflage the encroachment of premature baldness. At first donning a cheap hairpiece, possibly homemade, the resultant mockery and difficulty of maintaining the item in place when handling restive pit ponies saw Wingnut graduate to the perpetual hat. Out of earshot, it was ventured he wore the item in bed. Miner short, in an apparently unrelated phenomenon, also well remarked upon by confreres, Wingnut’s small-footed steps were heard somehow to produce a clicking noise on all surfaces.
Wingnut proceeded with one arm permanently crooked behind his back. To which arm was attached a story, a morality tale of corrupt European history, violent politics and divine intervention, a tale which anxious minority catholic and lapsed communist Wingnut was enthusiastic to tell, if more than routinely, in high speed Maltese-English, thereafter vigorously pointing out the lesson learned, one which his new world audience would do well to take on board. Long ago, in Valetta, Malta, Wingnut would declare, a brash, juvenile Alberto Giorgio Vella had fallen into bad company, that of bearded bomb-throwing anarchists intent on placing Malta under the heel of atheistic syndicalism, only for the callow youth to be saved at the last moment by what was palpably An Act Of God. On point of hurling a petard at an offending courthouse, the young Alberto felt the Lord seize his preferred bomb-throwing arm and twist it behind his back in a divine half Nelson, so to reveal to the hot-headed youth that violence was not the way to achieve political change. Ever after, in show of penance and commitment to change via peaceful means, whenever possible, and ponies permitting, Alberto’s bomb-throwing arm remained crooked behind him.
In spite of this overt commitment to peace, Wingnut had been known, under provocation, yet to revert to violent means and, no bomb being to hand, belt the tripe out of antagonists. More particularly, devoted family man Wingnut was observed taking physical umbrage to twin nemeses “Skinny” Treloar and “Fatty” Borthwick, in respect of inappropriate dealings with niece Maria Vella. Wingnut was also reputed to have once castrated a young billy goat with his teeth. No-one knew why.
Surpassing even the divine half Nelson, Wing’s greatest claim to fame, achieved posthumously, was to die after being run over by his own wife, she at the wheel of their Datsun 120Y. At night, in season, mist would fold up and over the rim of fringing hills like milk up a saucepan, to slowly drown the town. It made walking home from watering holes a sometime bruising affair.
Alberto Giorgio Vella rests in a low brick-bordered and bathroom-tiled grave designed and constructed by Marcellino Galea, a relative in the building trade. Marcellino’s was the creative but practical mind in addition responsible for many of the “unhistoric” features propping up, walling in, roofing on, furnishing façade, decorating or otherwise embellishing the homes of residents who had no wish to see their cottages preserved as “authentic nineteenth century workers residences” in a heritage-council-declared “historic mining village” and The Pit thus to become “frozen in time”, as had been proposed by one or two post-coal gentrifying blow-ins lately come to the Progress Association, a proposal overwhelmingly rejected for the foolish, middle class notion that it was. The Vella relative’s enabling of creative home improvement on limited funds was greatly appreciated by miners and families who had experienced what progress really meant.
Alberto wore his cloth hat into the grave. Both arms were positioned by his sides.
PETER PAUL VELLA
3 November 1904 – 16 September 1971
“Requiescat In Pace”
“Chocko”, Peter Paul Vella’s nickname, of uncertain origin, in all probability relates to skin colour. What began as a pejorative would in time become a term of affection, as Chocko’s political staunchness, superior arithmetic ability and, it must be said, sheer punching power, saw him elected in early middle age to the position of Lodge Treasurer, the position retained until his departure from the mine.
Chocko’s fists resembled blackened cauliflowers and saw frequent service behind hotels in the settling of industrial and other matters. Yet his fingers, freed from disciplinary mode, were heard to extract melodies of considerable delicacy from the keys of a piano accordion. Simultaneously scatting in fractured Maltese English whilst wielding the instrument, Chocko comprised the more tuneful half of The Donny and Chocko Combo. Specialising in approximations of rhythmic standards of the day, the combo found itself in high demand for Lodge dances, strike fundraisers, and miners’ weddings.
Chocko revelled in the torment of Lodge Secretary and would-be Soviet Man Hugh “Shuggie Marx” Meiklejohn, daily winding the Scot up to point of apoplexy and explosion. Chocko’s commo baiting, from its first expression, served to elevate his approval rating underground and continued to do so the longer he kept it up. His most popular barbs would in particular target the political contortions required of a Soviet Man under the unpredictable volatilities of the Stalin era.
“Shug’s in shock. Bukharin’s confessed and Stalin’s shot him!”
“Shug’s in shock. Stalin’s jumped into bed with Hitler!”
“Shug’s in shock. Adolf’s on the outskirts of Moscow!”
Chocko could afford to mock the Lanark giant, being the only man in The Pit proven to have the measure of Shug in a brawl, the battle, of short duration, underground, in midst of the 1941 Stay-In Strike, instigated by Shug’s slamming of the “flippant reffo” against a pillar wall for humorous infraction against the party line, then foolishly, it was rumoured, proceeding to impute an undesirable aspect to Chocko’s private life. Shug’s ideological twistings thereafter induced in Chocko a derisive snort resembling that of a hay-fevered pit pony, accompanied by a look of impertinent pity, the latter in particular heightening the Soviet Man’s discomfort.
Never marrying, there was, nevertheless, it was said, a woman in Chocko’s life, part-time, for the better half of a quarter century, she, it was said, the resident of a coastal village south of Newcastle. It was further said that the woman, nameless, was an unhappily married catholic, whose equally catholic husband was an agent for a life insurance company, the making of sales for which necessitated his covering a wide area to get ahead, on occasion overnighting or longer in far flung towns, during which time Chocko and the nameless married woman would pursue their liaison. An uglier rumour had it that Chocko supported the woman financially, in company with any number of other males. Moaning Janice Jones was to broadcast the suggestion, not, she took pains to point out, of her making, that given the historical enmity between Chocko Vella and Shug Meiklejohn, might it be possible the Scot was the source of the unspeakable rumour concerning the woman’s source or sources of income, which did not bear Janice’s repeating, and that might this possibility therefore have been the catalyst of the famed underground brawl between Chocko and Shug, won decisively by Chocko, in 1941, a year before Moaning Janice was born? The uglier rumour did not gain wide traction. It was also said that Chocko carried a small black and white photo of the part-time woman in his wallet. Few actually witnessed the photo. Lightly questioned by one who did, Chocko replied that it was a picture of his favourite Maltese film starlet.
In 1952, the national output of coal was seen to rocket from “critical shortage”, as identified at the beginning of the decade, to “oversupply”, the sudden reversal of fortune appearing, at least publicly, to mystify politicians and economists. The corollary of too much coal being too little employment, and desirous, as he aged, of healthier work, Chocko was first to apply for a vacant position in a sandstone quarry on the central coast. Shug Meiklejohn was seen to smile – a rare occurrence - as he shook Chocko’s hand upon the Maltese miner’s completion of his final shift.
Among the quarry’s smaller clients was local monumental mason, Vincent “Jumpy” Bates. The pair become friends, Chocko was to be found in frequent attendance at the Bates And Son workshop, beer in hand, peering through a curtain of stone dust and leafing through a hefty library of ancient monumental reference manuals under whose weight the bench sagged. Hewing in the quarry, musing upon the exact nature of his fascination, Chocko decided it was the lure, the feel, of history, something missing in the new country, something left behind in Malta.
Upon completion of his labouring life, Chocko returned to The Pit, his prompt establishment of a presence in Retired Miners Corner appearing to manifest the express purpose of resumed aggravation of Shug Meiklejohn, in which endeavour Chocko’s ongoing success, until his demise, was palpable. To Shug, a decade’s relief absent his Maltese tormentor had seemed to pass in but the blink of an eye. Less.
Chocko died upon suffering a stroke while fishing on the beach at a coastal village south of Newcastle. The salmon were running. Shug Meiklejohn smiled, again, just once.
Peter Paul’s grave features a Gothic-influenced headstone. Sharply pointed, trefoil at the apex, edged by bas-relief buttresses, executed in a pale Hawkesbury sandstone, the commemorative evidences the deep respect, for the occupant below, of creator “Jumpy” Bates. The superior quality of the memorial compared to those around it may represent a “rates for mates” arrangement, or perhaps that Chocko, never marrying nor having children, engaging in but a part-time relationship, if that, was thus able to put a little aside for his commemoration. As a reference, Jumpy consulted a tourist brochure featuring images of graves in the Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery (“Cemetery of Our Lady of Sorrows"), a burial facility established in Paola, Malta, in the Gothic revival style, in the second half of the nineteenth century.
BRADLEY STEVEN OSMAN
b. 12 April 1955 d. 1 June 2017
Brad Osman played hooker for Penrith when scrums were still a contest, and was a keen if lumbering surfer. His grandfather had fought on the victor’s side at Gallipoli. His mother spread vegemite on turkish toast. Early into an end-of-season pilgrimage to the Mecca that in November 1968 was Noosa Heads, he had swung the Impala into an overgrown hole in roadside bush, gateway to a hidden track rippling with corrugations which murdered suspensions and thus helped keep secret a mysterious surfing spot known as The Pit. It was Brad’s first visit. On an overcast blustery morning, spinifex on the dunes bent double, silvery undersides of banksia exposed, The Pit seemed a ghost town. Dark and cold. A set from a black and white movie where residents peered from behind curtains and visitors disappeared without trace. The surf was also dark. Thick and all over the place. Brad and mates did not enter the water. The pub was deserted except for a fat drunk who barked and a skinny glassie with one arm in a sling, before the early shift from a nearby pit traipsed in, filthy and staring. Brad and mates quietly vacated the premises. Brad went on to become one of few league players from the Penrith district to have prospects beyond the ruination of his knees, thanks to a biggish win on Keno. The proliferation of coffee and tea-coloured children in his streets told Brad, via a mouthy halfback now in real estate, that his suburb was “taking off”, after a fashion. Brad invested his winnings in property.
Old views seen through the Impala’s tinted windows lingered years in Brad’s head. The call grew louder as city surf became choked. Beaten for waves by foul-mouthed grommets, he found more time to reflect. Everyone he knew, everyone he met waiting for a wave, or over a steak sandwich in a beer garden, everyone of an age, talked at some point of being a kid in the back seat of an old car chugging up or down the coast around Christmas. Talked of boiling radiators. Plunging a new bike through a flooded camping ground. Deep fried food. The stench of stale oil. Drinking, underage and burnt, in a public bar. Cops cruising past. Meeting a girl in a terry-towelling jumpsuit with a zip up the front. Secret waves with country soul. Don’t get me started, they all said.
The Pit held no memories of quiet holidays past. It had no caravan park, no motel, no holiday flats. No town water. The Pit had a creaking timber hotel frequented by a shrinking clientele of endangered coal miners. A throwback. With the purchase of which Brad Osman realised The Dream. The mature wave hunter’s antidote to choked surf. An old pub in a small town by the ocean. Brad determined to achieve a fine balance between raising the tone of his premises and preserving character. He had received the word from mine management who surfed: The Pit was not long for this world. He could see it for himself. Anyone with an ounce of vision could see it. If global economics didn’t kill King Coal, the Greenies would. The village formerly known as The Pit was sitting pretty also to “take off”. Four-wheel drives with child-restraint seats in the back were already turning off the expressway to admire the feature wall of antique tools and black and white photos of gaunt men staring into the lens, then to enjoy the family-friendly beer garden, formerly the recreational pasture of pit ponies on their sundays off. In addition to day trippers, Brad also hoped to secure the patronage of a host of brand-new mid-week regulars - regulars who would behave themselves – sourced from the proposed new housing development, set to carpet the headland, when it obtained the legal go ahead.
Ronald “Fatty” Borthwick, ever reliable in commission of atrocity, left no stone unturned in furnishing Brad ample excuse to ban the alcoholic gravedigger from further attendance at the establishment, this expulsion majorly contributing to creation of an ambience unthreatening to any incoming bourgeois tide. On the other hand, a lifetime ban from the pub was not so dire a punishment as it might once have been, local punters since the change of publican preferring to congregate at the bowling club. Constructed by the miners themselves when on short time due to a collapsing market for coal, no amount of renovation would ever bring the clubhouse up to middle class scratch. Being barred, however, from both waterholes would, it was averred, be another matter.
Bradley Osman’s headstone, shaped to resemble the top half of a Malibu surfboard, positioned, with a lack of craftsmanship, in friable loam deployed to fill a mine subsidence, now moves back and forth with the prevailing wind. Long before Brad’s decease, clay was fully occupied by those who knew.
Sacred To The Memory Of
GIA FRANCESCA JONES-ZANETTI
born 21 September 1892
passed away 7 March 1964
A day after disembarking in Melbourne, brothers Salvatore and Roberto Zanetti travelled to South Gippsland, largely on foot, to seek work in the company of earlier arrivals, in the coal mines, with the advancing railways, felling trees on dairy properties, while at the same time producing potatoes and peas for the Melbourne market, as many other Gippslander pugliese were doing. The intent was to work, live frugally, save, and return to Puglia with, if not their fortune, the wherewithal to start a better life. Anna, sons Michael and Vincenzo, and daughter Gia arrived eighteen months later. The males found work in the Outtrim, Jumbunna, and Coal Creek pits.
Gia found The History Of The Kings and Queens of England, mandatory in primary school at the time, uninteresting. Her non-Empire origins and limited English were scorned. To which Gia would respond with high speed verbal assaults of which her antagonists did not understand one word, but could hardly fail to get the gist. And which, they would rightly deduce, was in all probability far more horrifyingly scatalogical than any words they dared utter. Concurrent with schooling, Gia undertook domestic duties, cleaned for mine management, tended vegetables, and succeeded in staying out of trouble in a local community replete with young males.
Miners tended not to be tall. Miners’ wives tended even shorter. Gia Zanetti was shorter still. With prominent bust, she was in young womanhood classed, never to her face, as a Tiny Tipper. Short, mouthy, impatient, Gia would turn out to be the perfect partner in elopement to Dai “Dickie” Jones, the solid-to-stolid union activist who always kept his head. Perhaps not when it came to Gia.
Dickie Jones was trouble, although not of the kind Gia’s mother had warned her about. Of Welsh heritage, Dickie had emerged from a notoriously militant family, his socialist father blacklisted out of Victorian pits. The warning to steer clear thus came from Gia’s papa. While a sound unionist, Salvatore felt the family, as recently arrived wops, were not yet in position to raise a head too far above the parapet. Papa’s warnings immediately stimulated an interest in leftist politics, with romantic underpinnings, in his daughter. Covertly escorted to meetings of the Socialist Labor Party, to the Newcastle IWW Club, to classes in Marxism at the Kurri Kurri School of Arts, Gia, strongly tending to action rather than ideology, would quickly become impatient with talk. Theory – debated in a manner akin to mediaeval scholasticism in serious leftist circles - drove her to wine. Where Dickie would, in good time, join her.
Concluding that the new, state-owned Wonthaggi mine, to open late 1909, would soon take trade from the smaller Gippsland pits, the Zanetti males promptly upped and moved, made camp in the tent town sprouting adjacent to the mine, and signed on. Opened to counter unreliability of coal supplies from NSW, due, it was claimed, to union agitation, the mine was soon dubbed “Red” Wonthaggi by a florid metropolitan bugle as the local workforce established its own militant credentials.
Barring Sundays, Anna and Gia lived alone in the family residence, a shanty on the fringe of Korumburra. This did not overly concern the males. Both women had been made familiar with operation of the family rifle. The weapon was only of 0.22 calibre, but used with skill could still bring down a man. And a rabbit had no chance.
One of Gia’s more impressive features, in the eyes of Dickie Jones, was the ability to come home with a rabbit, gutted and skinned, for conversion into stew that would last a week. Certain common non-domesticated birds – the size of wild doves - also featured in Gia’s cuisine. Somehow, despite not growing grapes, the Zanettis also always had wine, and could also seemingly produce tomatoes out of nowhere. Dickie would not have been surprised if Gia had demonstrated expertise in ferreting.
Gia was an early advocate for constitution of a Women’s Auxiliary in The Pit, her mother Anna being active in the first such organisation, established in Wonthaggi, during the strike of 1934. The role of organised women in sustaining the strike for five months, through winter, until demands were met, became a model for community mobilisation in disputes. Solidarity, the need for co-operation, the shared danger, saw less friction between “old” and “new” Australians, underground, than in other industries. The coming of war, and Mussolini’s alignment with Hitler, nevertheless served to inflame relations in the pits. Gia’s brothers, actively anti-fascist, perhaps a little too anti-fascist for government liking, were interned on the far side of Melbourne. Gia’s level of enthusiasm at HMAS Sydney’s sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, however, was examined and found acceptable by the Women’s Auxiliary. As was, the following year, her distress at the loss of the Sydney to the German raider Kormoran. Her provision of exotic foodstuffs and condiments during the 1941 Stay-In Strike being deemed exemplary, the animated cheering and dance steps accompanying news of Mussolini hanging upside down in a Milanese piazza cemented perceptions of her loyalty.
Gia and Dai’s first child, a daughter, Lucia, died of whooping cough at six months. A son, Anthony, was stillborn following an outbreak of rubella in The Pit. Normal marital relations continued but Gia never again became pregnant.
Dickie died in 1957. Gia survived him by eighteen months. There was no designated Miners’ Widows’ Corner in the pub. Gia had no interest in bowls. This lack of assimilation was not held against her. Gia and Dai are buried together, under polished black stone, flanked by the smaller, white graves of their infant children. A headstone, fluted in slender bas-relief columns, supporting an arch of Florentine influence, contributes an Italianate touch to the assembly. The monumental mason responsible was Vincent “Jumpy” Bates.
ALEC STEWART MEIKLEJOHN
30 November 1910 – 19 August 1977
“You got me worried now but I won’t be worried long”
Alec, second of three Meiklejohn brothers, confirmed bachelor and admirer of American folk music, was, despite sharing the family’s political leanings, mysteriously spared the fury in the blood which characterised his mother Una and siblings Hugh and Leonard. Notably less enraged from birth, Alec’s departing the family nest at an early age may also have contributed to his not collecting the complete emotional inheritance. Alec would regularly describe himself, laughing, as a lapsed non-denominational bachelor commo.
Alone in The Pit, Alec could yodel. And in his pomp, do so with great enthusiasm. A devoted fan of American Jimmie Rodgers, the Yodelling Brakeman, Alec would on occasion refer to himself as the Yodelling Winding Engine Man. Also alone in The Pit, the mature Alec came to possess a gramophone player which, having fallen off the back of a truck in Newcastle, passed through several pairs of work-grimed hands and seen better days before coming into Alec’s keeping, nevertheless, following attention from the pit’s electrician, and carpenter, was discovered to be in a working order.
Laid off at fifteen, Alec abruptly took to the road with swag – without first informing his mother – to tramp the east of the continent for a decade, surviving on sporadic employment and handouts, but experiencing much and meeting many. He wrote regularly, without revealing where he was, what he was doing, or whom he was with. The latter, particularly, may have disturbed.
The easing of the Depression facilitated Alec’s return to family bosom and re-entry, beside siblings, into the pit. Not wishing to divide the brothers who had remained home and grown closer, Alec applied for and gained his Winding Engine Driver’s Certificate, allowing Hugh (“Shuggie”) and Leonard to pair up as hewer and attendant wheeler, respectively.
Accompanying Alec upon return home were a near dozen imported seventy eight rpm recordings of American music, in country/blues vein, workingman’s music, given him by a friendly merchant seaman encountered in a soup kitchen on the Sydney docks. The seaman, having run away to avoid family duty, and jumped ship after his flight had been detected, had then for a period accompanied Alec on the wallaby, during which time he taught the rudiments of yodelling to his companion and, on parting, lightening his load, passed on his record collection.
At first, back in The Pit, Alec saw fit to yodel quietly, more or less to himself, insecurity and confirmed bachelorhood putting a damper on overt glottal expression amongst his peers. He was also aware that some miners disliked yodelling to point of irrationality. Eldest brother Shug was of the view that nothing good came out of America. Even yodelling depression hobos and railway brakemen were tainted.
Later relaxing into middle-aged bachelorhood, however, with years of underground labour under the belt, Alec felt free to let fly. Especially once lubricated by his favoured exotic concoctions, one green, one yellow, both translucent, served in tiny glasses with stems. His interpretation of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel Number 4” would effortlessly out-decorate the original. Underground, Alec’s yodelling arrangements were often augmented by a host of mouth organs in assorted keys. Above ground, not least in the pub, he was regularly enjoined on piano accordion, in a Maltese vein, by “Chocko” Vella.
“You got me worried now but I won’t be worried long,
Odelayeee – yayee – olayee..”
Alec was to enjoy several years of friendship with school headmaster, Henry Hobbs, largely pursued in a quieter corner of the pub, talking of the wider world, the allure of travel, before Henry would return home to his mysterious wife, she rarely seen but sometimes heard playing piano.
The relationship would continue after pressure of pointless schooling of young coal miners, and their lack of behavioural restraint, had driven Henry to flee both teaching and the nation. The communication mostly one way, mostly on Henry’s part, in postcard form, Alec would routinely pin the missives on the pub noticeboard in illustration of the colourful world which lay out there, unsampled, beyond The Pit. Henry’s final postcard, despatched from Singapore in late 1941, depicted the lawn of a colonial hotel, populated by women in long dresses drinking tea, with the legend “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here!”, in gold.
Late in life, in response to the meagre emotional rations of family, the coldness at the heart of their politics, Alec converted to Roman Catholicism. The aesthetics and ceremony also attracted. The conversion was fervid, the late convert buried accordingly, an appropriate distance from the balance of his family, prone and unbelieving, in Non-Denom. Coming late to the faith, not having made preparations, family disapproving, Alec’s grave is less architecturally florid, less highly polished, less populated by Biblical figures and other iconography than some in his sector, but the thought is there.
VINCENT DESMOND BATES
b. 7 May 1907 d. 25 July 1975
Vincent Desmond “Jumpy” Bates laboured as a stonemason specialising in burial markers, as did his father Desmond before him, and son Noel, after. Vincent’s nickname derived from his being so deeply concentrated upon a piece of stone he would be unaware of person or persons entering his workshop, whereupon, noting an unexpected presence, the mason would give a noticeable start.
Substantial masonry for economic reasons being uncommon in coalfields cemeteries, the miners’ most common memorial is the generic white timber cross, fixed with a small metal plate etched with relevant name and dates. Domestic jars housing dead flowers or plastic blooms, childhood toys, model vehicles and football team devotional objects add adjacent colour. Exceptions to the modest, populous cross, very occasional neo-classical, Gothic, and mediaeval-styled headstones, a smaller number of columnar memorials topped by angels and urns, tend to commemorate earlier denizens, from a time when, so it appears, substantial, informative gravestones were more affordable. Alternately, larger edifices may be seen to mark the final resting places of shopkeepers and public servants, from better times, or mine management.
Jumpy never laboured underground, nor was locally resident, until at his request he was lain to rest in the cemetery servicing The Pit. The request acknowledged a need for continuity. Examples of Bates’ family masonry dot his surrounds, not in profusion but sufficient to offer a presence worth joining. Jumpy’s headstone is a tallish, hard-edged granite rectangle, sparkling quartz in sunshine, the original slab of which, according to son Noel, with several others fell off the back of a truck en route to cladding a bank building in western Sydney. Etched below Jumpy’s name and dates is the registered mark of Bates masonry, a crossed hammer and chisel, perhaps, it is theorised, a sly wink to leftist politics or a dig at freemasonry, or both.
The earliest grave in The Pit cemetery dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. Initially protected by a spear-ended wrought iron fencing, removed during the second world war, perhaps for conversion to armaments, the pioneering crypt initially housed stillborn Mary O’Donnell, then, in turn, parents James and Janet. The historic O’Donnell monument is acknowledged to be the professional work of Tristam Connor, convicted felon, of Speke, south of Liverpool, England. Connor, it was found, supplemented masonic income with an amount of petty theft and poaching. Transported for seven years, upon gaining his ticket of leave venturing north, Tristam obtained labour in a quarry, whose products he conveniently employed in establishing his masonic credentials in the region. That coal mining was dangerous, labour on the docks and in farming new country harsh, the region short of doctors, did not harm Tristam’s professional prospects. He priced his wares accordingly, hewed in the quarry, and married the quarryman’s daughter. The couple producing an apprentice, Connor and Son, Monumental Masons, quit the quarry. Connor Son himself failing to produce an heir, not through lack of trying, he in time took on Jumpy’s father, Desmond Bates, as his apprentice. Desmond, in turn, took on his son Vincent.
As his father’s apprentice, then solo, then with his own son Noel, Jumpy hewed stone within a cloud of stone-dust, surrounded by further stone, implements with which to work stone, stone works-in-progress and stone failures, a bench sagging beneath stonework reference manuals, in a weather-distressed tin shed located behind the Bates cottage. The origin of the antique manuals - weighty tomes, stained and yellowing, crowded in illustrations of traditional detailing, historic ornament, crosses and christs on crosses, virgin marys, angels, urns, columns, obelisks, scrolls and cornices, egg-and-darts, acorns and fleur de lys, even gargoyles, seemingly dating back to the mediaeval, beautifully proportioned and specifically dimensioned for the mason’s purpose - were a mystery. Transported felon Tristam could not have brought the books with him. Theft from a colonial competitor, immediately before departing northward, was mooted. The profusion of illustrations per page reminded Jumpy of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
Today, as Bates And Sons, Noel and several children continue family tradition in glass-and-chrome-fronted premises servicing several cemeteries, in several towns, offering memorial structures which tend to a more generic, mass-produced nature, in addition to a range of other funereal products and services.
UNA LEAH MEIKLEJOHN
2 December 1876 - 21 July 1942
Meiklejohns Una, Thomas, Hugh and Leonard rest in identical geometric concrete tombs somewhat resonant of Soviet bloc architecture. A heavy, severely rectilinear block, inscribed, squats upon one end of an even heavier severely rectilinear block-cum-slab, the immovable mass of concrete, physical and psychological, attesting to the material fact that the inhabitant below, even had they wanted, may never leave. Laid out in formal grid, the Meiklejohn ossiary presents as an exemplar of centrally-planned housing for the dead. Meiklejohn black sheep Alec, Andrew and Amy, opted for less stringent entombment.
Una Surtees would have liked to have been born Rosa Luxemburg*, except for the heroine’s summary execution and hurling into a Berlin canal by members of the Freikorps during the Spartacist uprising of 1919. Yet, for unshakeable true believer Una, even that fate might have been borne had it led to the triumph of socialism. Women not being permitted underground, Una in consequence viewed herself as a Commissar of The Pit, working behind the lines, driving the troops forward, under fire, to industrial victory and the inevitable triumph of the proletariat. Or else.
“Why aren’t you two at the Lodge meeting? The Stay-In is on.”
Her wire-framed spectacles, it was discovered by the shakeable, possessed the ability to focus interrogation into a single scorching beam, leaving the interrogated feeling small and charred in their chests.
Of catholic background but fierily apostate and materialist by fifteen, Una yet found aspects of Romanism hard to shake, not least loyalty to Celtic Football Club, leading her to encounter future husband, aspiring professional footballer Thomas Meiklejohn, at a club fixture. “Gordy” was trialling for rivals Heart Of Midlothian at the time. He vacating the team bench to become prominent in one of several terrace brawls, Una was compelled to drag the Hearts interloper off her Celtic brother and slap the Midlothian maggot in no uncertain manner. After which, when calmer eyes met, a post match drink in order, Gordy confessed to his anger being in large part due to his imminent delisting from Hearts, his dream of professional football as a means of avoiding hard work, in tatters.
Permanently shielded by a stretched red cardigan, Una occupied a political position to the left of Moscow-aligned eldest son Hugh, he known to all, even little children, as “Shug” Marx, although to the outside world it would appear further movement leftward from Shug was not possible. Pit rumour would have it the Meiklejohn tribe had emigrated after Una – in cardigan - had thrown a bomb at a passing parliamentary vehicle, and that the cardigan was a disguise, or part thereof.
The truth was more mundane, reflecting Una’s view that socialism’s prospects were better in the new land. That the husband was content to be a mere fellow traveller did not in time enhance the marriage.
Despite commitment to levelling politics and for class solidarity, Una was not above parochial rivalry, for which she could always cite political justification. Rival “Ma” Mayfield, for example, was that most repellent of political creatures, a moderate. For Una, their competition in production of sons concerned not so much the number labouring underground but the number of votes in Lodge meetings, which determined policy and action.
It further disturbed Una that the Meiklejohn-Mayfield political struggle was inflected by religious sectarianism: disagreement over the responsibility or not of a supernatural being or beings for the harshness of the miner’s lot. Meiklejohns did not attend church, Mayfields, always. Second son Alec’s mid life reversion to Roman Catholicism, ammunition for the enemy, thus shifted the ground beneath his mother. Her perturbance stalked the realm of a mother’s responsibility: where on earth did she go wrong? She was aware that her middle son was different, but this was taking things to extremes.
Meiklejohn-Mayfield matriarchal feuding rippled through pit, pub, church and co-op until Una’s decease, in 1942, of tuberculosis. Even after, ripples could still be felt as Ma tried unsuccessfully not to speak ill of the dead.
From Una’s standpoint, her demise was premature. Fascism, although on the run, westward from Stalingrad, was not yet defeated. Acting on instruction from the family, Ronald Borthwick interred Una as far as possible from still-extant Ma Mayfield’s projected location.
* Rosa Luxemburg: German Marxist rtevolutionary, assassinated in 1919.
THOMAS GORDON MEIKLEJOHN
1878 – 1946
“Marchin’ Through Gorgie Forever”
Christened Thomas, as was his father, and his father before him, middle name Gordon, “Gordy” Meiklejohn voyaged to Australia – along with burgeoning family - hoping to heal the woundings of footballing failure with sunshine. The signal event, or chain of same, in his failure and subsequent relocation to The Pit, on the far side of the world, haunted him. If only he had not, in that final fraction of a second, attempted to toe-poke the ball under the dive, successful as it turned out, of the Hibs reserves goalkeeper, and fractured a tibia. If only he had not, upon delisting from Hearts, in tribal rage punched the Celtic supporter. If only he had not slept with the injured party’s sister. If only he had followed his initial instinct and run away. Then again, the Surtees would have found him, anyway. The Lanark Surtees were like that.
Gordon’s father was a bricklayer. Trade intermittent, particularly in the Great Depression, 1885-1895, Tommy Meiklejohn gleaned irregular shifts in the less popular equine/bovine reduction arm of Cox’s Glue and Gelatine Works, liquefying bones, hoofs and other animal products, on occasions when a regular worker found himself for some reason not up to the task. Gordon’s mother kept a respectable, if small, rented house and took in piecework, sewing curtains for grander homes freshly bricked by her husband. Neither of the father’s lines of work appealed to the son. Found similarly unappealing was the other traditional place of employ fated for the undereducated in and around the Gorgie area of Edinburgh: the production line at McVitie and Price’s St Andrews Biscuit Works.
At an early age Gordon had heard that, while Scottish football remained amateur until 1893, south of the border, professional footballers could earn as much as ten pounds a week. Several Scottish players – the “Scotch Professors” - were plying their trade in the UK. Preston North End and Liverpool were the choice targets for border crossers, but the list of southern buyers was growing. Thus informed, Gordon, now Gordy - a fast if shortish winger for his local amateur club –concluded that a better future lay in the thorough neglect of schooling, followed by general shirking of labour, in favour of kicking a ball about, albeit with a certain necessary rigour at the start.
Upon Edinburgh’s Heart Of Midlothian FC winning consecutive Scottish League Championships in 1895 and 1896, Hearts – The Jam Tarts – became Gordon’s preferred route out of bricklaying, hoof-boiling, and biscuit baking, the pathway to the south, money, women, and the life less grim. Duly, at seventeen, Gordy had a golden season. He played like a demon. Not least when it was reported a Hearts scout was on the terraces. Who seemed to like what they saw. Gordy trialled for Hearts. Was named as a reserve, given the occasional run in the seconds. The manager told him he did well. It seemed the gateway to the future was open.
The gate swung shut. Fast but shortish, Gordy was found too easy for big back men to knock over. Especially after the broken leg. There was no second golden season. Tynecastle Park bid him goodbye. Delisting initiated a cascade of misfortune. Aggrieved and limping, he punched a Celtic supporter, whose sister, Una, having detached Gordon from her sibling, liked what she saw and became pregnant in haste, to the grave disapproval of father “Wild” Bill Surtees and the equally wild Surtees twins. Under duress, Gordon moved east to the Glasgow hinterland to marry Una – now nursing Hughie - and labour in the Blantyre pit alongside his in-laws. The mix of Edinburgh and Glasgow was never smooth. Sectarian and social divide marked relations with wife and family. Gordon’s politics were never as militant as required. His protestantism, though nominal, did not endear. Una’s revelation – after rapid-fire birth of three sons - that she found the clan, Lanarkshire’s sodden greyness and Scottish revolutionary prospects equally miserable, led to relief by migration as soon as could be arranged.
Relief for Gordon lasted little longer than the sea voyage. Disappointment was not alleviated by sunshine. After eighteen months underground, complaining, aggravating workmates, Gordon’s unpopularity partnered with Una’s political nous, wifely wheedling, and parlaying of shared management and union desire to shut her up, in finessing Gordon’s employment above ground, on the screens, then in the washery, finally as a lone weighbridge operator on the pit rail line, where he was quickly found to be short with both weights and people. Gordon, it was noted, was almost permanently pissed off. Finding no dignity in labour, he sullenly weighed, followed the Scottish League with displeasure, drank and cursed Heart Of Midlothian. Una and sons learned to ignore.
In later years, Gordon found a limited balm in mentoring The Pit Under 10 Soccer Team. The burden of shame seemed briefly to lift on becoming “Coach Gordy”. His charges, offspring of pit men, tough, were not in the least scarred in witnessing Coach Gordy’s abuse of referees, intimidation of linesmen, beratement of players, knocking of spectators to the ground as he barged along the sidelines or strode in molten fury onto the playing field, shrieking, arms windmilling, reddening to point of explosion. His juniors gave as good as they got. Sometimes more. In Ronald Borthwick’s own words:
“We were nil-all with thirty seconds to play. I scored the winning goal. With my very first kick. A thirty yard drive into the top left hand corner. An almighty tonk which nearly burst the net. Our goalie never had a chance.
‘The worst own goal I have seen in over forty years of football!’ That’s what Coach Gordy called it.
I knew it was our goal. I knew which way we were running.. But it just didn't make sense. You know how when things suddenly don't make sense? Like when you stare at a word and it stops being a word and turns into squiggles? Or you stare too hard at someone’s nose? When I opened my eyes and saw the pill with my name on it, I thought: why go to all the trouble of trying to get it down the other end of the field, seventy yards of potholed dirt away, through a pack of Swansea clods, past their giant Maltese and their over-age ring-in goalie? It didn't make sense when I could just plant the ball past stupid Jimmy, our goalie, who was picking a cathead burr out of his foot at the time. It wasn’t clear at the time, but looking back, this was a breakthrough.”
Coach Gordy, by his own admission, never recovered.
HUGH WILLIS MEIKLEJOHN
born 4 May1908 died 11 April 1985
“Read the Russians”
In the aftermath of sunday bathing, brushing, and candle-waxing, his head disproportionately large in relation to his body, and mostly forehead, Hugh “Shuggie* Marx” Meiklejohn bore distinct resemblance to Lenin. The likeness well concealed beneath coating of coal during the week, regular outpourings of devout russophilia while toiling underground nevertheless saw Shug the nearest The Pit came to housing a Soviet Scot by a country mile.
Historical grievance illuminated by alcohol rendered two of three Meiklejohn brothers amiably violent, tending less amiable with the passage of time. Middle brother Alec was spared the fury in the blood, Shug and Leonard furious with everyone and all but everything. At the heart of clan ire - misery inverted - lay a desire to return to Lanarkshire, despite hating the place, as Meiklejohns always had hated it, not least since Blantyre and the “Dixons” pits, wherein Robert, twenty six, and Thomas Meiklejohn, seventeen – unmet uncles - had perished with two hundred and five other men and boys in the disaster of 1877.
To their profound dismay, upon emigrating, the Meiklejohn furious were soon to conclude that historical grievance, sectarian contest, and tribal feud lacked pungency in the New World. Yes, the ancient antagonisms had also emigrated, from colonisation onward, within the hearts and minds of the assorted antagonists, but, to Meiklejohn eyes, the rebellious blood appeared to be thinning, the old aggravations seeping from the skin - at least, the skin of others – and evaporating in antipodean sunshine. That miners went to the beach in their time off said all that needed to be said, averred Shug, proceeding to say much, much more. Extolling the shining light of the Soviet state, Shug’s top lip would curl upwards like a horse, his tongue vibrate at speed, spittle shower his audience and surviving teeth be revealed as short and brown, whereupon, in conclusion, a whiskey and milk elevated in toast – “Russians pray with their eyes open” – Shug Marx would bring down upon the bar, hard, a fist the size and colour of a prize-winning swede turnip. Much whiskey and milk later in the evening, when Shug began to hear a distant skirl from across the loch and see the golden light, perhaps even to see Janet Gemmel, he became safer to approach. But not too close. Only his brothers were immune to the full force of mature Meiklejohn breath: whiskey and milk, tobacco, The Pit, something far more foul from Mrs Meiklejohn’s stove, a dark hint of hellfire Marxism.
Aged seventeen, at Rothbury, haring for the hole in the fence after being baton-clubbed by a trio of mounted police, Shug witnessed the fatal shooting of Norman Brown. Forty other locked-out miners received gunshot wounds. The scabs thereafter continued in gainful employ.
*Shuggie, Shug: Glaswegian diminutive of Hugh.
Communist explication of the event made the most sense to Shug and family. The Reds were tight, organised, did whatever it took. Shug enrolled in a class in Marxism at Kurri Kurri School of Arts and, enlightened, sooner than most had the voluminous language of the Soviet nomenklatura down pat. Mastery of correct idiom, it transpired, was the easy part of being a communist, the unquiet relationship between theory and practice, Marx and Moscow, a different matter altogether. Shug’s enlightened equilibrium was promptly unsettled, gravely so, by the looming prospect of mechanisation in The Pit. His German mentor had declared mechanisation an inevitable step on the road to socialism. With due respect to the German, the Federation had argued that high productivity and cheap coal saw local capacity exceed demand, rendering mechanisation unnecessary and in light of consequential unemployment and safety concerns, to be stridently opposed by industrial action. Falling in with the Fed, Shug outwardly bellowed against mechanisation whilst inwardly churning, the dialectic of ideology and reality having made him even angrier.
The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact would unsettle Shug far beyond the default state of Meiklejohn unsettlement. What was a devout anti-fascist to make of the trans-Poland cosying up? The Party subsequently banned, Shug was climbing out a toilet window mid police raid on a Cessnock cell when the answer came: sly fox Stalin was simply luring Hitler into a false sense of security, buying time, keeping powder dry, until revolutionary socialism came to Germany, this being inevitable, Marx and Engels, in not so many words, perhaps in more, having said so, and therefore, now viewed in the correct light, the war was simply a good old-fashioned imperialist conflict like the last! Of course! Thereafter, the correct line clear, Shug all but barricaded the drift mouth with his body in attempting to deter Donny Mayfield, Johnno Jones and any and all other political dupes from enlistment. There was a bigger war to be won, Shug roared, his head filling with blood. To disagree was to be denounced as a crypto-fascist, social fascist, left phrase monger, right adventurist, imperialist lackey, bosses’ lickspittle, class traitor, rootless cosmopolitan, enemy of the people and/or much more.
Inner churning resumed within Meiklejohn bowels with the news that Hitler was suddenly three hundred miles inside the Ukraine and motoring. Whereupon Shug all but shoved young men out the pit door. If he could have parachuted fellow miners onto the Eastern Front, he would have done so. The Party unbanned, Cessnock police returning the roneo machine, Shug took it home and ran it red hot.
Then, Stalingrad! Nothing and no-one could unsettle Shug after Stalingrad. Sacrifice. That’s what Russians did, throughout history. Sacrifice and suffer. But post-Stalingrad, with victory assured, and thanks to the revolution, Shug declaimed, the historical stage of Sacrifice and Suffering was all but complete. Complete in Stalin’s USSR, anyway. Australia, The Pit, in Shug’s view, were yet to arrive at the mature sacrifice and suffer stage. But Shug was determined to see it through. He hewed to the party line longer than most. Kruschev’s Secret Speech, Hungary, Czechoslovakia all tested, sorely, but did not find him wanting.
By retirement, the old Scot’s politik had become entertainment for the young. Slyly encouraged to rant, the rickety, frame-pushing commo would flay capitalists, fellow travellers, and any and all enemies of the people, showering spittle and rolling his “R’s” way beyond Scottish quotidian. The keeping of a straight face, the feigning of interest, was seen by his audience as a test. On average, by the time Shug was explaining how the ‘rrrruling class” used “morrrtgages to turn the “worrrking class into bourrrgeois” and render them “docile as fffoooooking donkeys”, the disrespectful young could contain mirth no longer and Shug would realise he had, again, been had.
A heart attack as would fell a horse saw Hugh Willis Meiklejohn cross the white bridge, as local idiom had it. Laid out in his box, it was remarked that “Shuggie Marx” looked even more like Lenin, the angry Scot’s forehead polished and shined, in semblance of the mummified revolutionary at rest within the mausoleum in Red Square. The resemblance to greatness was to fade as Shug, positioned too close to a window, turned a waxy yellow colour. A low wattage bulb contributed to the effect. His dying wish, to be the first comrade interred in a Marxist-Leninist (Moscow Aligned) Sector of the bone orchard, was denied.
* Shuggie, Shug: G;asswegian diminutive of Hugh.
LEONARD FRASER MEIKLEJOHN
b. 5 November 1911 d. 13 January 1975
The grave of Leonard Meiklejohn, last of the Meiklejohn contact miners, is flanked by four other Meiklejohn tombs, the gathering informally constituting a militant left precinct of the cemetery. Adjacent space is available but future burial of Meiklejohns, in the vicinity, appears unlikely. In the event, history has determined that any latter day relatives will represent a very different cadre of Meiklejohn. We shall not gaze upon the earlier like again.
Leonard, youngest of three brothers working underground, having departed Scotland aged two, perhaps in compensation for having no memory of Scotland whatsoever, perhaps because he was the shortest of the brothers, was the angriest Meiklejohn of all. Wrath had nurtured in him a leather throat and stentorian volume. As democratically elected Miner’s Lodge Bell Boy, it was young Leonard’s task, when a Lodge Meeting was called at short notice, to appropriate the school bell and tour the village tolling and crying the details.
Wheeling for eldest brother Shug, wheeling in a state of wrath, Leonard’s particular target became any trapper boy who kept Leonard, pony and skip waiting. Leonard smote errant trapper boys like flies. Fear saw most quickly develop the ability to recognise by sound and smell the imminence of Leonard, pony and skip, and so have ventilation doors open and flung back, as though awaiting embrace, with which Leonard, pony and skip could not be bothered and through which they sped without acknowledgement of service. The youthful Ronald Borthwick was notably slow to develop the necessary radar, an element of recalcitrance perhaps being involved as, on reputation alone, Leonard had developed a particular dislike for Ronald well before their unfortunate first encounter in the pit.
“Never knew a redhead you could trust!”
Eyeballs bulging, veined with ire, in referring to Ronald as “You fat little shit!” Leonard became the first full adult to call Ronald fat. Fat was exceedingly relative in The Pit. Ronald was shortish, and squat, but not, at the time, fat.
Leonard directed anger purely at humans. He and ponies, any pony, and there were many, were tight. Leonard bore tidbits. His pockets were long chewed through. Wheelers changed places every quarter, with the cavil. Ponies stayed where they were. They knew their routes. Leonard’s favourite, a knowing Shetland from Breeza, wore a long fringe and answered to the name Roy. In a misunderstanding which ended up in court, Leonard all but killed Hec Morgan, whom he suspected of mistreating Roy. Hec owned a car, which also said something. An animal-loving magistrate awarded Leonard a six month suspended sentence.
Leonard seemingly found his level in wheeling, opting not to graduate to hewing. The proximity to ponies, the rhythmic tracking back and forth, soothed his temperament, although at times it was hard to tell. He wheeled until cavilled out, permanently, in 1958.
1958 was not a good year all round. Nationwide, two thousand five hundred men and thirty three mines were rationalised. Mass cavil-out in The Pit was succeeded by a further stay-in. Again the men broke the record. Two thirds emerged to find themselves rationalised. Management broke their own record. Two hundred was not the entire workforce, but, with hindsight, a good start.
Mid life, above ground, absent trapper boys, Leonard took out his anger upon wife Jeannie. Violence in the home was not unknown in The Pit. On the other hand, not every miner’s wife was blessed with a brother and a cousin in the police force. With Jeannie refusing to testify in court, an outcome also not unknown, Mick and Pete Worsley confronted Leonard, to be deterred by the presence of his mother, brother Shug, and crowbar. The Cessnock desk sergeant recommended the pair instead do the culprit by the book, whereupon Leonard found himself framed for beating up someone he had never met, but who willingly testified, in detail, to the situation being otherwise. Leonard received three years in Bathurst, from which he emerged even more angry. Jeannie, however, was long gone, inland, with a postal worker from Charmhaven.
In the wake of rationalisation, Jeannie gone, Leonard reinvented himself as the prime mover in construction, by himself and fellow miners facing long retirement, of a lawn bowling club resembling a giant fibro shoebox. In the wake of revelation of the dangers of asbestos, Leonard led the way in cladding the club’s original cladding with aluminium sheeting. A district-best bowler, renowned for a ferocious drive which would all but splinter opposition bowls, Leonard also found relaxation in the maintenance of club facilities. Rolling the links, the rhythm, daily reminded him of wheeling.
Post stroke, Leonard remained a club fixture, seated with a good sightline to the racing channels, horses preferred, spilling Tia Maria and milk down the front of his whites.
ANDREW BRUCE MEIKLEJOHN
b. 11 March 1934 d. 21 August 2011
Only son of Angry Leonard and Jeannie, unexpected early arrival and strain on the young marriage, Andy Meiklejohn differed in crucial respect from his father, uncles, and all prior generations of Meiklejohn miners in that Andy recognised a lost cause when he saw one. Which recognition he kept to himself, en famille. It did not pay to provoke the last of the contract miners at the dinner table. Andy thus paid his dues, stayed solid, advocated nationalisation, until the permanent cavil out in 1958 of his father and himself forced his hand. In the post-war rationalised industry, solidarity was nuanced: in order to stay solid, a miner needed to have a job in the first place, and in that arena, it was now every man for himself. Marriage to Moaning Janice Jones, become father of four sons within five years of nuptials, spiked motivation. Neither too old nor too demoralised to learn, post cavil out, Andy disappeared to parts unknown for several months, reappeared in The Pit skilled in the operation of longwall cutters and the like, and slotted into an opening conveniently coincident with his return.
Although Moaning Janice Jones, statistically, did not moan more than anyone else, the difficult birth of first son Troy would certainly have given her a legitimate excuse for moaning, should she have so desired. Baby Troy, of normal size and weight, was painfully topped by the infamous outsized Meiklejohn head, most prominently in evidence atop the shoulders of Uncle Shug, which rendered birthing, at home, in the absence of anaesthetics, in the presence of mothers and mothers-in-law, while not wanting to be heard to moan, problematic. There had appeared reason to hope the difficulty would not present, as father Andy’s head was standard in size. The gene had simply skipped a generation. Trying for a daughter, Kyle, Nathan and Chad resulting, all possessing the larger head, Moaning Janice withdrew from the field.
Andy and machines were a natural fit. More so than Andy and humans, said Moaning Janice. More comfortable under a bonnet than a roof, Andy’s cars, always Holdens, female, with names like Joyce and Mitzi, garnered more affection and attention than his family, said Moaning Janice. Then again, responded Andy, Moaning Janice was Moaning Janice. Immediately upon growing tall enough. son Troy joined his father under the bonnet.
Behind the wheel of his first and most enduring love, Betsy, a dirt-brown Holden FE ute, replete with rat-tailed offspring in the rear, more than once spilling onto the road, dislocating collarbones, necessitating mercurochrome, Andy would double-shuffle, rev, give the finger, lay rubber, blow smoke and fishtail away, with as much aggression as an FE could muster, for no reason at all. Or because he was, Meiklejohn fashion, pissed off with life, different though his life was, to that of his forebears. The offspring would also give the finger as they receded. Animals on the road found themselves in danger. Jimmy Treloar’s goat, Barney, adjunct to the lawnmowing business, able to consume woody vegetation, lantana and blackberry included, survived any number of close calls whilst wandering the road between snacks. The highly intelligent animal took revenge by sleeping upon Betsy’s warm bonnet, or atop her cabin roof in summer. Barney was later run down by a late model rental Subaru driven by Dominic Vella.
Andy was also partial to greyhounds. Greyhounds bit children and got him out of the house, alone. Most evenings, around sunset, for decades, Andy could be seen exercising his latest dishlicker, all of whom bar one disappointed at the track, to be traded in on an equally unsuccessful replacement. The exception, the aptly named Mystery Man, became for a time the nemesis of competing SP bookmakers Perce Frost and George the Greek through an uncanny ability to lose several races on the trot, by big margins, whereupon, his odds blowing out, far into double figures, The Man, grinning within his muzzle, would then proceed to street any opposition. If you knew when to get on, you made a motza. Taken to Sydney, to Wentworth Park, at the suggestion of Perce and George, this time as investors in long odds themselves, not sucker bookies, Mystery Man disgraced himself by arching his back, mid race, and defecating.
Mystery Man vanished in mysterious circumstances. Weeks later, by smell, the body was located in a backyard well, near bottom but afloat, bloated, on property rented by Andy’s eldest son, Troy. Fingers pointed variously at Perce, George, an out of town syndicate, even Moaning Janice, but nothing was proven. Quoting two schooners for extrication and disposal, middle-aged Ronald “Fatty” Borthwick became stuck, wedged against the tumescent deceased, at the bottom of the well. Fury nourished by cohabitation with Moaning Janice and accumulating offspring promoted the necessary leap of imagination in Andy. Unapproachable within a swarm of oaths, he attached a pit hawser to the bulbar of Troy’s red F100.
Andy attended the death of the pit, a lingering affair. Several times the mine was declared gone, only to twitch into some form of life and cough up snatches of coal for Japan and elsewhere, in the “new intermittency”. Full mechanisation hastened the end. Andy assisted in removal of salvageables, on the final day operating a dozer, shoving a minor mountain of industrial and geological rubble into the drift to seal it off.
Forty three, unemployed for two years, home life all but drove Andy mad, his family in like direction. Salvation arrived in machinery operation – glorified forklift driving – at the Newcastle steelworks. Andy made it to sixty before the steelworks closed. The prospect of his return to hanging around the house terrified Moaning Janice. She was not alone. Ex miner’s wives not desirous of being saddled with housebound husbands had become, with rationalisation, a coalfields commonplace. Janice put out the word. Someone must know someone. Surely. Placement of the redundant operating not unlike pit seniority, Andy was taken on, in time, as a driveway attendant, filling her up, checking oil, water, tyres, in a Golden Fleece service station on the highway. His automotive expertise finessed a later rise to assistant mechanic. Andy remained at the service station for the rest of his life. When no longer formally employed, he tinkered out the back on his own motor. Losing his licence, DUI, he tinkered out the back on other ex miner’s motors.
All of Andy’s sons departed The Pit to find employment. Troy obtained a position as driver for a tow truck business. Contacts made, not afraid to war over turf, he subsequently opened Troy’s Towing Service. Kyle joined the army, seeing active service in the Middle East before following a Kiwi servicewoman to Dunedin, where he died from a heroin overdose. Nathan studied auto detailing at TAFE. Specialising in articulated vehicles, he drives a curlicued and filigreed prime mover to and from work. Chad has progressed from shopfloor to middle management of a regional Bunnings Hardware branch.
Andy was cremated, his ashes scattered by his children. He is celebrated by a plaque on the memorial wall, alongside Neville Jones, Nerys Ferris, and a number of others, most of whom, recent arrivals in The Pit, unconnected to coal mining, he never met.
AMY LORNA MEIKLEJOHN
4.8.1915 – 16.7.1982
“Home At Last”
To Amy Meiklejohn belongs the honour of inaugurating the tradition of teenage girls hitching out of The Pit, never to return. Amy’s legacy was to peak in the 1970s when the village, as a place to live and work, was on its last legs. That Amy achieved the feat in an era of far fewer cars, these predominantly if not solely driven by management, from whom she would never accept a lift, and to do so at the peak of The Great Depression, when prospects for single women to prosper were, it might be said, limited to a single occupation, attests to Amy’s determination to get out of The Pit.
Daughter of Una and Thomas, sister of Shug, Alec, and Leonard, to attempt dalliance with Amy, particularly upon her reaching the age of twelve, was to court trouble. Jimmy Treloar fielded broken ribs, lost teeth, and a new limp upon blowing a single smoke doughnut in Amy’s direction. Amy also represented a rare blot on Cedric Keats’ record, he having persuaded her as far as the door to the chicken coop before the target ran, laughing, to inform Nerys Ferris and hence, more or less, the known world, of her escape. Cedric went into hiding in thick bush beyond the creek as, post-shift, the brothers Meiklejohn patrolled The Pit’s only street.
Amy is remembered as long-legged, good-looking, and a disappointment to her mother, father, and two of three brothers, Alec, himself unorthodox, being the exception. Disappointment did not lie, as was roundly mooted, in Amy being born female, in the wake of three bread-winning brothers. Her mother Una’s politics militated strongly against gender discrimination. The disappointment was, nevertheless, political in nature. From an early age, Amy was press-ganged into becoming the sharp end of Una’s militancy for equality and, in a reversal of history, the re-admittance women onto the coal. Inwardly less committed to the cause than the matriarch, Amy’s father and brothers toed the party line rather than experience Una’s withering disgust. Every year, on the first day of school, Una would line up with her daughter and, as was the practice with young males, attempt to place Amy’s name on the waiting list for a position underground upon her coming of legal age, fourteen. Resistance from all sides - management, the workforce, the Miners Federation, the Women’s Auxiliary, the law - was the result. Una persisted, promoting the cause at every opportunity with trademark vehemence. Amy’s name was never added to the list. Una determined that it was only a matter of time.
In the event, not taking to being press-ganged by her mother or anyone else, let alone being a vanguard of industrial feminism, post-pubertal, long-legged, good-looking Amy Meiklejohn progressed in short time from gender-political disappointment to major handful to dangerous proposition to hitching out of The Pit in a hand-me-down cardigan, vowing to return only over her mother’s dead body.
Amy did return for her mother’s funeral, in 1942, to depart again, thence to return one last time, for her own interment. For reasons unknown, it was her final wish to return to the resting community of The Pit. Return only went so far, however. Not desirous of being memorialised in the dark, severely geometric bloc-style of her family, Amy requested her ashes be buried beneath, her life commemorated by, a large shard of white granite, modestly engraved, collected at some point on her travels and towards the end, transported in the boot of her car to The Pit.
No relatives, partners, or children attended the ceremony. Shard of granite notwithstanding, what had become of Amy in the fifty or so years between funerals, if known, was never spoken of.
b. 23 February 1900 d. 12 March 1950
“Keep the Red Flag Flying”
Joe Keats’ great grandfather Silas migrated from the West Midlands to look for gold, in and around Bathurst, but found only coal, in Lithgow, at 2 shillings and 6 pence a ton. Joining a small community of other refugee miners from the old Black Country, residing in slab and mud huts and tents surrounding the mine, Silas and descendants went on to become stalwarts of industrial agitation in the Vale of Clwydd pit.
As a teenager Joe attended classes in Marxism at the Lithgow School Of Arts, so improving upon his ancestry in becoming a well-versed theorist as well as practitioner in the craft of industrial agitation. Underground by fourteen, cavilled out at sixteen under the aegis of last in, first out, to relief of management who knew a budding socialist firebrand when they saw one, Joe moved east, over the mountains, solo, and found work on the northern fields.
Turning seventeen in 1917, Joe found himself situated at the perfect age for emotional connection with the Russian Revolution and subsequent historically inevitable progress. That barely three months later, in Hartley End, Staffordshire, one hundred and fifty six miners perished in the Minnie Pit only strengthened the conviction that he knew the answer to Lenin’s question “What Is To Be Done?”, and further, that his great grandfather’s decision to seek gold in the antipodes instead of the black diamond in Staffordshire, may well have saved himself and several other family members from contributing to the death toll of the Minnie Pit disaster.
In the afterglow of 1917, Joe also encountered fellow robust communist Coral Mayfield. Rushing to cohabit in revolutionary spirit, the couple went on to develop irreconcilable differences over Lenin’s New Economic Policy and separate completely in the turbid wake of Stalin’s ascent to leadership of The Party. Embracing gender equality, Joe delegated himself to solo-raise their son Cedric as a fellow unshakeable Marxist puritan, whilst Coral moved on and in with a follower of the increasingly out-of-favour and changeable Trotsky.
Joe claimed The Communist Manifesto to be the first book he ever read. True or no, Joe was convinced that such was the case, and that was all that mattered. Inspired, he read every word of Marx he could find. His adherence to the writings of The Mentor was Biblical. Faced with an industrial, political and/or economic problem, he would ask: what would Karl say? If no answer was immediately forthcoming, Joe would proceed to search The Mentor’s complete works, and invariably find it.
Unlike his hirsute mentor, Joe had no sense of humour. Desirous of spreading the word, he proceeded to hold his own classes in Marxism at the Kurri Kurri School of Arts, lessons noted for rigour and intolerance of lateness. Joe also had no truck with ideological dissent. Straying brought down anathema. Joe did not approve of the sub-ideology Leninism, let alone Stalinism, being appended to Marxism. Karl was The Mentor, the master of the philosophy, the others merely servants to it. Karl was right.
In later years, the more mature bolshevik Joe did see his way clear to an accommodation of Lenin and Stalin as flawed but practical individuals who, if they deviated, did not do so out of disrespect, but rather, were simply ignorant or misguided in their actions in particular circumstances, which actions in the long run would be seen as insignificant detours from the path of the inevitable progress of historical materialism.
In this expansive vein he embraced the Militant Minority Movement, offspring of the Red International of Labour Unions, a wing of the Comintern, in thrall to Mother Russia, whose tight organisation and advocacy of “direct action” instead of arbitration led in 1934 to the first election of a communist leadership to an Australian union. But, then again, Joe worried, at what moral price? What, Joe puzzled, what would The Mentor have made of Stalin’s ideological somersault, in 1935, at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern? From previously decrying reformists, democrats, and right deviationists as ‘social fascists’, to embracing them, even those of capitalist leanings(!), in a “Popular Front”?
But. Then again. Could success on the ground be denied? By decade’s end, a general strike, onset of a second world war and increased need for coal saw restoration of the l929 Lockout wage cuts, granting of a forty hour week, retirement on a pension at sixty, action on health and safety, particularly the problem of dust, and the banning of mechanised removal of coal pillars. But. Then again. Was elastic thinking – pragmatism – simply the thin end of a dangerous philosophical wedge? There were long dark nights of ideological brawl with the Moscow-aligned Shug Meiklejohn. Joe would on numerous occasions attempt to ease his troubled mind by contributing articles of impeccably impenetrable revolutionary logic to The Red Leader, organ of the MMM, and Miners Federation paper Common Cause. Many if not all of his submissions were deemed too prolix for publication, let alone digestion.
Marx never pronounced on the game of cricket, as far as Joe’s exhaustive reading was able to discern. An ideological lacuna which Joe, loving the game, found a profound relief, suspecting that The Mentor, had he turned his considerable intellect to the subject, might have disapproved on numerous grounds, all of which Joe had elected to ignore when it came to donning the flannels. For Joe had discovered early on that batting calmed the fevered political mind. At bat, all he thought about was the ball. And to which part of the field he might despatch it. Fielding likewise soothed unless assigned to the outfield against weak opposition, whence, the ball rarely visiting this precinct, the mind became prey to dialectical conjecture. Joe preferred to field in the slips. There was no time for political thought in the slips.
The 1932-33 England-Australia “Bodyline” series caused particular perturbance to Joe Keats. England’s two chief fast bowlers, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, set to destroy Bradman, were both sons of coalminers, and coalminers themselves, until rescued from the Nottinghamshire pits by professional cricket. No such escape presented itself to Joe. That son Cedric evinced total disinterest in the game was possibly more of a disappointment than the offspring’s drift to Trotskyism and beyond.
Joe was to recruit and captain the only recorded all-communist cricket team to play the game. The Red XI enjoyed a single season in a northern coalfields competition, losing every game, before disbanding. Love of the game saw Joe content to play beside reformists and other moderates, whilst drawing the line at teaming with management.
Mid century, with industrial progress stalling, nationalisation not occurring, the General Strike defeated, machines coming onto pillars, communists routinely outvoted in the Central Council of the Miners Federation and, finally, the Labor Party splitting, Joe was forced to concede that the inevitable progress of historical materialism did not seem to be the way things were panning out. There seemed a fair chance socialism was not going to happen. At least, not in the way The Mentor had predicted it would. Joe concluded that the philosophical wedge was now well and truly in. He further concluded it was the disciples, always the disciples, who buggered things up. Refusing to subscribe to the adage, if you can’t beat them, join them, Joe stayed true.
Joe Keats died in 1950, of lockjaw, tetanus infection, in all probability the outcome of slashing a bare foot on old corrugated iron, remains of a pioneer miner’s shanty, unearthed in the back garden.
In a curious echo of fellow communist Mervyn Ferris’s contradictory location in Anglican, lifelong atheist Joe Keats, whilst interred in Non-Denom, likewise finds his final resting place marked by a mysterious white timber cross. Son Cedric, absent at the time of burial, and ex-partner Coral, both attest to having no involvement in burial arrangements. The coincidence of two communists lying beneath the cross, the intimation of post-mortem evangelising, has not gone unremarked. Names have been bandied about but no evidence offered.
CEDRIC MAYFIELD KEATS
b. 18 May 1924 d. 7 July 2001
“On The Road Again”
The predecease of late life partner Ruby Salmon furnished Cedric with the opportunity to design and assist in construction of his own grave, a low, twin occupancy cream brick and concrete edifice with checkerboard cream and white brick headstone, edged in assorted bathroom and kitchen tiles cadged from a demolition site several years earlier, just in case. The couple’s names and dates are engraved on twin Valiant hubcaps, encircling the central badge. A mudflap reflector in the shape of a young naked woman distinguishes Cedric’s portion of the headstone.
The only child of robust communists separated by political differences, Cedric was single-parented by his Marxist puritan father, Joe Keats. Sexually and politically precocious, by any measure Cedric’s boyhood was nothing if not spectacular.
From earliest schooling Cedric attracted routine caning – six of the best, both hands – from Headmaster Hobbs. Punishments received numbered significantly less than crimes committed, Cedric possessing an ability to see others blamed for his transgressions, notably best mate Ronald Borthwick and to lesser extent, given the likelihood of broken fingers, chalk-boned Jimmy Treloar. Thrashing had no seeming effect on Cedric except to stimulate further illicit activity. With Headmaster Hobbs distracted in caning a fellow offender, for example, Cedric would rub coloured chalk on his hands so that when it came his turn, his hand appeared to explode. So garnering Cedric six more of the best, the cane would frequently split after one or two strokes as Cedric had covertly doctored the end with a drawing pin. Cedric somehow knew in advance the biannual delivery dates of Department Of Education canes – in pack of six – and would head off the instruments at the pass, so to speak.
Cedric also possessed the ability to fart at will. Hobbsie’s History Of The Kings And Queens Of England seemed particularly to provoke indiscretion in the form of broken wind, and for Ronald Borthwick, in particular, to be blamed. The much admired capacity to divert blame was attributed to Cedric having directional control. By lifting a cheek and blasting away at an angle, it was said, Cedric could aim farts.
Behind a slack heap, at ten, Cedric would introduce Alberto Vella’s god-daughter Karen, eleven, to smoking and kissing, only for Skinny Treloar to be identified as the guilty party and merit Alberto’s undying wrath. The infraction reflected a pre-pubertal knack with the opposite sex which, slack heaps soon dismissed as too exposed, more often than not found expression in backyard chicken coops, aviaries and pigeon roosts. Semi-regular liaisons with Dot Borthwick from the age of nine would reap post-pubertal repercussions in the form of stalking on her part. Nerys Ferris was the only girl Cedric was never interested in, which had the effect of driving Nerys Ferris crazy.
Cedric embraced communism at the age of eleven. Attending meetings in Cessnock and Kurri Kurri with his father, discovering a bottomless well of words, he quickly became prolix, preternaturally so, in the correct vein. At school, styling himself “Red Ced”, the young commo would impress mates Ronald and Jimmy with his plan to avoid working for the ruling class: run away and join Wirth’s Circus, be paid to get shot out of a cannon, lead a campaign for improved wages and conditions under the Big Top, save the resulting higher wages, locate the fugitive Trotsky and offer his services as a bodyguard. At the age of twelve, to paternal dismay, a form of father-son political cabin fever had steered Cedric in the direction of his mother’s Trotskyism. History having other thoughts, Stalin was to get to the great man first.
In his final year of schooling, perusing his father’s collection of Common Cause, organ of the Miners Federation, Cedric came across the following:
“We as members of the Federation protest against the action of the State Education Department in respect to school children being compelled to salute the flag and sing on Monday mornings, and that the Executive be instructed to protect the parents who refuse to allow their children to go through this farce.”
Red Ced’s last day of school saw the student body, under his leadership, go one better by assailing the apogee of imperial ceremony, Empire Day. The insurrection at day’s end culminated in Cedric, legs spread, vomiting a rope-like line down the middle of the road following a farewell party resourced by a multitude of drinks filched from the pub verandah rail, whereupon Cedric departed The Pit and was not seen again for forty seven years.
Sequential postcards, featuring scrawl approaching the microscopic in accommodating the burgeoning of political and sexual adventures, would later inform Ronald Borthwick that his missing mate was boarding with Auntie Joy in Newtown, she too a red, militancy OP strength; that Red Ced had become the youngest member of the Waterside Workers Federation; that the government hated his union for refusing to ship pig iron to the Japs; that he was off to Spain to fight fascists, having met a nurse, ten years older, sailing next day; that Franco had declared victory before the boat could sail; on April Fool’s Day!; that Auntie Joy had instructed him to take the longer historical view; that Trotsky’s murder had seen him go bush, land a job delivering ice to country housewives, meet the Iceworks Manager’s daughter in the freezer, boss’s daughters in general seeming to fancy communists, be confronted by the reactionary manager demanding Cedric marry his daughter or cop an ice-axe to the head like his mate Trotsky, become engaged for six hours, steal the manager’s son’s bike, ride to Queensland that night, join the newly formed Eureka Youth League, dedicated to advance of the new socialist order, and enlist to fight the fascist Japanese. At this point Cedric ceased despatch of postcards in an attempt to evade the persistent affections of wartime nurse Dot Borthwick.
The resumed Sydney Royal Easter Show, in 1947, provided the colourful background to Cedric’s engagement in a sideshow romance with Sandra Hong, a Chinese-Australian girl selling tickets to the Mirror Maze whilst studying for her Leaving Certificate. The relationship foundered upon Sandra catching Cedric showing his bayonet scar to The Pearl King’s daughter aboard the ferris wheel. Borrowing her father’s lengthy market gardening blade, Sandra pursued Cedric through the woodchopping and pony trap events, out into Moore Park, where, hidden in a deep golf course bunker, he eluded his would-be murderess. Some time later Cedric would resurface a uniformed railway attendant on Sydenham station, sweeping cigarette butts into a half kerosene tin nailed to the end of a broomstick, introducing schoolgirls to smoking and communism and, in private, flashing his scar. In resumed postcard correspondence Cedric declared that the only men to attract more girls than station attendants were bus drivers, because bus drivers could let the prettiest girl warm her undies on the engine cowling, up front in the old Leylands. Station attendants could not compete with that engineering feature. But they did have platform toilets as locations for rendezvous. And not all the pretty ones caught buses.
In February 1985, disappointed communist Cedric returned to The Pit at the wheel of a bronze Valiant AP6, Ruby Salmon in the passenger seat, plywood humpback caravan named ‘Ruby’ on tow, and tinny, ‘Ruby Too!’, on the roof, Valiant and all accoutrements in various stages of restoration. The ex-Red Ced, after a brief flirtation with Bakuninist anarchism, had replaced belief in the perfectibility of mankind with a love of driving, convinced that, had he lived, Trotsky would have done much the same thing.
Fearful of the confluence of Ruby and Dot, Cedric avoided any notion of permanency in The Pit until reassured that Dot’s stalking days were over.
RUBY JANE SALMON
b. 9 November 1937 d. 18 September 2003
Ruby Salmon arrived in The Pit as passenger in a metallic-bronze Valiant AP6 driven by beau Cedric Keats, he returning to the village after a forty seven year absence.
Ruby had lost both legs below the knee. “In a smoking accident”, she would croak to the numerously curious. Encountering Cedric in a beer garden in Toowoomba, she being wheeled and attended by three string-lipped children from a pre-amputative marriage, all critical of her continued smoking, and drinking, and flirtatiousness, the ex communist from The Pit had soon rescued Ruby Jane from the protective custody of her timid offspring and the pair hit the road, if not at great pace, and rattling like a can full of rocks, together.
Forewarned that in light of an elongated and tortured history, Dot Borthwick might take instant, virulent, and very possibly violent dislike to any more recent flame of Cedric’s, Ruby’s first venture in The Pit was to pay a visit, on wheels, solo, to Cedric’s former admirer, and test the waters upon which depended the length of her stay in The Pit. The pair of heavy smokers, one legless, the other’s prosthesis sounding like wind gusting through a tin shed, got on like a house on fire, for an afternoon croaking themselves senseless with laughter, in the main at Cedric’s expense. He had been forgiven. Forgotten also, as it turned out, until his return.
Doubts assuaged, Cedric and Ruby, car, boat and caravan convoy removed to the vacant lot where once stood Hec Morgan’s cottage - if stood was the right word - prior to demolition by the company following Hec’s demise. The couple were there able to squat for the remainder of their shared lives, the proposed housing development, of which Hec’s former lot was a small part, stalling in the face of opposition from the few surviving long time residents, bolstered by green-tinged blow-ins, growing in number.
In good weather Ruby could be seen reclining in the tinny, afloat in lengthening grass, squinting at generator-powered black and white TV, whilst Cedric, half under the Valiant, nickied the rust with bog. In inclement weather, the couple would lie together in the humpback, listening to rain beat on the ply, the wind sing round the caravan curves.
Over time, Cedric would fabricate a pair of turned oak limbs for Ruby on a pit carpenter’s lathe purloined from an inadequately locked shed replete with aged industrial machinery, property of the company, which no longer cared. Shapely, marine varnished, featuring stainless steel and leather fittings, successful attachment to the ageing female trunk was to prove an ongoing problem.
Sharing twin occupancy, with Cedric, of a cream brick and concrete grave, Ruby’s portion of headstone is rendered obvious by the vividly tiled outline of a large leaping fish.
CORAL PATRICIA MAYFIELD
5 February 1900 - 20 May 1986
Mother of Cedric, Margaret, Colin and Russell
“Always In Our Hearts”
There is no designated Communist Section in the cemetery once servicing The Pit. Had such been the case, had the municipal council not been dominated by coal management, later by real estate agents and property developers, the Red Section would have dwarfed all religious sectors combined. Coral Mayfield was heard frequently to remark that had Lenin known just how many party members out of bourgeois convenience had been buried under the auspices of assorted opiates of the people, the then leader of the communist world would have suffered major infarction long before his recorded series of strokes.
Coral, first child of Cora and Kevin Mayfield, was disowned by her parents at seventeen for unconscionable promiscuity in the guise of revolutionary politics.
Cohabiting first with rampant commo “Red Joe” Keats, promptly giving birth to yet another leftist firebrand in their son Cedric, Coral thence, in the wake of differences both temperamental and political, moved on and in with a follower of the increasingly out-of-favour and changeable Trotsky, one Freddie Billings, of Wallsend, to whom Coral subsequently presented three children. Freddie, in the end, saw his political mission as more important than the successful rearing of young.
There were other relationships, all seeded in argumentative leftist circles, but no further reproduction. On more than one occasion, Coral’s moderate father and moderate mining colleagues were known to take physical issue with Coral’s immoderate paramours, at times resulting in hospitalisation of the unpopular radical. The disapproved class-conscious relationships were never shaken and in all probability strengthened.
Moving on, several times, Coral and Billings-sourced children finally settled in a resurrected timber slab hut on a flood-prone dairy farm near Raymond Terrace, where Coral, under the tutelage of the farmer’s son Terry, quickly learned to milk and otherwise tend to dairy cattle, while her children attempted schooling when not engaged in farm labour. That the slave-like intensity of this labour accorded precisely with their mother’s political explications was never to gain traction in her children’s consciousness. None of the three Billings offspring went on to embrace any shade of the parental politics.
Subsisting through The Depression better than some, on rabbit, creek-caught eel, home-grown vegetables and milk, Coral saw her offspring through to working age, in advance of which she thoroughly discouraged the sons from venturing anywhere near coal, and her daughter from marrying anyone who did. Margaret, a nurse, perished aboard the hospital ship Centaur, sunk by Japanese submarine in 1943. Colin and Russell survived the war and against their mother’s advice, proceeded to take work in assorted pits across the northern coalfields before decline of the industry mandated moves to city and suburbs, and labour in car yards and furniture warehousing.
Children having left home, dairy farmer, senior, deceased in the wake of several strokes, the last while birthing a calf, Coral moved into the farm’s principal residence with widow Enid and son Terry. Until her death, fourteen years later, Enid convinced herself, if not others, that Terry and Coral were not engaged in a physical relationship, whilst openly approving of Coral’s adroitness in farm management, this particularly coming to the fore after the floods of 1955 and 1971. Somehow, despite her political leanings, Coral knew how to work banks and bankers. She had also found a way to accommodate the contradiction in Terry’s espousal of agrarian socialism when times were bad, and rampant capitalism when they were good.
The death of parents and siblings, dispersal of other family in search of employment, saw Coral by default inherit the original Mayfield cottage. Fatigued by Terry, his senile mother, and dairying, Coral returned to The Pit, alone, in 1975. Joining the Progress Association, the mature firebrand fought vociferously against the establishment of a housing estate on a large parcel of elevated, superior real estate, part-owned by the Anglican and Catholic churches, partly collected over time by the mining company, through selling miners their houses but not the land upon which they stood, and demolishing the dwellings upon decease of the owner. The protests of Coral and other longtime residents saw the proposed estate appear to diminish in size, and not steal all of the best views, on paper, but not go away. It was clear the would-be developers were simply awaiting decease of the last of the old timers.
In 1983, closure of the local pit being coincident with the escalating miners’ strike in Britain, so dominating talk in Retired Miners Corner and bowling club, Coral sold the family cottage to blow-in Nerida Humphries and moved to a nursing home managed by the catholic church, close to Wyong railway station, so making it easier for her late middle-aged children and families to visit. Cedric Keats, her son to “Red Joe”, returned to The Pit after a forty seven year absence, was until Coral’s death notably diligent in visiting his mother, although not by rail, his antique Valiant benefitting from the regular drive.
Coral did not participate in the rosary or communion, but was known to enjoy the singing of hymns. She and Faith Phillips, for a time resident in the same nursing home, did not appear to recognise each other.
Coral’s grave, understated, comprises a timber-framed rockery populated by variously coloured local stones, and sturdy non-religious marker fashioned from an old pit prop. Her request for the marker to feature a carved bust of Marx was deemed inappropriate by the cemetery trust, as she knew it would be. She rests in Non Denominational, ever apart from her otherwise collected family.
NERIDA LOUISE HUMPHRIES
born 12 April 1933 died 2 July 2010
Nerida Humphries’ husband, a suburban solicitor, left her after twenty years of marriage to move to an adjoining suburb with his secretary of one year. Nerida experienced relief as she had been wrestling with the question of how to tell Robert she was leaving him, without hurting his feelings. She also thought, in respect of his secretary, be careful what you wish for, Robert. In the event, she took Robert, as the expression goes, to the cleaners, although suburban soliciting did not in the final washup provide pockets as deep and as full as Nerida had assumed. She walked out of mediation with sufficient to purchase a new Volkswagen kombi, a second hand potting wheel and furnace, and a run-down miners’ cottage in a dying village.
Nerida had dabbled in clay pottery whilst on marital duty, which included the raising of three less than gifted, egotistical children. Freed, discovering to her delight that her creativity would not be constrained by potting orthodoxy, she stumbled into the realm of what she termed organic sculptural pottery, and there set up shop. Her pots, if that was what they were, ballooned in size, colour, and organic complexity, and, the artist would freely admit, uselessness. But they looked interesting. Almost alive, some said.
In 1985, latecoming resident, newly subscribed to The Pit Progress Association, keen to demonstrate commitment to progressive action, Nerida proposed that the association seek heritage classification for The Pit as “an historic mining village”. The motion was seconded by another blow-in, Herbert Hobbs, son of fondly-remembered corporal-punishing headmaster Henry Hobbs, better known as Hobbsie. Word spread quickly. Within twenty four hours the motion - voted down, overwhelmingly, by all but two – had given a decided fillip to decidedly unhistoric home improvements.
With a view to the future, the company had sold the miners their cottages but not the land upon which they stood. The future not yet having arrived in 1985, inconclusive ownership saw the four-room cottages remain largely original at heart, while for appearances outwardly sporting thickly personalised makeup whereby nineteenth century timber verandah posts had been replaced by modest Grecian columns in concrete (Neville Jones), tubular steel posts (Washery Foreman Don Frost), box-sections (Police Sergeant Mick Worsley, transferred; of late, daughter Tracey), lightweight open-web joists (Dougie Platt), some featuring curling metal ivy (Moaning Janice Jones) and Moorish-influenced ferro-cement arching (Mine Accountant/Bowling Club President Allen Goodge). Porticos shaded aluminium fascia, mock brick sheeting, cement stucco, plasterboard, "crazy paving" with the temerity to scale walls, enlarged sliding windows and slimline screen doors which corroded white in the salt air. Rich cream, milky lime, dark chocolate trim were the dominant colours by virtue of a Massive Once In A Lifetime Stocktake Sale at Swansea Hardware.
Housefront symmetry had become popular, creating a line of rectilinear faces with aluminium-rimmed eyes above flyscreened nose and mouth, the congruity offset by ten metre television aerials tucked jauntily behind one ear. A late trend – repositioning of the aerial at the midpoint of the roof ridge to attain absolute symmetry - had been initiated by the late, unorthodox Alec Meiklejohn. Original timber was, if not routed, now in rapid retreat. Wayne Thorpe had secreted his entire timber cottage, including verandah, within a box of cream aluminium cladding, sealed under a pyramidal blue and white terra cotta tiled lid. Two slit windows faced the road with apparent deep suspicion. Thorpes embraced darkness as though in fond remembrance of the gloom of Derby, left behind generations before. Within his aluminium shell, Wayne was systematically removing all trace of organic material for deployment as winter fuel.
Only Nerida bucked the trend to modernity, stripping any feature deemed inauthentic from the former home of Coral Mayfield, her best endeavours at authenticity resulting in the house appearing more fraudulent by the day. In Retired Miners Corner, Nerida’s rigorous attempt to experience the weight of working class history via restoration of the Mayfield cottage to original condition earned her the sobriquets “Mrs Greenie”, “Mrs Fucking Greenie Blow-In” and “Mrs Stuck Up Flaming Greenie Bitch”, extra “Fuckings” and “Flamings” frequently appending to the titles.
Alone, Ronald Borthwick's home weathered and fell apart, unpainted, without addition or alteration. Attempts to shame him into imposing his considerable personality upon the residence had long been abandoned.
Nerida persistently denied involvement in a long-running affair with Herbert Hobbs, let alone to exploring a 1970s style retro threesome with Herbert and white-calico-clad wife Denise. In The Pit, however, it was generally agreed Nerida was the type. And it was true she had belatedly loosened up, 1970s style, upon taking up residence in The Pit. Nerida’s 1970s continued well into the new millennium. A number of male visitors, said to be fellow potters and sculptors, were seen to overstay and attend to odd jobs and heritage restoration in and around the Humphries cottage. It was said by some the aroma of illegal substance could be detected in the surrounding atmosphere. Others put this down to a particularly odoriferous Indonesian cigarette in vogue within artistic and counter cultural circles.
Diagnosed late, given twelve to eighteen months, Nerida devoted her remaining time in this dimension to the creation of her own memorial headstone. The design process was to prove a tortuous journey. Recent regulatory restrictions governing the size, shape and symbolic nature of a memorial necessitated major changes in creative direction. Erotic forms sourced from Indian temple reliefs were deemed unsuitable. As was the concept of the headstone as a large door, opening onto The Other Side, executed in mixed media on white clay pedestal.
The wording on headstones had also become subject to tight regulation. Nerida had, at one stage, opted for a notably ribald passage from Rabelais on the subject of bodily functions as a summation of life, in the hope her commemoration might surprise those who thought her straight-laced. Especially her children. Should they visit. Which she doubted. The scatalogical epitaph was to feature in parti-coloured ceramic lettering on an outsized marker shaped like a Norse runestone. Or gargantuan kipfler potato, with crude inscription, depending on point of view. Before rejection by the cemetery trust, Nerida had despatched photographs of the Rabelasian Runestone to her children, with intent to whet their appetites for visiting.
The finished article, in situ, is, if not a thing of beauty, an object of curiosity. Locals instruct tourists not to miss the thing. More than one visitor has been overheard to say “What on earth was she thinking?” The thing is compliant with regulations.
Her children sold the cottage, as a weekender, to a middle-aged café owner and jetski rider from Sydney, for considerably more than their mother had paid for it.
© Tim Gooding