Why coal needs “a definite mental effort”

Zoe Wanamaker and Colin Firth in _________

Zoe Wanamaker and Colin Firth in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd by D H Lawrence

What’s most striking about Joseph Wright’s “The Orrery”—Derby’s most famous painting—is not the partly-obscured model of the solar system but the rapt faces of the adults and children as they see how something actually works. It’s fitting that Derby Museum is also presenting an exhibition (till March 1st) of 30 illustrations by Heath Robinson, who did so much to satirise the Edwardian mania for machines.

In a Heath Robinson drawing, the fun lies in tracing the cogs, pulleys, levers and bits of string from the start to the finish. Most of the comedy comes from matching the crazy elaborateness of the contraptions with the modest demands of the tasks in hand. Heath Robinson’s appeal may be comic, but understanding how something works or where it comes from has an aesthetic and moral appeal too. And joining up the dots—so we can see where something starts and where it finishes—is getting harder and harder to do.

Take the example of coal, which we used to collect from the shore. In the 1820s the French painter Théodore Géricault painted “The Coal Wagon”, where three horses are pulling a load of coal from the banks of a river. A man sits on the wagon, smoking a pipe. Behind him we see the Thames, and in the distance we see the London skyline, with the smoke from the chimneys darkening the sky. The connection between where the coal comes from and where it goes couldn’t be more visible.

You could say a squirt of cold water changed all that. In 1712, the Devon ironmonger Thomas Newcomen showed that if you trapped steam in a cylinder and squirted cold water from the outside, the drop in temperature would create a vacuum, and the vacuum could draw down a piston, which if linked to a lever, could drive a pump. That pump could then extract water from mines. This single idea transformed mining as an industry. Miners could now go further and further below ground and, as they did so, the source of our energy supply disappeared from view.

Not for the coal-mining communities themselves, of course. As a young man, D H Lawrence wrote several plays about Eastwood, near Nottingham, where he grew up. In The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (see picture), the curtain rises on a kitchen with a fireplace and Lawrence describes the warm glow of the fire. When Mrs Holroyd enters, the stage direction says that through the doorway we can see the headstocks of a pit in the distance. The two worlds are connected. When Mr Holroyd returns from the pit he is covered in the dust and grime that is providing the fireglow in the hearth.

Twenty years later, when George Orwell went down a  mine to research a chapter in The Road To Wigan Pier, he stated categorically, “Our civilisation… is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it”. But when he returned home, he admitted, “It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect the coal in my fireplace with that far-off labour in the mines.”

Hardly anyone bothers to make that effort. “The nation is not remotely interested in the mining industry,” wrote Tony Benn in his diaries, “If there is a pit disaster, they are heroes; if there is a wage claim, they are militants, but as to the rest they simply don’t want to know.”

Today coal accounts for 40% of Britain’s electricity and nearly 85% of that is imported. We don’t see it mined. We don’t see it transported. Mostly, we don’t see it burnt. And now we don’t see the impact that it is having either. As one of the main drivers of climate change, coal hangs around in the sky, invisible.

There has been a good deal of discussion in recent years about where our food comes from and where our clothes come from. But the journey of coal—our largest source of energy—keeps disappearing from view.

This is a version of a talk given on December 18th at the Future Works Project launch at Derby Silk Mill 

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