Friday, July 12, 2013

An Asturian coal miner

The coal miner's wife wakes him and he coughs. He goes to the small bathroom sink and spits black liquid, washing it away with with the brown tap water.

Last night he slept badly because he had stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting again. Until last year he was working in the zinc mine at Arnao in Castrillion but the Belgian company let him go to the San Juan mine, where he considered himself quite lucky because at least there they had a river pool for the miners to wash in.

As he leaves for another day under the earth he looks for a last time at the mountains, their ferns and the tall groups of eucalyptus - pencil thin, not quite straight, but just like the trees in a Dr Seuss book. He sees the houses with their sharp pitched roofs, the deep gorges and is comforted by the roll of the hills in this green and pleasant land.

But it is only a pleasant land for some.

The miner lives before the era of the chemical plants and the big metal factories. He knows others who dig for iron and he knows it is vital for tinned food because electricity and refrigeration has not yet arrived to this part of the world.

His mine, like many mines, is close to a river and the river is a means of transporting the coal for trading this raw material with British towns like Cardiff and Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where my father was born and grew up next to a river also.)

This miner's children will see chemical industries grow, thanks to the mines, thanks to his labour.

In fact, (he thinks to himself as he makes the walk to the pits) the story of Asturias is the story of the miner, and the story of the miner is the story of Asturias. It is one of hardship and scant reward. Of growth and ill health. It is the deep earth's hidden secrets and bountiful suffering, the open spaces of the valleys and the claustrophobic confines - as unforgiving and back breaking as any imagined hell in those greedy shafts penetrating ever downwards into the planet.

Today, like thousands of other days he will throw his body into the ground and probe for hour after hour for that black gold. At the end of the day he will take aspirin for his aching bones, smiling at the ironic fact that it has ingredients made from the very coal he has been digging at.He does not yet know though that his children will one day eat kiwi-fruits and chestnuts that grow particularly well in the carbon-coloured soil left in the abandoned open mines that are scattered across the nearby hills.

As the miner eats his simple lunch with his hands still blackened by coal dust, he remembers his father, who was also a miner. This man worked to extract the iron that was in such high demand for both 20th century world wars – a metal that helped the country become richer. His father had started his life as a rural worker and had to adapt from the rhythm of the seasons to the very different rhythm of an industrial timetable. It was necessary to learn to accept days and nights with no sky or trees when he was underground in the mines, which sat right next to his tiny terrace house.

Like every other subterranean labourer, his father and he both wondered if life could be different for them. He had heard that it was a bit better at the one and only mine run by a trade union. But it was on the other side of Asturias and he had never even visited there.

Our miner lives in Bustiello town and all of the Marques de Camilla's workers have their neat little houses below everyone else, at the very bottom of the valley. It is an orderly, rectangular village and each house has a little garden.

Up the hill above them live the engineers and above them is the church then god of course. This is what he knows. The planning of the town exactly reflects the social and spiritual hierarchy because the Marques is a conservative man - not in the least progressive.

Up in the mountains though, there were some mining zones that suffered from “special measures” during Franco's dictatorship. Around Pozo Fortuna trade union activists were assassinated and their bodies were thrown down an old pit-hole.

Our miner speaks about this sadly with his friends and falls asleep hoping that the bad times would end.

In the morning, he rises and faces another day.

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