Stories Collected From A Northern Coalfields Cemetery
39. NERIDA LOUISE HUMPHRIES
1933 – 2010
Nerida Humphries’ husband, a suburban solicitor, left her after twenty years of marriage to relocate 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, thinking 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 near-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, a commitment 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, a 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”. Word spread quickly. Within twenty four hours the proposal – seconded by another late blow-in, Herbert Hobbs, son of the fondly remembered corporal-punishing Hobbsie – subsequently voted down, overwhelmingly in the horrified negative by everyone else – had given a decided fillip to decidedly unhistoric home improvements. Nerida was not to know that she was contributing late zest, reinvigoration via fear, to a pre-existing phenomenon.
With a view to the future, the company had sold the miners their cottages but not the land upon which the structures stood. The future not yet having arrived by 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for appearances outwardly sporting thickly personalised makeup whereby nineteenth century timber verandah posts had been replaced by modest Grecian columns in concrete (Neville Jones), tubular steel posts (Washery Foreman Don Finch), box-sections (Police Sergeant Mick Worsley, transferred; of late, daughter Tracey), lightweight open-web joists (Dougie Pratt), some featuring curling metal ivy (Moaning Janice Meiklejohn) and Moorish-influenced ferro-cement arching (Mine Accountant/Bowling Club President Allen Goode). 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 she deemed inauthentic from the former home of Coral Caulfield. In Retired Miners Corner, the rigorous Humphries attempt to experience the weight of working class history via restoration of the Caulfield cottage to its 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 appended to the titles. Nerida’s best endeavours at authenticity resulted in the house appearing more fraudulent by the day.
Alone, Ron Shipwater’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 and Herbert Hobbs both having ‘blown in’ at around the same time obliged Nerida, regularly, upon venturing outdoors, to deny involvement in a politically-undertoned love affair with the seconder of her ‘historic village proposal’. Let alone to exploring, as some suggested, a 1970s style retro threesome with Herbert and white-calico-clad wife Denise. In The Pit, it was generally agreed Nerida was the type. And it was true she had belatedly loosened up, in a 1970s mode, upon taking up residence in The Pit. Making up for lost time, the perspicacious concluded, as Nerida’s 1970s continued well into the new millennium. A number of male visitors, sandal-wearing, said to be fellow potters and sculptors, were seen overstaying and attending 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 atmosphere surrounding the cottage. Others put this down to a particularly odoriferous Indonesian cigarette in vogue within artistic and counter cultural circles of a bygone decade.
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. 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, or perhaps drawbridge, opening onto The Other Side, executed in mixed media on white clay pedestal.
The content of wording on headstones, Nerida found, was also subject to tight regulation. She 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. Rightly. 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 whet her offsprings’ appetites for visiting her final resting place.
In situ, the finished article is, if not a thing of beauty, an object of curiosity. Locals determinedly instruct tourists not to miss The Thing. More than one visitor has been overheard to say “What on earth was she thinking?” The Thing, it must be noted, is compliant with regulations.
As soon as probate was granted, her children sold the cottage, as a weekender, to a middle-aged surfer and family from Sydney, for considerably more than their mother had paid for it.
38. MERVYN DAVID FERRIS
1897 – 1974
Beloved husband of Olwen and Sian
Father of Nerys
Mervyn Ferris came through the war unscathed, Gallipoli and the Western Front, until June 1917, when he was caught by a gas shell barrage in Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Wood as his unit positioned itself prior to the Battle Of Messines Ridge. Unable to take part in the ensuing hostilities, prelude to the 3rd Battle Of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele, Mervyn would later 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 where he came from stemming from her valleys family having been caught on the Southampton docks, mid-emigration, by the war.
Mervyn and Olwen married the following year, only for Olwen to die six months later, of Spanish flu, as did their unborn child.
Upon return 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, active from its inception, Mervyn never formally joined The Party. Wary of joining anything except an army, Mervyn remained leery of civilians all his life. The Party civilians in particular. Whilst active in endeavouring along with MMM comrades to outflank on the left both the Socialist Labor Party and mainstream Labor, he was unlike some others loathe to refer to the less militant as “social fascists”, “labor fakirs”, “boss’s lickspittles” and the like. In his view, they were all together in the mines.
Batonned at Rothbury, his 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 veterans/miners presenting honourable discharge papers at the door in Kurri Kurri and enlisting in the Labor Defence Army. At the meeting, 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.
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.”
Mervyn supervised drilling, weapon free, on the Kurri Kurri rugby league football ground. Frequently monitored by police mocking the absence weaponry and Great War procedures, nevertheless at training’s end, the tightly-mustered force loudly repeated 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 were present, however. Mervyn had been gifted a shotgun on his sixteenth birthday. He could shoot. His finest peacetime hour came at the legendary Ashtonfields confrontation. With the main body of imported police diverted elsewhere by a ruse, Mervyn and fellow soldiers marched in front of other 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 the war veterans, armed, covered miners while they persuaded scabs of the error of their ways, torched sulkies, drove off horses, stripped a few men and harried them through the bush. The remaining blacklegs agreed forthwith 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-drafted, purpose-built Unlawful Assemblies Act, motorised Sydney police – alongside freed criminals supplied with uniforms, it was rumoured – patrolled the coalfields twenty four hours a day in eight man “Basher Gangs”, leaping from their vehicles and attending to any gatherings larger than the legal three, frequently with batons, finally, en masse to sweep the South Maitland coalfield – Kearsley, Abermain, Kurri Kurri – in waves, baton charging gatherings, clubbing and trampling under police horses’ hooves men, women and children.
Mid lockout, in defensive patrol on the main street of Cessnock, Mervyn froze in his tracks as the ghost of Olwen waved to him, called his name, from the doorway of the co-op.
The apparition revealed herself to be Olwen’s younger sister, Sian. The Matthews family had made it off Southampton docks. Indeed, “Da” Matthews 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 left Mervyn and returned to Cessnock. Once she was able to speak, Nerys indicated her preference to live free ranging with her father rather than tight in the maternal family bosom.
In later life, Mervyn sought solace in the embrace of The Queen Of The Nile, the bowling club’s 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 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.
37. GEOFFREY BEVAN PHILLIPS
Live To Ride
Geoff Phillips died aboard a 1951 Harley Davidson 750 Wr, overtaking a 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 reflectively-sunglassed and bandana’d fellow bikers, most on Harleys, 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, with a red skull going up in flames and hot snakes crawling out of 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 Shipwater’s ex boyfriend Crank, not long out of Long Bay, was among the mourners.
Geoff’s father “Fizzer” attended the funeral in a state of petrification. The balance of The Pit population, respectfully situating themselves behind a picture window of the newly built bowling club, observed the bikers behave themselves, one read a poem about freedom, another speak of what a good mate Geoff was, another sing “Lost Highway”. Being a still day, it took hours for the dust to settle after the bikes had departed.
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 possibly 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.
36. PATRICK DONAL “DONNY” CAULFIELD
1925 – 1947
Kevin “Pa” Caulfield and “Grampa” Charlie Shipwater were best mates and trappers together. Kevin helped carry the body up top. Kevin’s son “Jockey” Caulfield was Malcolm Shipwater’s best mate. They too were trappers together. Jockey’s son Donny and Malcolm’s offspring Ron bore the united Shipwater/Caulfield torch as best they could, becoming trappers together, but were not to become mates. From first meeting Donny felt that something was not quite right with Ron, an uncertainty later confirmed by Ron’s association with blackleg Jimmy Bosisto, his expulsion from the pit, and subsequent progress, via gravedigging, to alcoholic fool, if not village idiot.
At an early age Patrick became aware that the handle “Paddy” carried connotations of slowness and, later, drunkenness, and so insisted on being known by his middle name, colloquially adjusted to “Donny”. The appellation stuck.
Also at an early age, Donny became aware that another world lay beyond The Pit, and determined to experience it. Not for a lifetime, of course. Donny knew he would always be a miner, but while still young, he desired to experience such of that world as was available to someone of his class, before accepting destiny 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 being a traditionally popular way out of The Pit, Donny had embraced the option well 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 Lodge officialdom confirming seniority would be preserved in wartime, he knew 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, over dinner, his father Jockey, while not wishing to be seen to be resistant, felt duty bound to explain that for a coalminer, there were particular industrial complications with enlistment. In the first place, mining politics framed war as a capitalist phenomenon, a battle for economic power, in which the working class did the dying. The necessary nationalism was dangerous, a “false consciousness” inimical to working class interests, while government and business would both use war as an excuse to attack established wages and conditions. It therefore followed, continued Jockey, suggesting that his son at least take the following point into consideration, that action to preserve if not improve conditions should not necessarily be curtailed in a state of war, and seen in this light, worker solidarity was all important. Further, added Jockey, this viewpoint was the prevailing wisdom in Donny’s home pit, not only under the auspices of international socialist President “Dickie” Jones and Moscow-aligned communist Secretary “Shug” Meiklejohn, both men democratically-elected, but also by the majority of miners, less ideologically motivated than their officials, 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. The Caulfields, admitted Jockey, were, in many eyes, particularly in Meiklejohn eyes, tarred with the brush of being moderates. Nevertheless, to be a moderate in The Pit was still to be well to the left of mainstream Labor and class consciousness, whatever the degree of radicalism, necessitated solidarity. In the end, declared Jockey, solidarity was all the miners had. He suggested that Donny might bear this in mind as he considered his future.
Donny soon discovered his father’s words on industrial struggle in wartime to be prescient. Conflict with Germany proved no deterrent to the 1941 Record Stay-In Strike. Persuaded of the need for solidarity, Donny stayed in and struck with enthusiasm, whilst covertly planning escape once the strike was over and his solidarity no longer immediately required. He rode shotgun, with Ron Shipwater, on the skip which daily ferried supplies to the striking men, two miles underground. A photo of the pair giving the thumbs up as the endless rope hauled the replete skip back down into The Pit, accompanied by the headline “Miners Underground Picnic!”, was used as part of a “dirty tricks” campaign by mine management and the conservative press..
Then, averred Jockey, brow furrowing, there was the vexed question of Russia. The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, in particular, had imposed strictures upon the “Hands Off Russia” faction of left politics, in the light of which, predicted Jockey, Lodge Secretary Shug Meiklejohn, and others, were sure to make strenuous attempts to dissuade Donny from enlisting, an outcome in which his father, to be honest, could discern a certain good sense, although in the end it was of course Donny’s decision. Promptly verifying Jockey’s prophesy, Shug Meiklejohn all but barricaded the pit with his body in trying to prevent Donny, an equally enthusiastic Johnno Jones, and anyone else become prey to false consciousness, from joining up. Not all of The Pit shared Shug’s uncritical embrace of Russia, but for many, including he himself, Jockey confided, the USSR still represented the pioneering of a new classless society and, for all its faults, and Stalin’s duplicity, was to be respected.
Jockey was not to know that the Russian obstacle would prove a temporary deterrent, the barrier being lifted on June 22, 1941, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, in the wake of which Lodge Secretary Meiklejohn all but shoved Donny, Johnno Jones, and any other more or less willing young men, out of the pit. To the Eastern Front if at all possible. Stalin had become Uncle Joe.
While not wishing to make Donny’s decision any more difficult, Jockey went on, there was yet another obstacle: the intransigent attitude of the Australian government. Wartime mandated more coal, and as in the first war, the government was resistant to the enlistment of miners. Japanese expansionism, restricted thus far to China, but in the opinion of many not destined to remain so, was adding a potency to governmental anxiety, declared Donny’s father.
The final obstacle, explained Jockey, was that Donny would need parental permission to enlist, which Jockey and Faith were not about to give.
Donny duly forged his parents’ signatures, lied about his age, and joined up as soon as the stay-in strike was over. In doing so after Barbarossa, but prior to Pearl Harbour, Donny and Johnno Jones* not only succeeded in avoiding the vexed Russian Question, but also got away on active service before Prime Minister Curtin’s “industrial conscription” became law.
Donny was also a musician. A drummer, largely self-taught, he was a backbone member of The Pit Brass Band, a sporadic assembly, smaller than other northern coalfields’ bands, yet capable of the tidy, mournful sound required for 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. Contemplating life beyond coal, Donny concluded that while a career as a musician was probably beyond his rhythmic ability, a place in an army marching band, for the duration, might not be out of the question. The Pit Brass Band found its instrumentation significantly reduced by war. Donny’s percussion was particularly missed.
Donny also comprised one half – the rhythm section – of the more regular Donny and Chocko Combo. 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, or thereabouts. When confidence was up, and/or they and/or their audience was drunk, The Combo might make a move on an Ellington-ish jungle jump, in the execution of which the pair would usually find common ground after several bars.
On a good night at the RSL Memorial Hall, the thump of boots on floorboards, the thud of Donny’s gargantuan bass drum, the hooting and cheering, later the yowling of drunks in the street, was a puritan’s nightmare. Not that there were puritans in The Pit. It was remarked that Donny’s right leg and left arm were significantly more muscular than their partner limbs.
Donny all but died of disease in Burma. Repatriated, he returned to The Pit, but could not work. Infrequent, short appearances on drums, alongside Chocko Vella, sapped his strength. He died in 1947.
*Johnno Jones’ military enthusiasm was fueled by Nell Finch’s pregnancy, and father Perce Finch’s insistence on marriage. The fruit of the union grew up to be “Moaning” Janice Jones. Johnno was killed by a grenade in Borneo.
35. ELEANOR ELIZABETH “NAN” BUTCHER
1890 – 1959
In later years, before the breakdown, Nan Butcher carried a scent of The Bible intermingled with whiffs of pot pourri, lavender, and pressed local annuals, according to availability. The Bible and sac of pot pourri were always to hand on Nan’s bedside table, the lavender sprinkled in linen cupboards and drawers of clothing, the assorted annuals pressed between the pages of the Word Of God, marking Nan’s favourite passages. There was an Anglican propriety to her demeanour. Leavened when younger by the 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 Eleanor 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 true that she had wed beneath her station. Then again, she concluded on these infrequent occasions, the difference in social elevation between a draper’s daughter and an ex army man embracing a range of later occupations, n 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 Eleanor admired would culminate in the role of night soil collector to a cluster of tiny pit towns, in Australia, Eleanor could not possibly have foretold. Nor could she have predicted Harry Butcher more specifically collecting the nightsoil of their daughter Sarah and coal miner husband Malcolm, such marriage itself being seen as unlikely in Eleanor’s eyes. Let alone that after a decade and two children, Malcolm, of whom she came to approve, would disappear one night, never to be seen again.
Such sequence of surprises led Eleanor’s youthful prettiness to reveal itself, in Nan Butcher, as having a fine, vase-like quality. Within which cracks appeared. Cracks which first manifested themselves in what was at the time termed a “highly strung” demeanour. Nan Butcher began to fuss. Finding comfort, if not enjoyment, in the state of fuss, she very soon vibrated with it. Fuss, with a remnant north 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.
At the age of twelve, not long after the death of her mother, Eleanor first entertained the notion that her father wanted to get rid of her. When it became clear that the notion also applied to her brothers, if not, being men, as pointedly, Eleanor realised that her father’s wish was not a personal antipathy, but rather that something was simply wrong. She was not surprised by the letter from an aunt, arriving less than a year after emigration, to say that her father had killed himself. Eleanor’s journey from fussy to nervous breakdown gained impetus in the realisation that her father had simply wanted to clear the decks first.
Seeking common ground upon arrival in the northern coalfields, Eleanor and Harry found fellow refugees from the West Country comparatively scarce, whilst a stroll down the main street of most pit towns would encounter a raucous discourse threaded with any number of northern, northeastern, and midlands accents, more or less peaceably coexistent with Scots, Welsh and Irish burrs and brogues. Settling in an enclave of Nottinghamshire, the rental of a tiny home enabled by Harry obtaining the first of what was to prove a long chain of jobs, Nan set about establishing a landlocked island resembling, as far as possible, a country cottage in Somerset. In particular, she set about the task of engendering a rapprochement between an English country garden and Australian conditions, a lifelong endeavour. Flowers made Eleanor, and Nan Butcher, happy.
Nan suffered her first nervous breakdown in the wake of daughter Sarah’s unexpected death. Gone missing, located aboard a city-bound train, shuffling up and down the aisle, swearing at anyone who dared look at her, Nan had never before, in her life, been heard to swear. Neither was her cursing sourced from the mild end of the spectrum. Nan’s mouth became, without warning, and seemingly unrelated to person or circumstance, 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 use of it was 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 Eleanor’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 numerous commemorative vases, within which he would weekly arrange fresh flowers, until his own demise.
34. HAROLD FRANCIS “POP” BUTCHER
1883 – 1972
Beloved Husband of Eleanor
Father of Sarah
Grandfather of Dorothy and Ronald
Great Grandfather of Shelley and Dominic
Pop Butcher sported a mediaeval-looking 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 was 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 a sequence often heard but infrequently seen, comforting to clients abed in its rhythmic familiarity and practical result. Referring to his cart, initially horse-powered, then 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? I fell into it. Haaa.”
The army having extricated him from Bedminster and into South Africa at a young age, Harry Butcher had been on the unfortunate inside during the siege of Ladysmith.
“Don’t be vague. Blame General Haig.”
In later life he claimed to have witnessed Major Douglas Haig boarding the last train out, leaving everyone else behind and besieged, in reward for which act of command, Pop declared, Haig was duly promoted to the rank of Field Marshall.
Ladysmith relieved, duty done, honorably discharged, Harry, yet young, returned to Bristol and environs, including Bedminster, to labour in the pit and on the docks, and the production line at the Wills tobacco factory, all of which he could see led nowhere. Except Bristol and environs, including Bedminster.
He had encountered Australian soldiers in South Africa. He 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 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 Eleanor.
Eleanor Hammond, of Bath, was the only daughter of an impoverished, widowed draper who feared for the future and wanted his daughter off his hands, for her sake. Harry found Eleanor exotically skittish, and damned pretty. Possibly too damned pretty. She in turn was attracted by his strength and adventurousness, of which his ticket to emigrate was evidence.
Perturbed that he might have to choose between Eleanor and Australia, Harry took a chance – an approach which habitually sat well with him – and pursued the relationship in spite of the approaching date of departure. His somewhat urgent courting was encouraged by Eleanor, in respectable fashion. To Harry’s great surprise, their union was promoted even more so, volubly, by Eleanor’s father. The couple married before Harry’s Australian ticket became void. Continued parental encouragement led Eleanor Butcher also to embrace relocation to Australia as, at very least, character-building. As insurance, she had Harry’s vow “on a stack of Bibles” that if she were not happy in the antipodes, they would come home.
Harry 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, their daughter. 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, Ron?”
“Come with Nan, Ron. 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, in moving up to the front, he again bumped into the now Field Marshall Haig, well to the rear of a battlefield located in a bog called Wipers on the western front.
“Don’t be vague, blame General Haig” was near to all Pop would say if questioned about the wars he was in, before diving back into his newspaper. On grandson Ron asking how many Boers and Germans he had killed, Pop declared that he only winged a few, deliberately, so they got to go home. He declined to march in post war parades. In later years, he would watch the Anzac Day celebrations on tv.
Never a miner, Pop Butcher was nevertheless union solid. During the Rothbury Lockout, assorted general strikes, local industrial actions, he steadfastly refused to collect the shit of scabs. That the working by scabs of Rothbury occurred during a particularly intense summer heatwave added zest, in the form of dysentery, stench, flies and mosquitoes, to Pop’s protest. The hum, the buzzing, were apparent well away from the scab camp.
Pop and Nan Butcher never recovered from daughter Sarah’s shipboard death while returning from Wales, disaffected with Short Owen Jones, and Wales.
Nan’s nervous breakdown left Pop with little choice but to soldier on. His job was to protect. Unlike Sarah’s in-laws, specifically Gramma Shipwater, Harry and Eleanor had taken a shine to Short Owen, as a welcome distraction from her first husband Malcolm’s failure to reappear, or at least explain himself.
Pop stayed on in the cottage after Nan left. 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. She thought he was Satan.
Smaller than Nan in the end, he fell asleep amid towers of newspapers and beer bottles and never woke. Grandson Ron squeezed Harry and Eleanor Butcher into the same bed.
33. ANDREW BRUCE MEIKLEJOHN
1939 – 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 paid his dues, stayed solid, resisted “speed up”, 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 had to have a job in the first place, and in that arena, it was now every man for himself. Married to Moaning Janice Jones, father of four sons within five years of nuptials, spiked motivation. Neither too old nor too demoralised to learn, 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 coinciding with his return.
Janice Jones was not Moaning Janice before she married Andy. A propensity to complaint, in bovine foghorn, may have been known to Jones family members, who kept the knowledge close, but publicly, Janice was not dubbed Moaning until the difficult birth of son Troy, and the subsequent spread of midwives gossip. Baby Troy, normal size and weight, was topped by the 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, problematic. Andy’s head was standard in size. The large head gene had skipped a generation. As Janice tried for a daughter, Kyle, Nathan and Chad followed, all possessing the Meiklejohn head. Janice withdrew from the field.
Andy and machines proved a natural fit. More so than Andy and humans, said Moaning Janice. Andy felt more comfortable under a bonnet than a roof. His cars, always Holdens, alway female, always with pet names like Joyce and Mitzi, garnered more affection and hands on attention than his family, said Moaning Janice. Then again, Moaning Janice was Moaning Janice. The tone of their marriage was a two way thing. Eldest son Troy joined his father under the bonnet when he grew tall enough.
Behind the wheel of his first and most enduring love, Betsy, a dirt-brown Holden FE ute, replete with rat-tailed offspring lurching illegal in the rear, more than once spilling onto the road, dislocating collarbones, inviting mercurochrome, Andy would double-shuffle, rev, give the finger to all and sundry, 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 his life, different thought it was to that of his forebears. The offspring, stabilised, also gave the finger as they receded. Animals on the road found themselves in danger. Jimmy Bosisto’s goat, employed as an adjunct to the lawnmowing business, able to consume any amount of woody vegetation, lantana and blackberry included, survived any number of close calls whilst wandering about the road between snacks. The highly intelligent animal took revenge by sleeping upon Betsy’s warm bonnet, or atop her cabin roof in summer. Goat Barney was later run down by a rental Corolla driven, unlicenced, by Wingnut Vella.
Andy was, however, partial to greyhounds. Greyhounds bit children. Greyhounds got him out of the house, alone. Most evenings, around sunset, for decades, he could be seen walking out with his latest dishlicker, all of whom, bar one, disappointed at the Wyong track, to be traded in on a equally unsuccessful replacement. The exception, aptly named Mystery Man, became for a time the nemesis of competing SP bookmakers Perce Finch and George the Greek through an uncanny ability to lose several races on the trot, by big margins, whereupon, The Man’s odds blowing out, far into double figures, The Man then proceeded to street any opposition, grinning in his muzzle. If you knew when to get on, you made a motza. Taken to Sydney, to Wentworth Park, at the suggestion of Perce and George, in the role of investors in long odds, 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 the bottom but afloat, bloated, in a property rented by Andy’s eldest son, Troy. Accusing fingers were pointed variously at Perce, George, an out of town syndicate, even Moaning Janice, but nothing was proven. Quoting two schooners for successful extrication and disposal of the body, middle-aged drunkard Ron Shipwater 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, fittingly, as a heritage figure, was in attendance at the demise of the pit. Death was a lingering affair. Several times the mine was pronounced gone, only to twitch into some form of life and cough up snatches of coal for Japan and elsewhere. The “new intermittency”, it was called. Mechanisation in all probability hastened final closure, in 1983. Andy assisted in the removal of anything salvageable. On the last day, he operated a dozer, shoving a small mountain of industrial and geological rubble into the drift to seal it off.
Forty three, unemployed for a year, home life drove Andy to drink, almost drove him mad, drove his family in similar direction. Salvation arrived in the form of 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. Janice was not alone. Ex miner’s wives not desiring to be saddled with housebound, purposeless husbands had become, with rationalisation, a coalfields commonplace. There was a network. Janice put out the word. Someone must know someone. Surely. In time, placement operating not unlike the old seniority, Andy was taken on as a driveway attendant, filling tanks, checking oil, water, tyres, in a Golden Fleece service station on the highway south of Newcastle. Automotive expertise facilitated ascent to assistant mechanic. He stayed 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 some other ex miner’s motor.
None of Andy’s sons followed him into the mine. All left The Pit to find employment. Troy obtained a licence and starting position as a driver for a tow truck business. Contacts made, not afraid to fight over turf, he opened Troy’s Towing Service. Kyle joined the army and saw active service in the Middle East before following a Kiwi servicewoman to Christchurch, where he died from a heroin overdose. Nathan completed a course in auto detailing at TAFE. Specialising in articulated vehicles, he drives a demonstratively curlicued and filigreed prime mover to and from work. Chad is employed in a Bunnings Hardware branch, where he has progressed from shopfloor to middle management.
32. LEONARD FRASER MEIKLEJOHN
1911 – 1975
The austere grave of Leonard Meiklejohn, last born of the Meiklejohn contract miners, in solidarity with four further Meiklejohn tombs on Leonard’s flanks, constitute a militant left node, if not a precinct, of the cemetery. Adjacent space is reserved for future generations, but history has determined that these souls can only comprise a different breed of Meiklejohn.
Leonard, youngest of three Meiklejohn 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.
Leonard wheeled for eldest brother Shug. He wheeled in a state of wrath, the particular target of which was any trapper boy who kept Leonard, pony and hauled skip waiting. Angry Leonard smote errant trapper boys like flies. Fear of Leonard saw trapper boys quickly develop the ability to recognise by sound and smell the imminent approach of Leonard, pony and hauled skip, and have ventilation doors open and flung back, as though waiting for an embrace, with which Leonard, pony and hauled skip could not be bothered and through which they sped without acknowledgement of good service.
Trapper Ron Shipwater was slow to develop the necessary early warning radar. An element of recalcitrance may have been involved as, on reputation, Leonard had developed a particular dislike for Ron well before the unfortunate first encounter in the pit.
“Never knew a redhead you could trust.”
Eyeballs bulging and veined with wrath, referring to Ron as “You fat little shit!” Leonard duly became the first adult to call Ron fat. Fat was exceedingly relative in The Pit. Ron was differently-shaped – squat – but not, at the time, fat.
Leonard’s anger was directed purely at humans. He and ponies, any pony, and there were many, were tight. Leonard always 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 pony, 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, and who owned a car, which also said something. An animal-loving magistrate awarded Leonard a six month suspended sentence.
Leonard had found his level in wheeling. He opted not to graduate to hewing, and so to working the coalface beside his brother. 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. The year was not a good year all round. Nationwide, two thousand five hundred men and thirty three mines were rationalised. In The Pit, the cavil was succeeded by another record stay-in. The men broke the record again. Two hundred hours. Two thirds of the men who broke the record emerged to find themselves rationalised. Management broke their own record, achieving two hundred retrenchments in all. It was not the entire workforce, but, with hindsight, it was a good start.
Mid life, above ground, in the absence of trapper boys, Leonard Meiklejohn opted to take 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 with physical intent, to be deterred by the presence of his brawling mother, Una, and giant brother Shug, with crowbar. The Cessnock station desk sergeant suggested that, instead, the pair should 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, 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.
Leonard and Jeannie’s son Troy married Moaning Janice Jones. Troy was a ‘new miner’, thorough in his embrace of the machinery upon which he rode to operate other machinery which cut, which fed other machinery which loaded and hauled, and which in all probability sped up eventual closure of the mine, put Troy out of work, and necessitated the moving away of his four sunburnt rat-tailed sons to seek, if not to find, regular employment.
In the wake of his 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 and green resembling a giant shoebox with the lid fallen off, the lid subsequently being overtaken by regularly mown grass. Following revelation of the danger to health of asbestos, Leonard led the way in cladding the club’s original cladding within iron sheeting.
A district-best bowler, renowned for a ferocious drive which would all but splinter opposition bowls, he also found relaxation in the maintenance of club facilities. Rolling the links, the rhythm, daily reminded him of wheeling.
Post stroke, Leonard Meiklejohn remained a club fixture, seated with good sightline to the racing channel, horses preferred, spilling Tia Maria and milk down the front of his whites.
31. THOMAS GORDON MEIKLEJOHN
1878 – 1949
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 – the shame – with sunshine.
The signal event, or chain of same, in Gordon’s failure and subsequent relocation to The Pit, on the far side of the world?
If only he had not, in that last fraction of a second, attempted to toe-poke the ball under the dive, successful as it turned out, of the Hibs reserves goalkeeper. If only he had not , while facing delisting from Hearts, in unfocussed rage punched that 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 by trade. The trade being intermittent, particularly in the Great Depression of 1885-1895, Tommy Meiklejohn was able to obtain irregular shifts in the less popular equine/bovine reduction arm of Cox’s Glue and Gelatine Works, liquefying bones, hoofs and other animal products, when a regular worker found themselves for some reason not up to the task. Gordy’s mother kept a respectable, if small rented house, and took in piece work, sewing curtains for grander homes freshly bricked by her husband.
His father’s lines of work – hard, dirty, smelly, disgusting – did not appeal to Gordy. Similarly unappealing was the other fated place of employment for the undereducated in and around the Gorgie area of Edinburgh: the production line at McVitie and Price’s St Andrews Biscuit Works. Gordon – a fast if shortish winger for his local amateur club – saw his future in the neglect of schooling, and more general shirking – in favour of kicking a ball, albeit with a certain necessary rigour at the start.
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 10 pounds a week. Several Scottish players – popularly termed “Scotch Professors” – were plying their trade in the UK. Preston North End and Liverpool were the choice targets for would-be border crossers like Gordon, but the list of southern buyers of talent like his was growing.
Upon winning consecutive Scottish League Championships in 1895 and 1896, Edinburgh’s own Heart Of Midlothian FC – Hearts – The Jam Tarts – became Gordon’s preferred route out of bricklaying, hoof-boiling, biscuit baking, and the like.
Being at the top of the local amateur game, he was in the right place, at the right time, he believed. Hearts was a pathway to the UK, to PNE or Liverpool, to better money, women, and the life less grim.
At seventeen Gordy Meiklejohn had a golden season where everything fell into place. He played like a demon. Not least when it was rumoured a Hearts scout was on the terraces. Duly spotted, he trialled for Hearts. They seemed to like what they saw. While still only trialling, Gordon was named as a reserve, given the occasional run, in Hearts’ second team. The manager told him he did well. Looking to the future, after Derby County had tried to persuade the English Football Association to mandate a maximum wage of 4 pounds a week, and in response, English Footballers had formed a union, Gordon applied, in advance, to join the AFU. 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. He was unable to transcend being a reserve for the reserves and Tynecastle Park bid him goodbye. Delisting was the start of chain of misfortune. Limping and aggrieved by Hearts’ shortsightedness, he punched a Celtic supporter during a terrace brawl, only for the Celtic supporter’s sister, Una, to pull them apart, like what she saw, and become pregnant in undue haste, to her father “Wild” Bill Surtees’ and the equally wild Surtees twins’ grave disapproval.
Under duress from the Surtees clan, Gordon moved east, to the Glasgow hinterland, to marry Una – now nursing Hughie – and to provide, through labour deep in the Blantyre pit, alongside his in-laws, Or else. The mix of Edinburgh and Glasgow was never smooth. Sectarian and social divide marked relations with his wife and her family. His politics were never as militant as required. The Surtees default state was fury. His protestantism, though nominal, did not endear. To survive, he toed the line, kept quiet except when expected to be noisy. Una’s revelation – after rapid-fire birth of three sons – that she found the Surtees clan, Lanarkshire’s sodden greyness and Scottish revolutionary prospects equally miserable, led to relief through migration as soon as could be arranged.
Relief – for Gordon – lasted little longer than the sea voyage. His temper did not improve with sunshine. Persuaded that settlement in The Pit represented the most likely source of employment and society to a man who, while born without pit heritage, had married into mining, Gordon .
After eighteen months underground, complaining, wife Una’s political nous, somehow translating into union clout despite her not being a member, enabled Gordy’s employment above ground, as weighbridge operator, where he was quickly found to be short with both weights and people. Gordy was, it was noted, almost permanently pissed off. Finding no dignity in labour of any kind, he sullenly weighed skips, followed the Scottish League with displeasure, drank and cursed Heart Of Midlothian. Una and his sons learned to ignore him.
In his advancing years, Gordon did find a limited balm in undertaking to mentor The Pit’s Under 10 soccer team. “Gordy” became “Coach Gordy”. When his team scored the burden of shame seemed briefly to lift. His charges, the sons and occasional daughters of pit men, were tough and not in the least scarred by the experience of Coach Gordy barging along the sidelines shrieking, knocking spectators aside, abusing the referee, intimidating linesmen, hounding, berating his players, face reddening to point of explosion. Coach Gordy’s junior charges gave Coach Gordy as good as they got. Sometimes more. Such was the case when Ron “Fatty” Shipwater scored “The worst own goal I have seen in over forty years of football. They warned me about you!”*
* Game tied nil-all and thirty seconds to play, with a thirty yard drive into the top left hand corner, his very first touch of the ball in junior soccer, Ron “Fatty” Shipwater scored the winning goal for the opposition. Given no chance by the fearful volley, Pit goalie Jimmy Bosisto burst into tears, as did his mother, Betty. Sarah Shipwater suggested Mrs Bosisto pull herself together as it was only a game. Bob Bosisto threatened to king hit Malcolm Shipwater if he didn’t stop laughing. Later in life Ron would gleefully confess to knowing full well he was kicking into his own goal, but thought it made no sense to go to the trouble of trying to get the ball down the other end of the field, through a thrashing Swansea pack, past their giant over-age ring-in goalie, when he could just plant it past best friend Jimmy, who was picking a cathead burr out of his foot at the time. Looking back, Ron would opine, this was a breakthrough. Life changing.
Coach Gordy never recovered.
30. UNA LEAH MEIKLEJOHN
1877 – 1944
There was no designated Communist Section of the cemetery 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 Sector would have dwarfed all the religious sectors, combined. Una Meiklejon was heard frequently to remark that had Lenin known just how many Party Members had been buried under the auspices of assorted opiates of the people, out of bourgeois convenience, the then Leader of the Communist World would have had a major infarction long before his recorded series of strokes.
Una Surtees would have liked to have been born Rosa Luxemburg*, except for the bit where Rosa was summarily executed and thrown in a Berlin canal by members of the Freikorps during the November spartacist uprising. Yet, for Una, even that fate might have been borne had it led to the triumph of socialism.
From a catholic background but fierily apostate and a thoroughgoing materialist by sixteen, Una yet found aspects of Romanism hard to shake, not least loyalty to Celtic Football Club, leading to her meeting future husband and footballer Thomas “Gordy” Meiklejohn at a club fixture. Trialling for Heart Of Midlothian at the time, prominent among Celtic’s opposition in one of several terrace brawl, Una was required to drag Gordy off her brother and slap him in no uncertain manner. In the aftermath of this meeting, when eyes met, it was decided a post match drink was in order, during which time Gordy confessed that his anger was in large part due to his facing imminent delisting from Hearts, his dream of professional football as a means of avoiding hard work in tatters.
Permanently shielded within a stretched red cardigan, Una occupied – or saw herself as occupying – a political position to the left of eldest and most radical, Moscow-aligned son Hugh – aka “Shug” Marx – although to the outside world it would appear further movement leftward from Shuggie was not possible. That husband Gordy was content to be a mere fellow traveller did not enhance the marriage. Pit rumour would have it the Meiklejohn tribe had emigrated after Una – in cardigan – had thrown a bomb at a bank, and that the cardigan was a disguise. Or part thereof. Pit rumour mongers were convinced that socialist revolutionaries would not wear such benign garments, let alone fair-isle knits. The truth behind Meiklejohn family emigration was more mundane, to do with Una’s view that socialism’s prospects were better in the new land, and failed professional footballer husband Gordy’s hope of healing football disappointment with sunshine.
Despite commitment to levelling politics and respect for class solidarity, Una was not above parochial inter-personal rivalry, for which she could always cite a political justification. A long-running feud with Cora “Ma” Caulfield, an institution in the Ladies Auxiliary and Ladies Lounge, vehemently denied by both matriarchs, rippled through pit and pub, church and co-op chatter. Feud and denial continued until the day of Una’s decease. Even after, ripples could still be felt as Ma Caulfield tried unsuccessfully not to speak ill of the dead.
Meiklejohn/Caulfield rivalry presented most commonly, and harmlessly, in the form of competition in the production of sons for The Pit, militant recruits to the proletarian cause, measured in quantity rather than quality. This competitive reproductive jousting was the jocular outward camouflage of a political struggle. At particular issue was not so much the number of sons on the coal, but the number of votes in the Lodge meeting, which determined policy and action. Ma Caulfield, in Una Meiklejohn’s red-ragging eyes, was that most repellent of political creatures, a moderate.
Political struggle was inflected by a religious sectarianism: overt 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, Caulfields, always.
Second son Alec’s mid life reversion to Roman Catholicism thus shook his mother. While her apostasy remained as solid as ever, being if nothing else confirmed by Alec’s perverse straying, Una’s perturbance lay in the realm of a mother’s personal responsibility: where on earth did she go wrong? She was well aware that her middle son was different, but this was taking things to extremes. It was only natural that Ma Caulfield, if not outwardly crowing, should evidence a certain public satisfaction at the prodigal son/lost sheep’s return to the fold, and subsequently attempt to persuade the reformed believer Alec to convert to the true path, of protestantism. Of which, Ma was to find, Alec would have none.
Una attempted retaliation, wielding Caulfield black sheep Coral’s Marxist atheism, failed marriage to Joe Keats, and subsequent defection to Trotsky, but in truth, found scant compensation for Alec’s straying into faith.
Until arrival of the change of life, irrepressible fertility, and the mantle of responsible motherhood, in which Una took a curiously conservative pride, had curtailed her plans for local activism on any major scale. Rather, Una saw her political role 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.”
Una Meiklejohn’s wire-framed spectacles could focus interrogation into a single scorching beam, leaving the interrogated feeling small and charred in their chests.
Had the Meiklejohn/Caulfield male reproductive competition not been a facile cover for a deeper rivalry, the birth of daughter Amy could well have represented a disappointment for Una Meiklejohn. Not least as scores were tied at three all. And red-faced, breathless “Ma” Caulfield appeared to be teetering on the verge of menopause. Una’s politics militating against gender discrimination, however, Amy’s non-maleness was not held against her. Indeed, Amy was press ganged into becoming the sharp end of Una’s militancy for equality underground, in the form of women being allowed on the coal. 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 Amy Meiklejohn grew long legged and progressed from non-disappointment to handful to dangerous proposition to hitching out of The Pit at seventeen in a hand-me-down cardigan, to return only over her mother’s dead body.
Ma Caulfield’s menopause proved a false dawn, in the palpable form of son number four, Roy “Jockey” Caulfield. A further twist of fate saw Una Meiklejohn first to experience hot flushes, allowing Ma Caulfield to savour irrevocable and unconditional victory, four-three, in the coalminer-bearing stakes. Much later, with Ma’s coalminers themselves fathering coalminers, Ma came to have grandcoalminers.
Una Meiklejohn died in 1944. From her point of view, on her deathbed, the demise was premature. Fascism, although on the run, was not yet defeated.
Acting on instruction from the bereaved family, Ron Shipwater interred Una Meiklejohn as far as possible from the still-extant Ma Caulfield’s projected location.
*Rosa Luxemberg: German Marxist revolutionary, assassinated in 1919
29. ALICE MARY “GRAMMA” SHIPWATER
1882 – 1941
Alice Mary Shipwater, nee Surtees, 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.”
Gramma Shipwater knew her statistics. History too was 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. Gramma’s son Samuel – who upon realising wished to be known as Malcolm – was named after Huskar victim Samuel Horne, a childhood playmate of Gramma’s mother Emma. If a woman was inescapably born to produce sons for the pits, but lucky enough not to lose any to their fated occupation, remembering those who had lost, and been lost, was proletarian duty. Gramma had a long memory.
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.
Gramma 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 a runaway skip in 1911. Daylight was only rarely admitted to her bedroom, shared with Eve, who, in the morning, first to emerge from the darkness, warily conveyed Gramma’s chamber pot. Should Eve on occasion happen to emerge without the sloshing vessel, a shard of Gramma’s voice would follow her daughter out of the darkness: “Pot! Pot!” 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.
Traditionally, chronicles of exploitation, rebellion, history, were passed to the son from the father, at the coalface. In the Shipwater line, Charlie’s abrupt absence derailed this passing on of the miners’ legacy. To Gramma’s dismay, in spite of continued attempts, despite her deep knowledge of the 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. As a result, she believed, her son Malcolm had grown up soft. He smiled his rubbery crescent smile too easily. Gramma was never to realise that Malcolm grinned when disappointed.
Gramma had even less success in conveying the lessons of industrial history, the importance of class struggle, to grandson Ron. Despite getting deep in Ron’s ear from the age of three –
“Never forget how many good men have died, Ron. Never forget how your grandda died. Pit bosses grow fat while good men die. “
– too late Gramma realised that bad company, in the shape of Jimmy “Skinny” Bosisto, had gotten deeper in Ron’s other ear, such that, manipulated by the demands of mateship, her grandson fell into blacklegging, alcoholic obesity and the inglorious life of a gravedigger.
Discovery that Eve, at fifteen, was with child embellished Gramma’s disappointment in men. Eve was unaware of her circumstance. Nor how it happened. Gramma had always had the feeling such an event was likely, sooner or later, given Eve’s unguarded simplicity, but had held out a flickering hope that the Lord might allow her daughter to make it through teenage years unscathed. A woman who made home visits sorted out the situation.
Utilising arithmetic and a calendar, Gramma ascertained the identity of the father, but kept what had occurred from the rest of the family, to whom Eve’s obsessional stalking up and down the creekbed and burial of baby Ron seemed to indicate disturbance, the precise nature of which eluded them. Years later, on an Anzac Day, in the throes of senile volubility and talking in her sleep, loudly, Gramma was heard through closed bedroom door to round ferociously on her brother, Uncle Bill, M.M. Curtains drawn, door shut, 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 giving Bill holy hell until the sun went down.
Unwilling to grin or drink her way through disappointment, Gramma took to defensive-aggressive knitting. Blue-veined wrists twirling with arthritic violence, needles spearing wool inside Charlie’s old Gladstone bag, she glowered over her knitting like a mantis over its forelegs, eyeing the mate it was about to kill.
In the end, failing to heed a dinner call, Gramma Shipwater was found sitting on the edge of the bed, sour-faced, knitting stiff in her hands, staring at the window as though Uncle Bill was outside, looking in.
In the words of grandson, Ron “Fatty” Shipwater. admittedly in his cups, wherein by 1985 he had resided for several decades:
“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 for forty years until Arthur Scargill took on Margaret Thatcher. Then, if you put your ear to the ground, you could hear her spinning in her grave with union fever, knitting like there was no tomorrow. Which it had looked like there wasn’t, for pit men. It’d been a bad forty years for The Pit. The writing was on the wall. Everywhere. Finally the fightback was on. And where did the strike begin? Cortonwood Pit, south of Barnsley. Where Gramma hailed from. We probably had relatives there. Poor bastards. I downed tools in the cemetery and went out in sympathy.
Anyway, Thatcher got the chocolates, Arthur holed up in a house the NUM had paid for and refused to talk, the miners went back down to pass the time before the pits closed for good, Gramma turned over and over in her grave so fast she drilled her way to the surface, rose from the dead, stalked out of the fog in her long black dress yowling that the NUM defeat was the beginning of the end, and 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 Shipwater loved coal. True.”
28. SARAH MAY SHIPWATER
1904 – 1980
Sarah May Shipwater (nee Baker) 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 claimed her father, Pop Baker, out of earshot of her mother, Nan Baker. How conception was managed in steerage, Pop Baker did not go into such detail. Sarah was subsequently 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 were a satellite settlement of an antipodean Newcastle was pure coincidence. Whether or not the new life in the hinterland of the new Newcastle was an improvement on the old was in many respects open to debate. Pits were still pits, foul, dark and dangerous, work still 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 frequently cavilled-out miner who eventually found an alternative calling in nightsoil collection for the wider pit 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 Shipwater.
Sarah hated fuss. Her mother Eleanor vibrated with it. Fuss, with a north eastern accent, was the embroidery of Nan Baker’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 Baker’s quivering hummingbird hands, fuss was both everyday and ceremonial, equally irradiating births, deaths, cups of tea and what to wear.
How a working class female could achieve such a state of mannerism never became convincingly clear to Sarah. Aware that fuss may rush in to fill a marital vacuum, however, 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 Baker, was to love. Such love came close to ruining Sarah’s modest wedding in the form of a maternal near-nervous breakdown outside St Mary’s, Weston.
Determined to keep fuss out of her marriage, hearing herself utter an expression like “Into every life a little rain must fall”, tinged with the north east, 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, was arguably most potent. Dot’s birth, initially complex and noisy under grandmother’s micro-management, became straightforward after Nan Baker was escorted from the premises, in a state, by her husband. Ill fortune, in Pop Baker being absent from escort duty due to recurrence of piles garnered in wartime, dogged the second birthing. Ron’s entry to the world was slow and fraught, Nan Baker’s nervous condition seemingly transferred from mother to daughter 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 in accord. The sooner the fuss died down and returned to Geordieland, the better. With, for Sarah, the coda: this was the last time.
When Malcolm was cavilled out of The Pit, a not infrequent occurrence, or when shifts were intermittent, as always seemed to be the case between the cavil-outs, Sarah dipped into reserves that as a miner’s wife only she knew about. In straitened times, when a man ought to be drinking less, a spouse might appear on the verandah of the pub, the number of spouses appearing thereon becoming 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.
Upon Malcolm’s disappearance, graduating from miner’s wife to putative widow, opting to remain in the tiny cottage with Dot, Ron, Gramma, despite mutual dislike, and Eve, rather than return to the highly-strung home in Geordieland, Sarah assumed the mantle of Shipwater breadwinner. Little bread was won at first. Opportunity was scant in the coalfields of the lingering Depression, not least for female wage seekers. 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, her 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. Sarah undertook the hour’s walk to and from The Pit for eighteen months, when she was gifted an unwanted bicycle by neighbouring widower Short Owen Jones.
Short Owen would also gift the Shipwater family the occasional freshly-dressed rabbit, and when Ron was deemed of sufficiently sensible age, a pair of his own rabbit traps. Sarah and Gramma’s dislike of each other worsened 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. Further disapproval followed Short Owen’s advancing Ron 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, 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 yes, then proceeded to find serial reasons to delay, citing wartime circumstances, rationing and the like, all underlain by the fear that Malcolm, although legally dead, 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 Short Owen by the end. She died of pneumonia on a ship traversing the same route upon which her life had begun.
Sarah was buried beside Malcolm’s allotted site, which remains unoccupied to this day.
Dot Shipwater was to claim that Sarah and Gramma squabbled on after death. At night, ear to the slab, said Dot, you can hear Gramma saying “I told you so”, over and over, about Short Owen.
*Major Crane: NSW magistrate notorious for ruthless gaoling of striking miners under the Masters and Servants Act
27. CHARLIE SHIPWATER
1878 – 1911
Killed By Runaway Skip
Charlie Shipwater 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.
At the coalface, men worked in pairs. Father with son, brother with brother. Charlie had looked forward to being joined by son Malcolm upon the boy turning fourteen. The runaway skip broke the Shipwater line. As with violently red hair and a partiality to rum, Charlie’s boots and collection of tools passed to Malcolm.
A notice in the local paper read “The funeral was well-attended by members of The Grand United Order Of Free Gardeners, and there were many floral tributes.”
In defiance of foul air and lack of town water, multitudinous varieties of bloom sprang up, joyful and long-living, under Charlie Shipwater’s hand. Short Owen Jones asserted, more than frequently, that Charlie could get sweet peas to grow up a shovel stuck in a slack heap. His 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 was unable to bequeath to his descendants.
The Pit closed for half a shift on the afternoon of the burial. As a result 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, Richard Jones could hold the most alcohol whilst Kevin Caulfield possessed the loudest and foulest mouth. The Free Gardeners, blind drunk, had, it seemed, run riot in memoriam.
Why Charlie Shipwater, a hewer, was in the haulage way at the time of his death was never established.
His grave is in need of renovation, not least weeding. Baptised presbyterian, in life godless, Charlie’s gift in the earthly garden seems not to have followed him into the beyond. His location being tended for a time by Gramma Shipwater, then, erratically, by grandson and gravedigger Ron, thistles, rogue grasses and the like were if not defeated, kept at bay. But only to lie in wait. The burial, nearby, of Ron Shipwater, was seen by feral vegetation as a sign. The way was open.
26. HERBERT VALENTINE HOBBS
1924 – 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, Shipwater. Work with your brain. You’re brighter than Herbert, you know. Herbert just pays attention.”
Such public exposure, well meant, brought Herbert playground grief. As did attempts on his part to fit in with the children of The Pit. His playground “dacking”* of Fatty Shipwater, an act of desperate bravery by which he hoped to ingratiate himself with the many, mostly female antagonists of Fatty Shipwater, elicited more horror than amusement due to the state of “Fatty’s” underwear.
Thanks to his father, Herbert departed The Pit at fifteen armed with the competence in arithmetic and mastery of pen and ink germane to traineeship in a bank. Garnering a starting position at the Wallsend branch of the then Rural Bank Of New South Wales, Herbert disappeared within the regional financial milieu, there to remain unseen for forty five years, never once venturing back to The Pit until retirement saw him seek his roots.
Herbert married twice. First wife Amanda, in 1969, upon the twins commencing university, left Herbert to explore her sexuality, this belated reconnoitring likened by Herbert to exploring the Congo on a pogo stick, the expression, coined by a fellow abandoned male, being picked up during subsequent 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 met his second wife in the carpark of a suburban pentecostal church, when Denise backed her Volvo into his Saab. Denise took pains to reassure Herbert that she, having explored her sexuality in earlier times, was content to stay put.
Intellectually, perhaps in reaction to his father, perhaps a mandate of banking, Herbert did not share Henry’s political views, being firmly conservative and convinced of the existence of God. Physically, however, the adult Herbert had no choice and grew into the spitting image of his father, albeit with the addition of a cricketer’s moustache and sandals.
“HOBBSSie! ’s aLIVE!”
Fifty years on, in 1985, dacker Herbert recognised the drunken shriek from the darker bowels of the pub as that of dackee Ron “Fatty” Shipwater. The good fortune of being taken for his father, despite “Hobbsie’ being long dead and buried, buried locally, by “Fatty” Shipwater himself, served to deflect resurfacing of the school dacking incident and any delayed recriminations. Herbert viewed attendance at the pub as a matter of facing his demons. It had to be done. Perhaps, he later thought, it would have been better if Denise had not accompanied him and ordered concoctions the barmaid had never heard of.
Herbert Hobbs returned to domicile in The Pit via purchase – with intent to renovate and gain capital – of the cottage once housing Billy Burns’ antipodean family. Billy having died of black lung, his local widow had passed away following a particularly rich meal on a World Discovery Cruise funded from sale of the house. As a former banker, aware of the economics of local 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”.
“NO! ‘Is HERB’t! HERBt! DACK’d ME!
Herbert’s response, a whinny resembling that of a spooked horse, confirmed “Fatty’s” correct identification of his schoolyard assailant. The garbled accusation was followed by a short list of amused 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 Herbert 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 dresses to the beach. Thus was made clear to The Pit Herbert’s belief that coal had no future. Not that this was news – most of the workforce had been cavilled out, permanently, by this time – but to dress in white was to rub it in, unnecessarily. That Herbert had offered support to Nerida Humphries “historic mining village” proposal was, tutted longtime residents, 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.
*the downing, from behind, without warning, of another person’s shorts
25. HENRY VERNON HOBBS
1908 – 1947
At Rest, Now
Henry Hobbs was a quiet Department of Education communist who welcomed a first posting to The Pit as a potentially fruitful and two-way educative engagement with the working class. His radical politics were learned, not, as with those born in The Pit, inherited with 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 – economically and culturally ingrained – seemed to be his major educative obstacle. That his efforts to implant other possibilities appeared appreciated by most of his pupils – who then upon leaving school proceeded to follow traditional paths into pit or kitchen – added to the ambience of futility which was to bring him down in the long run. Early counterbalancing rewards – small shining lights in the darkness of The Pit – a book having been read, enthusiasm for a subject, homework done – succumbed over time to the law of diminishing returns.
More dynamically disturbing was a troika of disruptive individuals – Ron Shipwater, Cedric Keats and Jimmy Bosisto – two inventive recalcitrants, one fellow traveller – who, lurking within Henry’s orbit for nine of his ten years in The Pit, seemed hell bent on flaunting not only disinterest in learning, but an active inclination towards anti-learning, if possible herding their classmates onto the field of rebellion with them.
At the end of his first day, Headmaster/teacher Hobbs exited the one-room school to discover his bicycle wedged immovably in the deep cleft of the storm-blasted Monterey Pine which dominated the dirt playground. Removable parts of the transport vanished overnight. Over time, the frame became part of the tree.
Discovery of a flaming paper bag on his front stoop induced a flurry of stomping before realisation of upon what, inside the bag, he was stomping on, saw Henry reduced to swearing, dry retching, and hopping from the stoop on the relatively unfouled leg.
Upon learning that none of his pupils had ever been to “the pictures”, Henry bussed the entire school, twenty three pupils, at his expense, to the worker-owned School of Arts cinema in Kurri Kurri. Attentive reception of the film – an early biblical epic – was overshadowed by a nightmare bus ride home, early during which a large population of red back spiders were reported as having escaped from a jar. The disruption of education by wildlife, dead and alive, was to be a constant in a student community seemingly only too ready to panic and trow learning to the winds.
Henry attributed the unruly, unwashed, unshod troika’s anti-educative misrule to historical socio-economic disadvantage, which, in his early career, he believed it was his responsibility to overcome.
If one particular misdeed most challenged this adherence to the theory of environmental disadvantage, and/or was simply the last straw for Henry Hobbs, schoolteacher, it was the Empire Day Incident of May 24, 1939.
Empire Day, formerly celebrated as Queen Victoria’s birthday, saw the ritual monday morning school flag-raising ceremony and oath of allegiance – “I honour my God, I serve my Queen, I salute the flag” – gain extra import in being augmented by extended patriotic singing and a half day holiday, followed by “cracker night”, a night in which, in The Pit, it was a dangerous time to be about, for both man and beast.
On the historic Empire Day of 24 May,1939, Henry and assembled school were greeted by the sight of the ascending flag coming to a halt, abruptly, at half-mast, as a strange procession – three coal-grimed but identifiable figures bearing a coffin – presented on the road in front of the school. As the blackened pallbearers proceeded to lay the coffin – obviously home-made – at the school gates, the student assembly, obviously primed, summarily fragmented and dashed to the fence in riotous humour, where Dot Shipwater trilled into a strangely birdlike version of The International while Nerys Ferris hurdled the barrier and, overdoing the widow, threw herself upon the casket, sobbing at volume.
Three of Henry’s assembly of twenty three pupils remained assembled. Son Herbert tried unsuccessfully to hide amusement. Craig and Felicity Goldfinch, tempted to join the insurrection, which looked like fun, were held back by class upbringing. Henry himself was reduced to dumbstruck.
With Nerys Ferris quietened, the tallest pallbearer then recited the following* 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.”
After which, taking handfuls of earth from pockets for deposit atop the coffin, the pallbearers fled, cheered by classmates while Dot reprised The International and the flag languished at half-mast. Henry remained at a loss. Cracker night was more explosive than ever.
Empire Day, 1939, is still regarded in The Pit as a triumph of communist organisation. While Cedric Keats is identified as the mastermind, Fatty Shipwater, being virulently red-haired and rotund, is hailed as the mastermind behind the mastermind. The third pallbearer, later to become a strike-breaking blackleg, is never mentioned.
News of the revolutionary atrocity quickly alarmed the Department of Education. Severely reprimanded, instructed to deter any future outbreaks of juvenile militancy or forfeit employment, Henry faced the thorny question: how to discipline a restive mob? Something snapped.
Mr Hobbs explained to the class that the mass caning-in-progress did not necessarily indicate a personal disapproval of uprisings, he in fact being generally in favour of rising up, but simply that there was a time and a place. If the hand under caning dropped from the perpendicular, knuckles were flick-caned on the upstroke. He did not cane the girls, instead instructing them to calculate, in their heads, how many cuts in total had been administered in the single caning session. Girls who wrongly calculated 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 been destroyed in administering the one hundred and thirty eight cuts, Mr Hobbs further instructed the girls to deploy this statistic in working out, again in their heads, the average hits per cane before splintering occurred. Again “One Eye” Goldfinch 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.”
Thus “One Eye” Goldfinch completed the arithmetic trifecta.
Despite, in the wake of the insurrection something in Mr Hobbs having snapped, and for the remainder of the school year, every monday morning, pre flag-raising, lining up every class male for pre-emptive caning six times while the girls chanted the arithmetic – attendance varying but “One Eye” Goldfinch being always first to arrive at the correct answer – Mr Hobbs never ran out of canes, thanks to the Department of Education, the now experience-tempered teacher maintaining a seemingly inexhaustible store of corrective weaponry in an old golf bag locked in a cupboard.
Not that The Pit had a golf course. No-one in The Bay played golf. On occasion, however, locals were to witness the school teacher tramping the dune line brandishing what was deemed to be a golf 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 had been observed walking the tide line, clubbing cuttlefish and dry kelp into the sea. Or dried bluebottles following an overnight south-easter. Mrs Hobbs was rarely seen. When she was, it was but briefly, passing a window. It was rumoured she played the piano.
That his worst-behaved pupils actually liked him, hence the nickname “Hobbsie”, that their actions might have been tests of his commitment to themselves and an ignored and disdained community, did not occur to Henry Hobbs. Yet there was fondness beneath the persecution.
In the words of former tormentor Ron “Fatty” Shipwater:
“Hobbsie was on the ball. He could spot red hair with his back turned. And he was a terrific long-distance shot with a duster. There was only one time, when he went completely mental, that he lost accuracy and took a huge chunk out of the Gallipoli mural instead of my head. After that he charged down the aisle, gripped my head, twisted it to the front like turning off a tap, and knocked out his pipe on my skull. Weeks later I was still finding burnt tobacco in my hair.
There were always little flecks of white foam in the corners of Hobbsie’s mouth. Not just when he went mental and belted us, most of the time. The foam stretched like elastic as he crapped on. He crapped on a lot. I used to focus on the foam when he yelled at me up close. The flecks stretched but never busted. And he never wiped them away. Also, his tongue made this little wet click, like water dripping, when he spoke. His head was dark red and shiny, like he’d been polished by a grocer. The thumb and first 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 circular yellow tin.”
Enervated, Henry Hobbs resigned his position and departed The Pit in 1941.
He was replaced by Mrs Deirdre Pleasant who had thick eyebrows, wore a raffia hat and sandals, did not eat meat and, it was reported by Nerys Ferris, sat on the verandah in the nude reading D.H. Lawrence.
Shortly after resigning, unwinding in Singapore, absent his wife, Henry was unable to escape the island before it fell to the Japanese, and was imprisoned in Changi. With no communication beyond a final, short, pessimistic letter, arriving years after posting, it was assumed “Hobbsie” had died in Changi.
In 1947, unexpectedly, Henry arrived back in The Pit. Barely recognisable, he died a few months later. Respectfully laid to rest by former pupil Ron “Fatty” Shipwater, he lies beneath a suitably modest edifice funded by Alec Meiklejohn.
* John Smith’s “eulogy” was later sourced to a 1921 trial issue of Common Cause, the Miners Federation newspaper, preserved in the collection of Joe Keats.
24. ALEC STEWART MEIKLEJOHN
1910 – 1979
You got me worried now but I won’t be worried long
Alec, number two of the 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 late father Robbie*, 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 presbyterian bachelor commo.
Alone among men in The Pit, Alec could yodel. And in his pomp, did so with great enthusiasm. As a devoted fan of American Jimmie Rodgers, the Yodelling Brakeman, Alec would also on occasion refer to himself as the Yodelling Winding Engine Man. Also alone among men 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 found to be in a working order.
Laid off at the age of 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, at times barely, on sporadic employment and handouts, but experiencing much and meeting many. He wrote to his mother 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 eventual return to the family bosom and re-entry, with his 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 his return home were a near dozen imported seventy eight rpm recordings of American music, in country/blues vein, workingman’s music, donated him by a friendly merchant seaman encountered in patronising a soup kitchen on the Sydney docks. The seaman, having run away to sea 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 passed on his record collection.
Upon first returning to The Pit, Alec saw fit to yodel quietly, more or less to himself, a curious vestigial insecurity and confirmed bachelorhood putting a damper on overt glottal expression amongst his mining 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.
Relaxed within middle-aged yodelling bachelorhood, however, years of underground labour under his belt, Alec felt free to let fly. Especially when 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 effortlessly outdecorated the original. Underground, Alec’s yodelling arrangements would often be 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 enjoyed 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 returned home to his mysterious wife, who was rarely seen but sometimes heard playing piano.
Alec and Henry continued a regular contact after the 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 was mostly one way, and mostly on Henry’s part, in postcard form, Alec routinely pinning the postcards 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, depicting the lawn of an old colonial hotel, populated by women in long dresses drinking tea, featured the legend “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here!”, in gold.
Alec did receive one further communication from Henry Hobbs, a letter, postmarked Changi, which arrived well after the end of the war, and did not contain reassuring news.
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. He was buried accordingly, an appropriate distance from the balance of his family, lying, unbelieving, in Non-Denom. Converting late, not having made preparations, Alec’s grave is less architectural, less highly polished, less populated by Biblical figures than some others in his sector, but the thought is there.
*Robbie James Meiklejohn, presumed killed in the Battle of Fromelles, 1916, has no known grave.
23. LEWIS LLEWELLYN “FIZZER” PHILLIPS
1921 – 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. 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, where it would join numerous others of varying age already 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. Who specialised 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 exams and attained his 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 seemed 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, and said to make a juicy target for torpedoes, a Wirraway was despatched from Williamtown to investigate. The presence of the enemy stirring 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 Record Stay-In Strike, Fizzer boasted that, underground, he was eating more and better than was his habit on normal weekends. Normal weekends 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 was so fat it could not sit and the animal’s back legs shot out sideways. The replete Fizzer hoped the stay-in would last until Christmas, or longer. As did, according to local gossip, Mrs Gwen Phillips and son Geoff. When in 1955 Geoff joined his father in The Pit, he did so in the absence of choice. Like most of The Pit, Geoff regarded his old man as a prize galoot. With a fat dog. With whom his father communicated in far more complexity than with his family.
Fizzer Phillips saw all his peers, underground and after, 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 told they would need to watch for a long, long time to see the old contract miner move. But it did happen.
Fizzer Phillips departed this life direct from Retired Miners Corner. Descending with glacial slowness from his 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, untended and weed-infested, is unmarked, a southerly buster having lifted the generic white timber cross donated by the cemetery trust and deposited it, with numerous others, in parts unknown.
* Nerys Ferris would in later life attribute the submarine ‘sighting’ to attention-seeking – the seeking of her attention, in particular - on the part of Ron “Fatty” Shipwater. Nerys Ferris never ventured a view on how remaining unidentified would gel with attracting attention, hers or anyone else’s.
22. JOE KEATS
1900 – 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 art of industrial agitation. Underground at Vale Of Clwyyd by fourteen, cavilled out at sixteen under the aegis of last in, first out, to the 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 17 in 1917, Joe found himself situated at the perfect age for emotional connection with the Russian Revolution, and its subsequent historically inevitable progress. That barely three months later, in Hartley End, Staffordshire, 156 miners perished in the Minnie Pit, only strengthened his 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 Keats family members from adding to the death toll of the Minnie Pit disaster.
In the afterglow of 1917, Joe also encountered fellow robust communist Coral Caulfield. 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 de facto leadership of The Party. Embracing the communist notion of 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, to whom she presented three children, males, all of whom grew to work, grow old, and die, in The Pit.
Joe claimed The Communist Manifesto to be the first book he ever read. Whether or not this was true, Joe had convinced himself, firmly, that this was in fact the case, and that was all that mattered. Inspired by The Manifesto, he set out to read every word of Marx he could find. His comprehension of the writings of The Mentor was Biblical. Faced with an industrial and/or political and/or economic problem, he would ask himself, and others: What would Karl say? If no answer was immediately forthcoming, Joe would then 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 give his own classes in Marxism at the Kurri Kurri School of Arts, lessons which were noted for their 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 a certain accommodation of Lenin (dead) and Stalin, as being flawed but practical men who, if they deviated, did not do so out of disrespect, but rather, were simply ignorant or misguided in their actions under 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 “direct action” instead of arbitration led in 1934 to the first election of a communist leadership to an Australian union. But, Joe thought, 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. There was no denying success. By decade’s end, a general strike, the onset of war and increased need for coal saw restoration of the l929 Lockout wage cuts, the granting of a 40 hour week, retirement on a pension at 60, action on health and safety, particularly the problem of dust, and the banning of mechanised removal of coal pillars.
But. Then again. What would The Mentor have made of the Militant Minority’s resistance to mechanisation, which, Marx had declared, was not merely undeniable but desirable, a progressive step on the road to socialism?
There were long dark nights of debate and consolation with fellow true believer Shuggie Meiklejohn.
Marx never pronounced on the game of cricket, as far as Joe’s exhaustive reading could discern. Which Joe found a great relief, as he loved the game, while suspecting that The Mentor, had he turned his considerable intellect to the subject, might have disapproved of cricket on innumerable grounds, deriving from innumerable isms, which Joe had elected to ignore when it came to donning the flannels. For Joe had discovered early on that batting calmed a 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, against weak opposition he was assigned to the outfield and, 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 particularly perturbance to Joe Keats as England’s two chief fast bowlers, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, 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 his offspring’s drift to Trotskyism and beyond.
Joe recruited and captained the only recorded all-communist cricket team to play the game. The Red XI enjoyed a single season in a northern coalfields district competition, losing every game, before disbanding. Love of the game saw Joe content to play beside reformists and other moderates, while drawing the line at teaming with management.
Off-field, with the outbreak of war, the doctrinal gymnastics required of left believers only worsened. The peripatetic alliances of the conflict necessitated several hardheaded twists and turns, all with a high degree of intellectual difficulty. For a time, the “correct” political line, according to Moscow, seemed positively mercurial. And like mercury, hard to swallow. What The Mentor would have made of the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact bedevilled Joe for two years. The German invasion of Russia came as a profound relief.
The ever-lurking suspicion that elastic thinking – pragmatism – albeit within the context of the longer historical view – was but the thin end of a wedge, saw Joe try to ease his troubled mind in contributing articles of impeccably impenetrable revolutionary logic to The Red Leader, organ of the MMM, and Common Cause, the Miners Federation newspaper, with intent to remind deviators and pragmatists, if not himself, of the true path. In utter harmony with The Mentor, many if not all of his submissions were deemed too prolix for publication.
As events transpired, the communist-led wave of progress had peaked by war’s end. Post war, nationalisation of the industry did not occur, defeat in the 1949 General Strike fuelled anti-communist forces, Menzies’ loss in the referendum to ban the communist party proved a short, false dawn, the Labor Party split, machines came onto pillars and by 1951 communists were being regularly outvoted in the Central Council of the Miners Federation.
Mid century Joe was forced to concede that the inevitable progress of historical materialism did not seem to be the way things were panning out. There was a fair chance socialism was not going to happen. At least, not in the way The Mentor had said it would. Joe concluded that the philosophical wedge was now fully in. He further concluded it was the disciples, always the disciples, who buggered things up.
Despite defeat, refusing to subscribe to the adage, if you can’t beat them, join them, Joe stayed true
Joe died in 1950, of lockjaw, tetanus infection, probably sourced to old, buried corrugated iron, remains of a pioneer miner’s shanty.
21. DOROTHY ALICE SHIPWATER
1923 – 2009
Dot’s red-haired father was relieved to find his newly-born daughter’s hair a light, mousey brown. He was further encouraged to learn that her birth had been painful but straightforward, a co-operative effort in a difficult time for all parties, an approach that sat equally well with her mother Sarah. The volatility associated with red hair, existent or unshakeable myth, had long played on his mind.
The early Dot was tempted, when opportunity arose, to torment her flame-haired younger brother by encouraging him to trust her, only for Ron to find such trust misplaced. The process more often than not took the form of Dot swearing “On God’s Honour” that some mysterious physical practice – a horsebite, a Chinese Burn, a sharp pointy knuckle to the bicep – would not hurt, only for pain and lasting bruising to result. That Ron persevered in trusting saw Dot deem little brother thick. Upon his growing more able to look after himself, Dot changed tactics, embracing psychological torture whilst retaining the overall strategy of forcing Ron to acknowledge her inherent superiority, if not of driving him insane. One particular example of mental assault was to prove of 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 she would poke out her tongue to highlight her point, which was undeniable. The young Dot did not follow the chain of logic any further, to query what employment opportunities were available to those frontbottoms who did not go down The Pit, apart from housewifery for those who did, an existential dilemma that was to plague her later years.
The early Dot also took a prepubertal fancy to brother Ron’s equal best friend, Cedric Bugg, which, reciprocated, led to exploratory liaisons in the Bugg and Shipwater chicken coops. Dot’s little brother warned her of his friend Cedric’s precocious tendency to romantic diaspora but the revelation that Cedric had been leading a secret love life, with multiple partners, in coops, avaries and pigeon roosts, since he was eight, proved no deterrent to Dot. Even after catching One Eye Goldfinch wiping feathers and birdshit from her school uniform on the day the eye doctor removed the brown paper from a lens of her spectacles, Dot’s ardour remained constant.
Thus the chicken coop liaison stretched, on Dot’s part, to a twenty year fancy – thought obsessive by some – and unreciprocated – leading to Cedric volunteering to fight the Japanese in New Guinea and Dot to training as a nurse, so to trace him to a hospital bed in Brisbane. Bayonetted while close Owen–gunning a Japanese soldier in half, heavily sedated, Cedric appeared not to recognise the nurse who more than routinely dropped by to flick his drip feed. Exposed as a malingerer and lover of the Head Nurse, 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 from memory as a complete waste of time and space, and to step out with a good looking, comparatively flush airman from Boise, Idaho, proved a turning point, but a temporary one, terminating with Dot’s discovery of a postcard to her brother announcing that Cedric was back on the docks and living in Balmain. Immediately remembering Cedric with great fondness, and despite the term stalking not having yet been coined, Dot recommenced stalking Cedric with great fondness, Concurrently stalking his latest girlfriend, a nurse at Callan Park Mental Hospital called Jane, Dot proceeded to shirtfront Jane in the carpark of the Balmain RSL, claiming that she, Dot, had married Cedric before the war and that he had bribed a mate to say he died on the Sandakan Death March to avoid taking responsibility for Dot and their five children under six years of age. Dot boosted her credentials with knowledge of the exact size and location of Cedric’s bayonet hole, which, she informed Jane, was actually 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 was also Cedric’s position. Unlike her peers, Dot did not drink to make it go away. It was remarked that her mental health seemed 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 end of the war, the return of men, the decreased demand for hospitalisation, saw a sharp decline in nursing positions, particularly in the region of the northern coalfields, to which Dot had returned after Cedric had doctored her Bonox with a New Zealand Scotch Whiskey doing the rounds of the docks, and run away while she was asleep, not to be seen again until 1985. While there was no quarterly ballot for nursing positions, Dot was effectively cavilled out of the care-giving industry. Switching to bar work, which in many respects she was to find similar to nursing, Dot obtained long term employment at the Long Jetty pub, working inside a cloud of smoke. Ordered to quit by a doctor, 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 named Kay (for Khe Sanh) seated on the petrol tank. Crank and several other Viet vets with loud antique 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 an aboriginal name, the vets rechristened their bolthole The Da Nang Alamo. A few years later The D. N. Alamo was busted by police. 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 after his release from Long Bay, Crank visited The Pit with a hundred other rebel bikers, sunglassed and bandana’d, in funerary procession for the late Geoff Phillips. Dot made a point of saying hello. Crank was about forty but looked sixty. His teeth, she thought, resembled an old graveyard.
With the death of their mother, Dot and Ron had the family cottage to themselves. Dot opted to sleep across the road, at the Caulfield’s. Dawn and dusk would see her crossing, to and from, in dressing gown, clutching a toiletries bag.
During the day, her brother mostly asleep, or out, Dot enjoyed the company of a white cat, Whitey, palsied by close quarter exposure, as a kitten, to home-brewed flyspray, and a balding cockatoo, permanent occupant of the front verandah rail, by the name of Neville. Near-featherless 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 bequeathed the bird a larynx of iron. Dot found it hard to get a word in edgewise, her disadvantage later increased by having to project via a prosthesis. Sentences emerged from the device – permanently overdue for service – as a croak within a wheeze inside a whistle. Such utterances had until recent years also been accented by a jet of cigarette smoke from the neck. Dot hated doctors. She fingered her prosthesis as though a treasured cameo choker.
Dot produced a single offspring, a daughter, late gift from a rogue wandering Caulfield who kept wandering. Shelley was a blonde airline hostess whose original hair colour was a meek brown.
20. WILLIAM BERNARD GOLDFINCH
1895 – 1967
A prescient Wolfgang Stieglitz, industrial businessman, ex of The Ruhr, long 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 different city, where there would be less chance of his former self being remembered.
Willy Goldfinch, formerly Wilhelm Bernhard Stieglitz, late of London, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Essen, this last only mentioned when sorely pressed, wore a brown suit, a stiff white Egyptian cotton handkerchief monogrammed “W.G.” in blue protruding from the pocket, a black hat, and thought himself a soft cop as regards his dealings with the workforce. Educated, managerially accented, cut from superior Anglo-Germanic cloth, viewing himself as post-Victorian, he had determined on the ship to Australia that rather than live up to the toffee-nosed bullying stereotype of Anglo-Germanic management, he would be firm but fair to Scots, Irish, and Welshman alike. This balance was tested, particularly upon encountering a number of Maltese men working in The Pit.
Married to Mercia, with two children, it was ventured, principally by Nerys Ferris, that Mrs Goldfinch resented offspring Craig and Felicity because Mrs G wanted to be an artist, working in watercolours, outdoors, and not have to make school lunches.
Both Goldfinch children suffered optical issues, quickly earning Craig the school nickname ‘Four Eyes’ and Felicity ‘One Eye’. She, having to wear bottle-glass 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. To bolster a faltering liaison with widow Betty Boisisto, who cleaned management offices, Willy found it advantageous to ‘look kindly’ upon her son Jimmy, and upon his graduation to The Pit, secure the lad a job ‘up top’, less challenging to chalky bones and a fear of the dark.
Willy saw additional benefit in educating Jimmy in the nature of the industrial/political struggle, as seen from the management perspective. Jimmy learned that, without coal, there would be no civilization, for civilization was 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, 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 it stood still and he, Willy Goldfinch, would not let that happen. He loaned Jimmy his personally annotated copy of The Wealth Of Nations.
It was strongly suspected in The Pit that, during the 1941 Record Stay-In Strike, undermanager Goldfinch had bribed Jimmy Bosisto – with promise of a new motorised lawnmower – to sabotage the strike via the importation of beer, news of which, splashed across conservative front pages, saw the striking miners depicted as having an ‘underground picnic’. Willy Goldfinch was widely quoted in the accompanying reportage.
The social consequences of market-driven management being hard to avoid in a one-industry pit town, ‘firm but fair’ cutting no ice with a cavilled-out miner, Willy found himself on the wrong side of a widening class divide, expressed in public and private intercourse, unavoidable unless he remained indoors, door shut, atop Snob Hill.
He did not enjoy distributing retrenchment notices. Yet it seemed that in his final years of employment, the post war decades of mechanisation and overproduction, loss of markets, competition from oil, export recovery followed by collapse, the putting off of men, occasionally putting them back on, only to put them off again, was all Willy did. Never wavering from laisssez-faire, or necessity, according to Willy’s lights, he nevertheless found the interpersonal actuality, in a small community, emotionally exhausting. He did not like not being liked. And was happy to take early retirement when it was offered.
A relationship with secretary Nerys Ferris, she then seventeen, pursued mostly outdoors, resulted in the birth of a baby girl, Dimity. Mother and baby soon moved in with Willy and his children, atop ‘Snob Hill’, following the mysterious departure of Mrs Goldfinch, the circumstances of her disappearance subject to much speculation: that she lay in a shallow grave in the bush, had been chopped up and fed to the fish, was buried under a management-provoked goaf collapse, and the like.
Nerys Ferris never quite made the grade atop Snob Hill. When the Goldfinches had visitors, Nerys Ferris ate by herself in the kitchen. In this, ‘One Eye’ Goldfinch gained a certain revenge upon the coiner of her nickname.
The unexpected return of Mrs Goldfinch, putting paid to variations on her demise, saw Nerys Ferris traipsed back down from Snob Hill with Dimity in tow, it transpiring that Mrs Goldfinch had merely abandoned Willy and sight-deprived kids and run away to an artists’ colony in Wollongong. Nerys Ferris would later claim to have the word from the southern coalfields artists’ colony that Mrs Goldfinch was a crap artist, because she couldn’t stand untidiness, which, Nerys Ferris said, was essential to being an artist, and which explained why Mrs Goldfinch took Willy back. Or went back to him. Or met him halfway. Soon after, Willy Goldfinch secured transfer to Helensburgh, one of few surviving pits on the southern coalfields, discarding Nerys Ferris and daughter Dimity, along with other belongings, upon departure.
Upon retirement, taken to the cleaners by Mercia, Willy returned to The Pit and purchased the cottage once housing Lionel Thorpe as a holiday cottage, which, renovated to taste, would be eminently rentable when Willy was not in occupancy. Over time, Willy came to occupy it more than he had planned. After an unfortunate incident, evidencing that class consciousness, like the state, had not withered away, Willy elected not to patronise the bowling club or the pub. 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. Willy’s name is inscribed on the page of an open book fashioned in white marble. Perhaps not wishing to be disturbed, perhaps still class conscious, his resting place is enclosed within a waist-high spear-ended wrought iron fence.
19. “SHORT” OWEN DAVIES JONES
1898 – 1963
Short Owen Jones is interred in what might be taken for a raised garden bed, concrete block walled, wherein sprout weeds from a bed of small, coal-coated pebbles. A number of relatives rest nearby, forming a small but historically informative Jones precinct.
There being innumerable Jones’s on the coalfields, particularly in the north, which tended protestant and variations thereon, Owen was forever specifically identified as Short Owen Jones. Resembling somewhat an oversized bath toy in a shabby suit, frequently going shirtless under the single-breasted garment, both underground and above, 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.
The Pit Choir, as a social gathering highly successful, further excuse for solely male company, out of the house, was disappointing from a musical viewpoint. Not least because, curiously, many of the antipodean Welshmen proved incapable of living up to stereotype. Short Owen was the exception. Able to maintain perfect pitch under extreme duress, his tenor rippled with beauty even when in the company of a far less talented chorus. In consequence, he sang at the funeral of every fellow miner, 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. Claiming to know over a thousand popular songs, all of which proved less popular in the absence of alcohol, the Jones vibrato would seem to burgeon in amplitude as it echoed through bords and pillars of The Pit, to lose itself in the maze, falter, fade, find itself once again, and be sonorous and pitch perfect upon return to the flat, in the interim having outdistanced less tuneful choristers.
Short Owen Jones the Jetty Hand, Richard “Dickie” Jones, and Johnno Jones – not to mention the accompanying cohort of Davis, Davies, Davy, Hughes, Jenkins, and Evans – would, now and then, under the influence of wine and song, return to their assorted home vales, with perhaps a joint 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 Jones, a longtime widower, wife Brenda having died giving birth to son Neville, he later to become a noted firebug as captain of the local volunteer fire brigade, was an admirer of Sarah Shipwater. Mentoring her son Ron on his entry into The Pit, later lending the lad money to purchase a shotgun, Short Owen deemed it proper to wait until Malcolm Shipwater was legally declared dead before venturing to ask Sarah to screening of “The Wizard Of Oz” in Cessnock, as a first indication of his interest.
Several popular movies later, after forty six years underground, Short Owen Jones retired. He and Sarah took the festive opportunity to announce their engagement. The soon-to-be happy couple also revealed their impending relocation to Swansea – Wales – taking the pension with them. The marriage was tested. Sarah hated Wales. Hated the Welsh. Hated the singing. Hated the leeks. Hated the cold. Hated Short Owen, by the end.
Short Owen and Sarah both returned home to The Pit, but for different reasons, and on separate ships. Short Owen became a stalwart of the lawn bowls team. That he could sing and bowl at the same time unsettled opposition teams.
18. CEDRIC GEOFFREY KEATS
1924 – 2001
The predecease of Cedric Keats’ late life partner Ruby Salmon furnished him 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, the whole edged in an assortment of bathroom tiles cadged from a suburban demolition site several years earlier, just in case. Tiled lettering identifies the occupants and the terms of their lives. The concrete slab, lain two sections, allowed for staggered decease and interment.
Sexually and politically precocious, by any measure Cedric Keats’ boyhood was nothing if not spectacular.
The only child of robust communists who rushed to cohabit in the afterglow of 1917, only to develop significant differences over Lenin’s New Economic Policy, and separate completely after Stalin’s ascent to de facto leadership of The Party, Cedric was thereafter raised by his father, Joe Keats, an unshakeable Marxist puritan, his mother Coral Caulfield having moved in with a follower of the increasingly out-of-favour and changeable Trotsky.
From earliest schooling Cedric attracted routine caning – six of the best, often on both hands – from Headmaster Hobbs (Hobbsie). Punishments received, however, numbered significantly less than crimes committed, Cedric possessing an uncanny ability to have others blamed for his transgressions, notably his best mate Fatty Shipwater and to lesser extent, given caning would likely cause injury in the form of broken fingers, the chalky-boned Skinny Bosisto.
From first thrashing, caning had no effect on Cedric. Rather, it stimulated him to further illicit activity. While Headmaster Hobbs was distracted, for example caning a fellow offender, Cedric, back to blackboard, would rub coloured chalk on his hands so that when it came to his turn to be caned, it seemed as if his hand had exploded. This 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 – they came in a pack of six – and would head off the instruments at the pass, so to speak.
Cedric also possessed the ability to fart at will. Headmaster Hobbs’ History Of The Kings And Queens Of England seemed particularly to provoke indiscretion in the form of broken wind, and for Fatty Shipwater, in particular, to be blamed. The much admired capacity to divert blame was attributable 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 introduced Alberto Vella’s god-daughter Denise, aged eleven, to smoking and kissing, only for Skinny Bosisto somehow to be identified as the guilty party and merit Alberto’s undying wrath for the next fifty years. The smoking and kissing infraction reflected a pre-pubertal knack with the opposite sex which, slack heaps soon being dismissed as too exposed, more often than not found expression, such as it was, in backyard chicken coops, aviaries and pigeon roosts. That the knack gained Cedric semi-regular liaisons with Dot Shipwater from the age of nine would have post-pubertal repercussions in the form of obsessional stalking on her part. Cedric’s assignations remained confidential, strictly between participants, until Dot caught Goldfinch wiping feathers and birdshit from her school uniform on the day the eye doctor removed the brown paper from her spectacles. Nerys Ferris was the only girl Cedric was never interested in, which had the effect of driving Nerys Ferris crazy.
It was only natural that Cedric should embrace communism at the age of eleven. Attending meetings in Cessnock and Kurri Kurri with his father, he discovered a bottomless well of words, “Red Ced” – as he styled himself – and quickly became prolix in the correct, phrase-mongering vein. At first aligning with his father in the Militant Minority Movement (MMM), a covert affiliate of the Comintern, Cedric’s growing awareness of Stalin’s propensity to purge, culminating in the Show Trial of Cedric’s favourite old Octoberist. Bukharin, once regarded as the heart and soul of The Party, saw Cedric’s tendency tend across to his mother’s side and the embrace of Trotskyist oppositionism.
At thirteen, faced with entering The Pit, alongside his father, on his next birthday, Red Ced devised a plan to avoid working for the capitalist ruling class. He would join Wirth’s Circus, be paid to get shot out of a cannon, or similar, lead a campaign for improved wages and conditions under the Big Top, save the resulting higher wages, visit Trotsky in Mexico – where Enemy Of The People Number One was hiding out – and offer his services as a bodyguard.
Voice not yet broken, drunk, legs spread, vomiting a rope-like line down the middle of the road following a farewell party behind the pub, resourced by drinks filched from the verandah rail, Cedric departed The Pit and was not seen again for forty years.
Fatty Shipwater did receive postcards for several years, the passage of time seeing Cedric’s scrawl approach the microscopic in accommodating the burgeoning number and size of his political and sexual outpourings. Red Ced progressively announced that he was boarding with Auntie Joy in Newtown, she too being a red, her militancy OP strength; that Wirth’s circus weren’t hiring; that running away to sea he had made it as far as the wharf and was the youngest member of the Waterside Workers Federation; that the government hated the wharfies because the union had refused to ship pig iron to the Japs; the south coast pits had gone out in in sympathy, but the northern fields had not, which amounted to class treachery; that he was off to Spain to fight the fascists, and had met a nurse, ten years older, who was sailing next day; that Franco had declared victory before Cedric’s boat could sail; that Auntie Joy had instructed him to take the longer historical view; that Trotsky’s murder sent him downward spiral and go bush, land a job delivering ice to young country housewives, meet the Iceworks Manager’s daughter in the freezer on a hot day; that boss’s daughters in general seemed to fancy communists; that the reactionary Iceworks Manager had demanded Cedric marry his daughter or cop an ice-axe to the head like his mate Trotsky; that after being engaged for six hours, he stole the Iceworks Manager’s son’s bike, and rode to Queensland that night; that he joined the newly formed Eureka Youth League dedicated to advance of the new socialist order and enlisted to fight the Japanese. After which the postcards ceased arriving, for five years, as Cedric attempted to evade the persistent affections of wartime nurse Dot Shipwater
Return of the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 1947, following wartime sabbatical, saw Cedric working the Dodgem Cars, hanging off the electric pole at the back, flirting with female riders. His certainty that year-round employment on the country circuit would result, as the sideshows had lost a lot of workers in the war, and the union had come out strongly against employment of underage schoolkids, enticed Fatty Shipwater away from the cemetery to sell of pluto pups, polly waffles and fairy floss, and Skinny Bosisto to inhabit the Ghost Train clad as a skeleton. Residing three-in-a-room at the Bellevue Private Hotel For Single Men Only, within wafting distance of Tooth’s Broadway brewery, the trio’s roo, and themselves, subsequently, reeked of beer. Cedric also took his mates a lane in East Sydney where women propped up the doorways. They observed, only.
A sideshow romance with Sandra Hong, the Chinese-Australian girl who sold tickets to the Mirror Maze and awarded Maze Master Medals, while simultaneously studying for the Leaving Certificate, her booth full of books, foundered upon Sandra catching Cedric showing his Japanese bayonet scar to The Pearl King’s daughter aboard the ferris wheel. Producing a large market gardener’s knife, a present from her father, Sandra pursued Cedric across the showground, through the woodchopping and pony trap events, out into Moore Park, where, hiding in deep bunker on Moore Park golf course, Cedric eluded his would-be murdereress.
Quitting the Dodgems without notice, going to ground, Cedric later resurfaced as a railway attendant on Sydenham station, sweeping cigarette butts into a half kero tin nailed on the end of a broomstick, introducing schoolgirls to smoking and communism and flashing his bayonet scar.
In1985, disappointed communist Cedric returned to The Pit behind the wheel of a bronze Valiant AP6, a woman named Ruby in the passenger seat, a plywood humpback named ‘Ruby’ on tow, and an tinny named ‘Ruby Too!’ on the roof, all in various stages of restoration. 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. Ruby had lost both legs, as she put it, “in a smoking accident”, Cedric rescuing her from the protective custody of timid offspring. Having fashioned a pair of turned oak limbs on a pit carpenter’s lathe, beautifully marine varnished, with stainless steel and leather fittings, Cedric found successful attachment to the ageing female trunk to prove an ongoing problem.
Fearful of the confluence of Ruby and Dot, Cedric avoided notions of permanency until assured Dot’s stalking days were over, whereupon car, boat and caravan were planted in the vacant lot where Hec Morgan’s house had stood prior to demolition by the company, Ruby daily seated in the tinny, afloat in long grass, squinting at generator-powered black and white TV while Cedric, half under the Valiant, nickied rust with bog.
17. LIONEL BALTHAZAR THORPE
1887 – 1953
A Derby Man
Lionel Thorpe lies in an unmarked grave, the tinplate marker on a white wooden cross having corroded beyond legibility. Lacking the waterproofing of, for example, the tomb of Perce Finch, 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.
Lionel’s working week face was a black planet, in midst of which oscillated a pair eyeballs, permanently frantic, in raspberry-rimmed sockets. Lionel had nystagmus. A nocturnal methodist and staunch bolshevik, devout and accusatory within both, his long black fingers pointed like arrows. Communism and Methodism – unlikely bedfellows – the opiate and the god killer – had found an accommodation in Lionel’s 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 failed Lionel, he always had back up in the other. Lionel cackled without smiling. He and Fizzer Phillips were hewing mates of longstanding. Following shot firing, the dust in their bord nowhere near cleared, they would scamper like gnomes into the cloud of dust to rip coal. They were contract men. Time was money.
The name Balthazar had enjoined the family in late Georgian times, when a pioneering Balthazar Thorpe had been named after one of the Three Magi, in the hope of bettering family fortunes, but who was as a teenager transported to Australia for theft.
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 large family not sharing the patriarch’s longing for leaden skies, dank streets and foul smells. That he hankered for home but remained on the sunny side of the earth evidenced a state of pleasure in sin, mortifying to Lionel while sober, which he mostly was, in light of his methodism, but which, in also happening to frown upon dancing, saw on the morning after Lionel turn to communism for the antidote to guilt.
Expressing mortification at his sinful state, 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 actually was actually blessed with fair skin and red hair only became apparent once a week, in church. Every year April Fool’s Day saw Lionel claiming to be Ron Fatty Shipwater’s real father, cackling without smiling, until the old Bengal Lancer – courtesy of colonial sunshine in the guise of melanoma – got him.
16. ALBERTO “WINGNUT” VELLA
1900 – 1987
Alberto Georgio Vella was one of a number of young Maltese miners shipped to Australia to win coal at the beginning of The Great War. That the decline of the British Empire had darkened Malta’s economic future was an added incentive. 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 for an actual or even would-be Australian, the taxi-door effect was magnified by the wearing, pulled hard and low, of a blue cloth hat which was never removed, indoors or out, due to the encroachment of premature baldness. After first donning a cheap hairpiece, possibly homemade, the resultant mockery and difficulty of maintaining the item accurately in place when handling horses saw Wingnut prompt in graduating to the perpetual hat. Behind his back, it was ventured that he wore the item in bed.
Anxious minority catholic and lapsed communist Wingnut Vella was reputed to have once castrated a young billy goat with his teeth. No-one knew why. Miner-short, his small-footed steps somehow produced a clicking noise on all surfaces. He walked with one arm permanently crooked behind his back.
Long ago, in Valetta, attested Wingnut, routinely holding court in high speed Maltese-English, free arm furiously waving, a brash, youthful Alberto Vella had fallen into bad company, that of “the red psycho bomb-throwing terrorists” intent on placing Malta under the heel of atheistic anarchy, only for the young man to be saved at the last moment by what was palpably an Act Of God. About to hurl a bomb at a courthouse, the young Alberto felt the Lord seize his preferred bomb-throwing arm and twist it behind his back in a divine half Nelson to show 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, the mature Vella had retained the arm permanently fixed behind his back.
In spite of this overt commitment to peace, Wingnut had on occasion been known to revert and, no bomb being to hand, belt the tripe out of an antagonist such as his nemesis Fatty Shipwater, who had, it was revealed thirty eight years after the fact, impregnated Wingnut’s niece, Maria Vella, during the 1947 Royal Easter Show.
Perhaps Wingnut Vella’s main claim to fame, locally, posthumously, was that he died after being run over by his own wife, at the wheel of their Datsun 120Y. At night, in season, the sea-mist folded up the cliff like milk up a saucepan, to slowly drown the town. It made walking home from watering holes an occasionally bruising affair.
Wingnut, Chocko and other bereaved Vellas had found it necessary themselves to complete excavation for Wingnut’s wife Nadia, during which time the deceased was returned home to lie at rest in the front room for longer than was usual. Suspecting sabotage on the part of the family enemy, Wingnut was on a reinvigorated warpath. Jimmy claimed to have mislaid Nadia’s booking. Following the delayed lowering, he claimed to have forgotten to fill the grave with earth.
15. SAMUEL MALCOLM SHIPWATER
1901 – ?
He Loved To Fish
Malcolm Shipwater’s gravesite, reserved in late 1934, purchased by his family on lay-by over a decade, remains unoccupied and marked by a commemorative headstone lacking in finality.
Submerged in a fontful of cold northern Calvinism, Malcolm was christened Samuel Malcolm Shipwater 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 Shipwater that her son was soft.
Father Charlie’s legacy was red hair, a rubbery crescent smile, dark suit, pair of boots and collection of tools. Ten at the time of the accident, Malcolm laid out on 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. For the better part of six years – three months in France excepted, during which time Gramma undertook the task – Malcolm cleaned the tools, oiled them against rust and rubbed 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, 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, Malcolm thought. Slam. Gone.
Malcolm only spoke when spoken to. What was new to talk about? Unless there had been an accident or management was trying, again, still, to pull some bastard of a trick. He lacked his father’s touch in the garden, at times managing to coax a vegetable from the soil, 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. when no answer came. He found pleasure in fishing but even then was suspicious of the feeling. Projecting a rubbery smiling nonchalance, occasionally 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 The Pit when his 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. Chronicles of exploitation, rebellion, history, passed to the son from the father, at the coalface. The tradition wove as a black ribbon back to the old, dark, cold country. Yet Malcolm felt relief, which went unexpressed, when Dot was born. Her hair was a light, mousey brown. The later arrival of a violently redhaired son was simply fate. At the pub, Malcolm sat the baby on the bar, in winter, swaddled in a bar towel.
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 hook and sinker 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.
In winter 1934, Malcolm vanished while fishing, his rod discovered on the jetty by his son. Two leatherjackets died in their bucket before the arrival of police. The body was never found. 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. Freak wave. Didn’t finish his rum. So where was his tobacco?
No theory of Malcolm’s fate was ever proven correct. Sightings of wiry red-haired men thought to resemble missing person Malcolm Shipwater 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. Betty Bosisto, journeying by bus to a miner’s wedding in Helensburgh, near Wollongong, claimed to see Malcolm hitch-hiking outside the Kangy Angy roadhouse, where 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 Bosisto, looked fast. Betty was known to possess a keen eye, having spotted husband Bob’s burnt body tearing through the heads on an outgoing tide in a choppy Swansea Channel. 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 rumour had it his great great grandfather was the bastard son of a Midlothian Laird, said to possess castle and fortune, and who had violently exercised his extinct droit de seigneur on a pretty young Shipwater farm girl. Or perhaps the Shipwater 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 Bugg 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.
14. ALAN CHRISTOPHER GOODE
1948 – 2014
Alan Goode, it was opined out of earshot, was of that type of man who look 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 Goode 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, CJ 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 servicing The Pit. He had expected, having worked hard, long before time of decease to have moved on to, and in the fullness of time be buried beneath, far more upmarket pastures, having made substantial capital gains on recently acquired properties in a not-too-distant village, three former miners’ cottages, now free of miners, and the former mine accountant’s residence, a superior property, with views, atop the village hill. Tipped off by a regional city councillor that town water would soon be connected to the village, formerly known as The Pit, so removing the only reason 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 having 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 arranged in heaven, or perhaps avenge himself upon his ex wife via conspicuous success without her, Alan moved into the mine accountant’s former residence, prayed with stolidity, commuted to work in the regional city while networking, doing favours, joining working bees, attending church, glad-handing and otherwise insinuating himself into The Pit community on weekends, 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.
Perhaps sensing absence of empathy, animals also seemed not to respect Alan Goode while, unlike humans, not hiding how they felt. Taking no notice of water-filled plastic bottles geometrically scattered by The Club President, local dogs persistently defecated, en masse, upon the close-shaven bowling green. That a pack of the worst offenders seemed always to trail Fatty Shipwater onto club premises saw Alan Goode develop an understandable set against the drunken village gravedigger and threaten to poison any and all of his dogs, should they crap on his green again.
Alan Goode’s long wait for earthly reward was, in the end, rewarded. The sudden death of Fatty Shipwater seemed to dispirit local dogs to the extent that they no longer fouled the bowling green, as gentrifiers arrived who were willing to pay top dollar for decaying four-room cottages, despite there being no town water, and the conveyancing arm of Alan’s business began to thrive. His relationship with Nerys Ferris ended just under a week after the move into Alan’s house.
Alan Goode 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 front yard as Alan started downhill, was a direct descendant of the notorious Fritz, he who annually had conducted forward defence of his family from the angophora between creekbed and schoolyard. Fritz’s great great great granddaughter had, like the youthful Nerys Ferris, seized an opportunity to move uphill to a more salubrious neighbourhood, and breed.
Unique to The Pit in having funeral insurance, Alan Goode was buried beneath sparkling quartz and red-veined marble, topped with Corinthian column and Grecian urn.
13. BRADLEY STEPHEN OSMAN
1955 – 2017
Gone To Surf City
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. Feeling out of place, 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”. 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, in company. 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 village held no memories of quiet holidays past. It had no caravan park, no motel, no holiday flats. No town water. The Pit village had a creaking timber hotel frequented by a shrinking clientele of coal miners. A throwback, which had not long ago acquired a new proprietor. Brad Osman had realised The Dream. An old pub in a small town by the ocean. The mature wave hunter’s antidote to choked surf. He determined to achieve a balance between raising the tone of his premises and preserving character. And he had had 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 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 daytrippers, 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 he headland, when it went ahead.
Fatty Shipwater, ever reliable in the commission of atrocity, left no stone unturned in furnishing Brad with ample excuse to ban the alcoholic gravedigger from further attendance at the establishment, so majorly contributing to the creation of an ambience unthreatening to any incoming bourgeois tide.
A lifetime ban 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. Being barred from both waterholes would, it was averred, be another matter. Built 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.
Brad 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 reclines, loosely, like an airline seat. Long before Brad’s decease, clay was fully occupied by those who knew.
12. HUGH WILLIS “SHUGGIE MARX” MEIKLEJOHN
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, Shuggie* Marx Meiklejohn bore distinct resemblance to Lenin. The likeness lay concealed by a coating of coal during the working week. Nevertheless, daily professions of devout russophilia saw Shuggie Marx 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 were furious with everyone and all but everything. At the heart of Meiklejohn ire – misery inverted – lay the desire to return to Lanarkshire, although they hated the place, as Meiklejohns had always done, not least since Blantyre and the “Dixons” pits, where Robert Meiklejohn, aged twenty six, and Thomas Meiklejohn, aged seventeen – distant uncles, unmet – had perished along with two hundred and five other men and boys in the disaster of 1877.
The furious pair of Meiklejohn brothers had found, to their profound aggravation, that historical grievance, sectarian contest, and tribal feud all lacked pungency in the New World. Yes, the ancient antagonisms had emigrated along with their carriers but, in Meiklejohn eyes, the aggravations seemed quickly to be seeping from the skin – at least, from the skin of comrades – to evaporate in antipodean sunshine. The rebellious blood was thinning. That miners went to the beach in their time off said all that needed to be said, averred Shug, before proceeding to say much, much more. Virulent in extolling the shining light of the Soviet state, Shug’s top lip would curl upwards like a horse, tongue vibrate at speed, spittle shower his audience and surviving teeth be revealed as short and brown, whereupon, in conclusion, whiskey and milk elevated in toast – “Russians pray with their eyes open” – Shug Marx would bring down upon the table, hard, a fist resembling a black cauliflower.
Much whiskey and milk later in the evening, when Shuggie began to hear a distant skirl from across the loch and see the golden light, perhaps even 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.
At 17, at Rothbury, Shug was batoned by a pair of mounted policeman, and, haring for the hole in the fence, witnessed the fatal shooting of Norman Brown. Forty other locked-out miners received gunshot wounds. The scabs kept working. Communist explication of the event, its political context, made the most sense to Shug. The Reds were tight, organised, did whatever it took. Shug enrolled in a class in Marxism at Kurri Kurri School of Arts and, enlightened by Moscow, sooner than most had the language of the nomenklatura down pat.
Mastery of correct language, it transpired, was the easy part of being a communist. The unquiet relationship between theory and practice – Marx and Moscow – was a different matter altogether, Shuggie Marx’s left equilibrium soon being unsettled, gravely, by the looming prospect of mechanisation in The Pit. His German namesake had declared mechanisation an inevitable step on the road to socialism. With due respect to the German, the Federation argued that high productivity and cheap coal meant local capacity exceeded 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 reality having made him even angrier.
The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact unsettled Shug far beyond any default state of Meiklejohn unsettlement. What was a devout Marxist-Leninist anti-fascist to make of this trans-Poland cosying up? Let alone fathom it in secret, The Party having now been banned. Shug was clambering out a toilet window mid police raid on a Cessnock cell when he saw the light: that sly fox Stalin was simply luring Hitler to his doom with united front-ist phrase mongering, biding time until revolutionary socialism came to Germany, which it inevitably would, soon, because Marx and Lenin, in not so many words, or perhaps in more, had said so, and thus the war was simply another good old-fashioned imperialist conflict like the last one. Of course it was! Thereafter, Shug all but barricaded The Pit with his body in trying to prevent brother Alec, Donny Caulfield, Johnno Jones and other political innocents from joining up. There was a bigger war to be won, he roared. To disagree was to be one or more of a crypto-fascist, a social fascist, a ruling class fascist, a left phrase monger, Shug declaimed, head filling with blood as he punched bosses’ lickspittles, class-traitors. adventurists and rootless cosmopolitan drinkers at the pub.
Dialectical inner churning returned to Meiklejohn bowels with the news that Hitler was three hundred miles inside Russia and motoring. Whereupon Shug all but shoved young men out the pit door. Stalin having switched sides, The Party subsequently unbanned, Cessnock police returned the roneo machine. Hughie took it home and ran it red hot. His leaflets left ink all over his hands but made powerful reading. Mother Russia was bleeding purple. If Shug could have parachuted young miners onto the Eastern Front, he would have.
Then, Stalingrad! Nothing and no-one could unsettle Shug after Stalingrad. Shug admired sacrifice. That’s what Russians did, all through history, he declaimed. Sacrifice and suffer. Thanks to the revolution, that historical stage was almost over, he said. In Russia anyway. The Pit community had not yet reached the full sacrifice and suffer stage, in his view. But he was determined to see it through.
By retirement, the Shug politik had become entertainment for the young. Encouraged, the rickety, frame-pushing old commo would ritually flay capitalists, fellow travellers, and any and all enemies of the people, showering spittle, and for dramatic emphasis, or lack of oral control, rolling his “R’s” way beyond quotidian Scottish. Keeping a straight face was seen as a test by his audience. On average, by the time Shug was patiently explaining how the ‘rrrrruling class” used “morrrrrtgages to turn the “worrrrking class bourrrrgeois” and so render them “docile as fffffoooooking donkeys”, the disrespectful young could contain mirth no longer and Shug realised he had been had. Short term memory loss facilitated Shug being had, frequently, in identical fashion.
A heart attack as would fell a horse saw Shug unexpectedly cross the white bridge – as local idiom had it – to take up residence in the cemetery. “Straight after the gunshot”, moaned daughter-in-law “Moaning” Janice Jones. “The old bastard just stiffened and died. Straight after the gunshot.” The fatal shot, fired into the air, by “Fatty” Shipwater, was intended simply as a warning to Alberto “Wingnut” Vella to desist from reference to the impregnation of niece Maria Vella, illegitimate son, Dominic, and their flight to Malta, it being Shuggie Marx’s misfortune to be dozing on a nearby verandah at the time.
Laid out in his box, Shuggie Marx looked even more like Lenin, forehead polished and shined as requested, in semblance of the mummified Lenin reposing within the Red Square mausoleum, the allusion fading as Shuggie, too close to a window, turned a waxy yellow colour, a low wattage bulb contributing 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 or Shug: Glaswegian diminutive of Hugh.
11. BILLY BURNS
1929 – 1983
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, including Jeremiah Burns, and fifteen including John Burns, respectively. Upon getting a second wind, Billy would oftimes 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 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 a rugby league prop’s ear 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, curiously high pitched and bird-like, gums dripping, he would have bitten off both ears. Much amused by himself, Billy would then laugh like a frayed squeeze box, walk 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 bottle with an eye socket, he having taken too long to master the skill himself, and intent on saving the teeth of the younger generation.
Further, Billy had a pet theory on the mysterious disappearance, while fishing, of Malcolm Shipwater: Malcolm had not drowned, nor had he 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. But no abandoned fishing rod on Wigan pier. Billy would then wink, severally, sweat glistening on the eyelid, before revealing that he – this unnamed fellow – had another family now.
Billy died of the dust. Only one of his families made it to the funeral. His local widow 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.
10. EVELYN LEITH “EVE” SHIPWATER
1899 – 1988
In Jesus’ Car*
Evelyn shortened herself to Eve upon reading The Book Of Genesis. Fierily 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 nephew Ron’s first waking Anzac Day, Eve stuffed the baby in Gramma Shipwater’s gladstone bag, smuggled him out the back door and up the creek bed, and interred the boy under leaf litter at the base of a mature paperbark. Noting the absence, promptly displaying a sixth or seventh sense, Gramma Shipwater proceeded straight to the burial location and exhumed the leaf-littered child, alive. 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 Shipwater and Eve knew what. It was possible Eve did not know, exactly. Years later, in the throes of senility, talking in her sleep on Anzac Day, Gramma was heard seemingly to identify the soldier as her brother, Uncle Bill, M.M., who had survived Gallipoli only to perish at Fromelles. Eve and her mother, Gramma Shipwater, slept in the same bed. Under pressure, Eve rocked.
At the age of thirty three, Eve experienced what was later confirmed in her eyes as a miracle. Malcolm, missing for seven years, was officially declared dead. Widow Sarah was freed to marry longtime bachelor Short Owen Jones. Anointed head bridesmaid, ferried across the hinterland lake for a fitting, nearing the far shore, Eve’s hitherto limited attention was captured by a cluster of variously aged females on the pier, clutching Globite suitcases, black and white uniforms billowing in the breeze blowing over 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 would ever remain a mystery. Resisting efforts to drag her away, threatening to rock, Eve watched the joyful clutch board a sizeable cabin craft, chug away over the lake, and disappear.
The women, explained dressmaker aunt Nan Baker, were Brides Of Christ. The expression and phenomenon were wholly new to Eve. Historically, papists had been well warned off Shipwater premises. Eve having been christened methodist after the presbyterian cleric’s horse went lame, her awakening to the role of divine spouse was Damascene. The pied, billowing vision on the pier was a Sign. She was being called.
Centuries of Shipwater 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 Shipwater was adamant papists and coal barons were in league to conspire against the working class. “Spain”, she would intone, as if nothing more need be said, before proceeding to reference at length Falangist/Papist outrages of the civil war. The burning of churches, on the other hand, was understandable.
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 made from sticks of all sizes and tree species, bound with vine and grass, dangling at various heights, rustling and rattling, such that, 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 what they were patron saint of. She read The Bible to garden vegetables which, she claimed, stopped dying. She hung lurid, glowing depictions of Jesus and Mary on the wall of the bedroom for Gramma Shipwater to tear down on sight, Gramma’s developing cataracts aiding Eve’s cause. Several times in her mid-to-late thirties she 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 formally to take vows, she was nevertheless permitted to wear 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 Brides of Christ, on occasion returning home behind the wheel of an Austin A40 replete with Christ’s harem, driving, averred terrified relatives, like a “Holy Maniac”.
Visiting her niece Dot, sole occupant of the Shipwater cottage following the death of brother Fatty, overnighting in the bed she once shared with her mother, Eve died in her sleep. She was interred in the Presbyterian section beside Gramma Shipwater.
*A prankster – knowing Eve – erased the ‘e’.
9. ARTHUR FREDERICK PRATT
1872 – 1944
Fought the Good Fight
Arthur Pratt, at sixty nine, was the oldest of the 1941 Record Stay-In Strikers. Barely able to walk because of his lungs, Arthur was wheeled in, periodically belting his chest as if something was trying to get out, which never could, 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. Fred Pratt proudly proclaimed his father also to be one of the strikers who had applied gelignite to the 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-inflected dialect of the north east when not wishing to be understood, or, attempting to be apposite to time and place, 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 poured blackjack in his tea with milk and three sugars. Blackjack was evil looking, evil smelling stuff, in the main a mixture of licorice and methylated spirits. Arthur swore it kept him alive. His cousin was a vet chemist who worked at the Wyong track.
Dusted, Arthur had “lungs like concrete”, a doctor, but not the company doctor, said. When he had the strength, Arthur worked the Old Men’s section. Management could not get rid of him. He had more seniority than Methuselah, whoever Methuselah was, wherever Methuselah hewed, laughed fellow workers. Younger miners topped up Arthur’s skip when he wasn’t looking. Arthur laughed in relating, every day, that his doctor reckoned blackjack was useless against lungs like concrete. When Arthur laughed, comrades held their breath in case it killed him. Heaving and rattling and changing colour, he belted his chest to get loose whatever was stuck. Then he spat. What Arthur spat was indescribable.
When the aged pension for miners was introduced in 1941, Arthur Pratt retired and the Old Men’s Section quickly disappeared. The Retired Miners Association was constituted to keep an eye on retired miners’ pay and conditions, and agitate if necessary. A branch was established in a militant corner of the pub. Meetings were held all day every day.
Arthur Pratt was buried with a goodly supply of blackjack in his coat pocket. He spent three years in retirement with nothing to do but drink. Beer with a blackjack chaser.
8. GEOFFREY WILFRED “TINSNIPS” CLUTTEN
1896 – 1943
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 mental 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 trombone – the only time he stopped smiling – and he remained a stalwart of The Pit Brass Band.
Prior to the rockfall which killed him, Tinsnips had been Malcolm Shipwater’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*. Inheriting the smiling wheeler following Malcolm Shipwater’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 put with bare hands. Eight of Tinsnips’ colleagues took turns in bearing him home, the fabric in the stretcher rotten and barely able to support the crushed man, as Eleanor Morgan galloped “Moonlight” through thick bush to Swansea to fetch the mine doctor.
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 the dwelling was painted on canvas draped over a rope. Inside, flooring dipped to the centre 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 a poking an interior wall, a curious mate’s finger pierced two layers of ancient paint separated by empty space that was once timber and intruded 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 laid him on the one foul single bed and left. He lingered for eighteen months.
In tribute to their lost trombone player, The Pit Brass Band took prominent position in the funeral arrangements. Already smaller than other coalfields’ bands, its instrumentation further reduced by war, the tight percussion of Donny Caulfield being particularly missed, now trombone-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/Treasurer Hugh Meiklejohn, Lionel Thorpe and Short Owen Jones, in a lack of planning, bearing the coffin a trifle 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 a 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. Next day, gravedigger Ron “Fatty” Shipwater” hand-wrote the name on the cross.
At the wake, it was said Tinsnips had heard the roof give warning but been too slow. How much more dangerous would The Pit become when filled with the roar of machinery? Mass mechanisation would lead to extinction of the hewer, one way or the other. Hugh Meiklejohn fired the argument to logical conclusion: pit owners and management could – would! – simply wait for attrition by injury and death to accomplish the required reduction of the workforce, then bring in the machines. Dickie Jones did not share the Glaswegian’s logic, averring that the bosses would not be willing to wait that long. Mass retrenchment was far more efficient.
Contrastingly, there was minority talk of Tinsnips’ bad luck in copping a rockfall a mere matter of days before a managerial offering of the opportunity to be cavilled out for an incoming machine.
*At week’s end, a good wheeler might receive a “you’ll do” – a small amount of cash – as reward for service.
7. STANLEY MORRIS SMITH
1924 – 1964
Rolling home, rolling home..
Stanley Morris Smith’s headstone is crowned by a pair of pigeons, rampant. Rudely executed, the species of bird is indeterminate, but in the mind’s eye of the interred below, during tenure as local gravedigger having befriended a reclusive sculptor occupying nearby bushland, conveniently working in concrete, the memorial avians are without shadow of doubt Birmingham Rollers.
There was no woman, were no women, in Stan Smith’s life. There were Rollers. Birmingham Rollers. With a career path progressing from the hewing of coal to the digging of graves to the fighting of unwelcome Japanese, in between times Stan Smith occupied himself in garnering then honing the homing instincts of a small, fastidiously bred flock of Rollers. Rollers were imperfect Homers. The better they rolled, the worse they homed. And vice versa. An epiphanic vision of massed Birminghams not merely flying but rolling home – that is, backward somersaulting, repeatedly, whilst dropping from the sky as though shot, or as some theorised, experiencing mid-air fitting – only at the last instant to pull out of the dive, re-ascend and reunite with feathered Brummie colleagues, the kit, all the while simultaneously homing with speed and precision, would haunt Stan for a lifetime. And, as a hobby on the side of a hobby, could Tumblers perhaps be taught – or bred – to roll as well as to tumble? And thence, to home? To achieve the performance pigeon trifecta?
By accident of birth pre-destined to labour underground, Stan preferred to hew alone. Commencing working life, along with his peers, at the age of 14, 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. He could not, in the main, see the point. What was there to talk about, trapped two miles underground, possibly – probably – for life? Loud talk, shouting, of necessity the dominant form in The Pit, drove him to drink. Alone. Silence, instead, spoke acceptably. Stan actively sought silence and, keeping an ear out, was first to hear of a notably silent, notably solo employment opportunity at the local cemetery, the position newly vacant owing to decease of the incumbent. His first task upon securing the post was to dig the grave of his predecessor.
Working alone, overground, in God’s weather, offered Stan 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, spearing high into fine weather, only to suddenly plummet earthward while backward somersaulting – rolling! – pull out of its plunge, recover height, and continue, intermittently plummeting, while rolling, homeward. Stan had never seen anything like it.
Freedom to think about pigeons and, after several patient years wrestling the dialectic of low gravedigger’s wages and high pigeon prices, having saved sufficient to acquire good breeding stock, to consider how he might enter the elite world depicted in Pigeon Digest, Pigeon Record, Pigeon Monthly, Australasian Homing Pigeon, and the like – specialist subsection, Rollers and Tumblers – was interrupted by the bombing of Darwin and subsequent unwanted presence of the Japanese in Papua/New Guinea and Pacific environs. The vision of his Birminghams being devoured by hungry Japanese was a significant factor in Stan’s enlistment.
A wartime gravedigging locum was appointed, in the person of Ron “Fatty” Shipwater, at the time languishing in unemployment after having been accused of attempting to sabotage the 1941 Record Stay-In Strike and blackballed from The Pit.
Returning from prison camp in Sarawak with a makeshift mechanical claw, the sleeve of which was fashioned from a shell casing, not wishing to resume his pre-war employment, Stan instead took the TPI pension, built himself a hut, one-handed, in the 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 healthy genetic diversity. It was said that one seldom saw Stan but knew where he was from the orbiting, plunging, somersaulting, pigeons.
A notable escalation of pit deaths in consequence of rushed post-war mechanisation heralded a spike in cemetery productivity, coalfields-wide. Any local upswing, however, proved shortlived under the stewardship of Ron “Fatty” Shipwater, turning to a steep downward trend as the increasingly rotund teenage alcoholic gravedigger’s backbone gave way under increased workload. His ensuing confinement and self-medication catalysed a bankup of cadavers awaiting resting places yet to be dug, numerous Sadly Missed lingering above ground in a local parlour, several At Peace laying out in front rooms or sheds, a not insignificant number of Fondly Remembereds finding themselves interred beneath back yards, in the wake of which the raising of a petition by the swelling numbers of industrially bereaved militated the return of Stan Smith and mechanical claw to his former position. Within a week, resting place productivity experienced an upturn, as above, a host of pigeons circled a gleaming tin shed newly erected in the under-utilised Catholic section to serve as both residence and roost. Stan’s erection of a small cross atop the shed roof, along with designation of the structure as The Chapel, allowed the municipal council to turn a blind eye to its construction.
Stanley Morris Smith died at the age of forty from snakebite obtained in the 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 in The Chapel.
Local folklore has it that, over time, Stan’s Rollers shat a circle of guano around the cemetery and that, pursuant to his decease, the circle of shit grew smaller every day, Stan’s grave being the bullseye.
6. Ronald Charles “Fatty” Shipwater
Who Digs The Gravedigger’s Grave?
In harmony with his life, the final resting place of Ron Shipwater is a shambles: imperfectly-filled, depression more than mound, untended, obliquely stabbed by a makeshift wooden cross, grave identifier painted in unsteady hand, arm secured by a single nail and angled far from the horizontal, destined to detach in a stiff breeze if it has not flown already.
In his all-too-brief pomp, “Fatty” Shipwater exhibited flaming red hair, milk-white skin, constellations of freckles, and translucent pink eyelids through which, when closed, he claimed he could see, these external idiosyncracies complemented by a panoply of inner voices which on occasion, usually inappropriate, ventured without, giving him to utter words and commit deeds he immediately regretted, by which time it was too late. Few at the time, let alone later, recognised these characteristics as the outward signs of a high intelligence. Rather, they were deemed the behaviours of a born troublemaker.
Ronald Charles Shipwater first saw daylight – grim and coal-suffused as daylight was in the environs of The Pit – on April Fools Day, 1925. The birth had been expected mid March. That the birthee had for a fortnight persisted in declining the jump was taken to be a first manifestation of born troublemaking. That he managed attendance at the annual comic occasion by the barest of margins – eleven minutes and a few seconds – led equal best mate Cedric Bugg to hypothesise that if Ron had only managed to hold out – or in – until midday, the official end of festivities – his life would have been totally different, his hair shit brown and his skin like he’d spent nine months incubating in a tannery. His father, less colourfully, averred: “We called you Ron because you weren’t born till later on. Get it? Later on?” Malcolm Shipwater was a known card.
It soon became clear that Ron was raddled by an unique physiognomy – “You! The fat boy! With the red hair!” – and that this outstanding physicality was complemented by an intellectual uniqueness, manifest in the utter inability to suspend disbelief at the life into which he had been born. These physical and intellectual unorthodoxies were to grow more overtly wilful as life experience offered further proof, if any was needed, that gluttony and disbelief were the only viable options.
Ron’s formal education tended inadvertent. From day one, his hair, poor choice of seating – back of the class – and failure to pay attention – staring out a window, testing eyelid translucence – confirmed him as a born troublemaker. A serial querying of orthodoxy – the seeming contradiction between education and the hewing of coal, the 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.**
An epiphany, his first, at the age of ten, in the form of an inner voice later recognised as his own, with echo, convinced Ron to cease trying to live down the unwarranted reputation of troublemaker and rather, live up to, indeed exceed it, so to get right up people’s noses. Over a remarkable three year period, from 1936 to 1938, Ron embarked upon a succession of April Fools Day atrocities which was to cement his place in the antisocial folklore of the region.
The sunny morning of his eleventh birthday witnessed the arrival at school of a burgundy-upholstered black Riley bearing a Monsignor Kippax and black-clad factotum, the Monsignor clutching a gold-embossed envelope containing a large-ish cheque drawn on St Catherine’s, Newcastle, in response to the “Urgent Forced Sale” of the school building and grounds, as advertised in several local Times, Standards, and Bugles. Lapsed Methodist Headmaster Hobbs was heard to explain to the Catholic Gentlemen that a Protestant Devil with Red Hair was abroad.
On his twelfth birthday, the drought-stricken coalfields region remaining a declared tinderbox despite the arrival of autumn, several Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades responded with summerish alacrity to reports of a suspicious-looking Chinaman observed setting fires in assorted bushlands, so to discover tell-tale scatterings of over-cooked rice and what were taken to be charred wattle chopsticks. The pyromanic Oriental was never apprehended. ABC regional radio quoted an anonymous source describing the events as a “Chinese Burn.”
Upon turning thirteen, the front page of several local Times, Standards, and Bugles carried an item concerning “a well-endowed young female scantily clad in rabbit fur” sighted running through bushland near Moonie Moonie. Picking up the item, The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed her the “Moonie Moonie Nymph”. Ron was convinced Nerys Ferris would enjoy the joke, indeed be flattered by certain aspects of the nymph’s physical description. Nerys Ferris now had norks.
Not long after the departure of disappointed press photographers, following Ron’s failure to persuade Nerys Ferris to give them something to photograph, the unexplained disappearance while fishing of his father threw a dark shroud over Ron’s life in rendering him the extant family male, so mandating commencement of employment in The Pit immediately upon turning fourteen. This fate, spiced by rampant public hypothesising as to the fate of Malcolm Shipwater – drowned? – taken by shark? – run off with a woman? – he didn’t finish his rum! – but where was his tobacco? – and accumulation of clippings headlined “Mystery Disappearance” in store window and pub – blackened the spirits of the Son Of The Mysteriously Disappeared. That the misplaced hi jinx and aberrant behaviours of Ron’s later life, rather than amuse, tended increasingly to paint him an alcoholic fool, the village idiot who would commit any atrocity, undertake the foulest of tasks in return for grog, saw the period preceding Malcolm’s disappearance and Ron’s consignment to The Pit viewed in retrospect as The Golden Age of Shipwater Drollery.
That a boy of nickname “Fatty” was commencing his working life on April 1 only served to inflame the enthusiasm of those initiating Ron into the myriad dark ways of The Pit. Two miles underground, the reputation of born troublemaker almost instantly graduated to that of class enemy, rising to a peak during the Record-Breaking 1941 Stay-In Strike, where loyalty to best mate and strike-breaking provocateur Jimmy Bosisto saw Ron branded scab and blackleg.
Driven naked from The Pit, hurled into a union-preferred punitive swamp to lie flat in ankle deep water, surface tepid, spongey muck beneath cold and frightening for what it might contain, the pair of scabs found themselves jabbed by sharpened bamboo poles as Fred Pratt expertly lashed their buttocks with a bullwhip, Fred having found work on a dairy farm when cavilled out. As tormentors tired of the fun, rolled smokes and nattered about the war, the possibility of the forty hour week, and women, yellow and black striped leeches, impressively plump, slimy and difficult to grasp, seized the opportunity to inch across scab torsos like beckoning fingers and slip into a warm armpit or groin.
In a final indignity, herded from the swamp, Ron and Jimmy were pursued up the village hill, past church and pub, multitudinous leeches dangling from their naked bodies like sinners in mediaeval hell, to the end of the road where village petered out in dusty scrub.
Respite from unemployment, if not pariahdom, came in the unexpected guise of the 1941 German invasion of Russia and subsequent enlistment of formerly battle-shy communist miners who now tore out of The Pit in droves to save Russia and civilization, via deployment in Egypt, Crete, and other distant non-Slavic elsewheres. Attending council chambers to discuss arrears on his father’s burial plot, encountering ex-miner/incumbent local gravedigger Stan Smith in the process of joining up, and finding there was no-one in position to contradict a claim of extensive experience with pick and shovel, Ron secured employment as Stan’s stand-in for the duration, longer if the misfortune of becoming a casualty happened upon Stan. Ron Shipwater’s first act as wartime cemetery locum was to order a headstone in celebration of his missing father. For posterity he settled on a pithy inscription encompassing Malcolm’s name, date of birth, blank date of decease, and the legend “He loved to fish”.
Offered readmission to the fraternity of The Pit were he to denounce scab mastermind Jimmy Bosisto, Ron declined, both out of loyalty, and the occurrence of a Second Epiphany – related, significantly, to working class fraternity – which happened upon him while chest-deep in a hole anticipating the demise of Una Meiklejohn. It struck him like a thunderbolt – as he was to declaim, increasingly loudly, increasingly often, over the course of an increasingly alcohol-injected life – that were he to continue digging beyond the traditional six feet, his excavation would sooner or later connect with a branchline of The Pit and, extemporising on the notion, he saw clearly that he remained a miner of sorts. A Pit Man, a winner of coal, gone wrong perhaps, but nevertheless forever solid with the inhabitants of the pit village, in spite of everything that had happened between them. That he was only required to dig to a depth of six feet, in daylight and fine weather, without overseer, could only be seen as a bonus.
In such spirit of solidarity, gravedigger Ron downed shovel and went out in sympathy with the miners in the failed 1949 General Strike, a watershed event in the wake of which the traditional life of coalminers entered terminal decline. Thereafter, as the Labor Party distanced itself and tended bourgeois, corporations supplanted Coal Barons, mechanisation killed off labour intensive, family-worked pits, and council backhoes replaced gravediggers, Ron and village stayed solid and declined in tandem.
Nerys Ferris was the love of Ron’s life. So Ron believed. So Nerys Ferris stimulated him to believe, an encouragement proven successful in the main. There was, however, a second love of Ron’s life: Maria Vella. Flowering on a memorable afternoon at the first postwar Royal Easter Show, in 1947, and ensuing night in a Single Gentlemen Only Private Hotel, the liaison was promptly sabotaged, Maria assaulted and driven away, by Jimmy Bosisto. To vanish from Ron’s life, for reasons unexplained, for almost forty years.
Thence to reappear, equally unexpectedly, in 1985, mature, successful and intent on informing Ron that their one night stand had borne fruit in the shape of a now near-middle-aged son, Dominic, and granddaughters, resident in Malta. Only – via yet another Jimmy Bosisto connivance – to encounter leathery-aubergine-skinned alcoholic loudmouth “Fatty” Shipwater at his drunken worst, atop a bowling club table, performing The Dance Of The Flaming Arseholes, prelude to an attempt on the record for keeping a live cat down a pair of shorts (while being worn). Whence Maria fled club, decaying village and newly defunct Pit, and caught the first plane back to Malta.
The 1985 Bowling Club Incident, the loss of a family he did not know he had and would now never have, proved to be the Third Epiphany of Ron’s life, and, three times proving it, moved the epiphanee to final definitive action. Breaching the walls of the pub from whose custom he had been banned by a blow-in gentrifying publican, Ron declared intent to shoot himself on his approaching 60th birthday and, furthermore, to take a few townsfolk with him, following announcement of which he succeeded in pinning up The List, an inventory of persecutors accumulated over six decades, before being physically ejected. Scrawled copies of The List soon appeared on the noticeboards of the bowling club – from which Ron was now also banned – and general store, rarely frequented except to buy eggs, his staple, consumed raw.
In the months preceding the significant birthday, nominated targets moved up and down the table according to their most recent relations with The Listmaker. The eve of the 60th birthday found “Fatty” holed up in the cemetery with shotgun and OP rum, considering his position.
As the sun rose, he shot Jimmy Bosisto.
Jimmy’s grave was dug by backhoe, to Ron’s dismay, he being of the view that a soul would not rest in a hole dug by machine.
**the hurling of blackboard dusters at errant pupils was considered legitimate discipline in earlier times
5. Nerys Dawn Gwendoline Ferris
1926 – 2017
Always At Her Best
Nerys Ferris bunged on, radiating airs and graces the source of which remained forever mysterious to those familiar with her character, family and general upbringing. Perhaps it was that she had been gifted two middle names (one of which evinced three syllables), the multi-syllabic double-barrelling a result of irreconcilable differences between her mother (Dawn) and her mother’s mother-in-law (Gwendoline). Whatever the origin, Nerys Ferris was known from the cradle on to have bigger fish to fry. Less diplomatic villagers tagged her a shandy pisser and a scorn monger. Luxuriating in teak vocal chords, Nerys Ferris possessed the seemingly contradictory ability to put on airs and graces at eardrum-lacerating volume, with ballistic upward inflection, in coruscating tone not dissimilar to that of a youthful Tasmanian Devil being sawn in half, alive, this the uniquely overwheening screech of a lass who needed to be centre of attention and would, at astounding volume, bully the requisite attentiveness out of anyone deemed not according her elegant sufficiency of same.
Nerys Ferris was the love of Ron “Fatty” Shipwater’s life and knew it. Scrawled on the back of a Red Mill Rum* coaster discovered in the pocket of trousers worn on the day of his death, Ron Shipwater dilates on the lifelong amour fou which had that day ended violently in the village cemetery: “Nerys Ferris’s front teeth were square and had a big gap between them. Her skin was white as fresh milk. With strawberry coloured spots. Her hair shone on a dark day and she knew it. Her sneer could boil a billy. She thought I was a clown with no prospects. Knock me down with a feather. How wrong was she? Still, Nerys Ferris wasn’t as fierce as she thought. She hid it, but I made her laugh. Nerys Ferris always came up with killer April Fool jokes: Will you be my boyfriend, Ron? Would you like to see my undies, Ron? Meet me behind the slack heap, Ron. I’ll show you my growler. April Fool.”
Ron Shipwater’s prospects never came within coo-ee of making the Nerys Ferris grade, which stipulated mine management, brick house included in salary package, as a minimum. Nevertheless, Nerys Ferris derived lifelong utility in the cultivation of “Fatty’s” ardour, cognisant of the fact that, as long as the ardour remained unreciprocated, strategic deployment of a particular smile would always convince “Fatty” he was definitely in with a chance if he was only to do her this one special little favour.
The single discontinuity in Nerys Ferris’s lifelong rejection of Fatty Shipwater’s meagre troth occurred as a brief episode at school, when in a Damascene moment, immediately prepubertal, hence hormonally inflected, the ambitious eleven year old thought she saw social cachet – such as it is in a pit hamlet – in being granted – in being seen to be granted – sole female membership of The Ghost Club, male membership three, President Ron Shipwater, headquartered under the tankstand, directly below Headmaster Hobbs’s window, officialdom’s blind spot and territory much prized by miscreants.
Further, it occurred to Nerys Ferris that the recent visit to the girls toilet of President Shipwater, on April Fools Day, in response to a forged summons from a Neris (sic) Ferris, the authentic Nerys Ferris being sole occupant of the corrugated iron facility at the time, might well be construed as a challenge – or invitation? – to breach the walls of male chauvinism. Ghost Club Vice President Cedric Bugg, son of a known communist, formally challenged blonde presence in the male-centric spectral organisation, to no avail, a single well-directed show of lips and teeth securing the Extraordinary Affirmative Veto of the President, whereupon Nerys Ferris set about working on change from within, only to resile from membership six weeks later in realisation that being a ghost under a tankstand was, in its dripping, dirt-floored actuality, well below her station.
Nerys Ferris, bunging on, would in later life claim that in her derisive resignation speech, of voluminous echo under the tankstand, she originated the pejoratives “Fatty” and “Skinny” in reference to Ron Shipwater and Jimmy Bosisto , these two close friends evidencing unfortunately contrasting physiognomies, the which were only to further diverge over time. The honour of linking the pair to antipodean comic legend – if honour it was – belonged in actuality to Enid Davies, who, having hitch-hiked out of town at the age of 16, never to be seen again, facilitated Nerys Ferris’s appropriation of this local claim to fame.
Numerous credible witnesses, however, attest to Nerys Ferris undeniably being the malefactor who christened short-sighted, bespectacled Craig Goldfinch, behind his back, with the nickname “Four Eyes”. The Goldfinches lived on Snob Hill. Nerys Ferris subsequently christened Craig’s little sister “One Eye”, Felicity, amblyopic, manifesting a brown paper patch over one lens of her spectacles. Throughout schooling, “One Eye” Goldfinch’s arms daily evidenced blue bruises where Nerys Ferris had pinched her. That post-pubertal Nerys Ferris became their father Willy Goldfinch’s de facto, bore him a daughter, had his secretary sacked so to take her position, and ousted widow Betty Bosisto as Willy’s bit on the side, did not sit well with the variously-eyed Goldfinch youngsters
A second Red Mill Rum coaster, equally preserved-in-pocket, sees Ron Shipwater once more dilating: “Nerys Ferris named her daughter Dimity. Dimity Dilys Ferris-Goldfinch. Hand it to Nerys Ferris. She could bung it on. Dimity had stirrups on her legs. Clicked as she walked. Like Wingnut Vella, only louder. She didn’t look anything like Goldfinch. Nothing like him. I’m not saying who she looks like. By the time Dimity was four she had bluebird earrings to match her mother’s.”
For the duration of the Goldfinch-Ferris union, the fate of Goldfinch’s erstwhile legal wife, Adrienne, mirthfully exercised the imagination of the locals, both when sober and when not. Buried in the bush? Chopped up and fed to the fish? Under a goaf fall in The Pit? Did Nerys Ferris do her rival in? As she had dispensed with the Goldfinch secretary? Then again, with a name like Adrienne, who could blame Willy for admitting mistake and dispensing with the pretentious cow? On the other hand, it was widely known that when Willy and the junior Goldfinches entertained important visitors, Nerys Ferris was instructed to eat in the kitchen, alone, and in this, “Four Eyes” and “One Eye” had achieved some small revenge.
Ensconcement atop Snob Hill, however, did allow Nerys Ferris to accomplish quite probably the most significant of her many firsts, real and purloined: the historic distinction of being the first to employ Ron Shipwater in exchange for alcohol, and alcohol only, in availing herself of his services in clearing the Goldfinch gully trap of a plump flying fox embalmed in fat, grease, and tangled human hair. Removal of the mummified mammal saw Ron rewarded in leftover moselle of lurid colour and uncertain age in a strange-shaped bottle, an abandoned tipple of aspirational wine buff Willy. The rest is alcoholic labour history.
The Snob Hill reign of Queen Nerys Ferris lasted a bare eighteen months. If nothing else, it was the scarifying queenly screech which passed for conversation that in short time drove Willy Goldfinch back into the spidery arms of his wife, who had not been chopped into fish food or buried under a goaf fall after all, it transpiring that she had simply relocated to Snob Hill in Wollongong upon discovering Willy’s near-pedophilic philandering.
Dethroned but defiant, Nerys Ferris descended from Snob Hill, daughter Dimity in tow, clicking, and resumed fibro residence. In the village, on the only bus stop, deep in The Pit, it was as if Nerys Ferris had never been away, was as ever the centre of attention and eye of the storm. In a bonus to communal discourse, Nerys Ferris now had the gossip on Mrs La De Da Goldfinch, that Mrs La De Da resented poor little “Four Eyes” and “One Eye” Goldfinches because Mrs La De Da wanted to be an artist and not have to make school lunches, which was why she abandoned Willy and the sight-deprived Goldfinch kids and ran away to an artists’ colony in Wollongong. Nerys Ferris also had the word from the southern coalfields artists’ colony that Mrs Goldfinch was a crap artist, because she couldn’t stand untidiness, which, Nerys Ferris asserted, was essential to being an artist, and which explained why Mrs La De Da took Willy back. Or went back to him. Or met him halfway, on Hornsby station.
By the time The Pit closed in the mid 1980s, all the miners Nerys Ferris had grown up and old with, were dead, eligible mine management long gone, and The Administrators cold fish. Nerys Ferris was reluctantly compelled to walk out with Bowling Club Manager Alan Goode, retired insurance broker and recent village blow-in, until the less-than-gentlemanly stroke on the fifth link, in the wake of which Nerys Ferris gave up on the opposite sex.
Most of the village women, too, were dead, or had moved away to follow their children. Daughter Dimity Dilys had long disavowed her parentage and moved to Bangkok to become a flight attendant for an Asian airline.
Nerys Ferris remained, her face pale and powdered, hair, once strawberry blonde, now behaving like hydrangea in oscillating from pink to blue and back again, the Ferris tint not pH dependent but rather the outcome of a dash of whimsy or, more commonly, in reaction to the tint of next door neighbour and rival Dot Shipwater’s coiffure. The hairdos of Nerys Ferris and Dot Shipwater bloomed in a perverse opposition. Dot Shipwater had been wise to Nerys Ferris all along but her brother had refused to believe her.
The unique caterwaul of the mature hydrangea-haired Nerys Ferris provided necessary stridency at “Fatty’s” thinly-attended funeral, in the form of a glowing-yet-patronising tribute, evidencing – perhaps for the last several times – the outstanding ability to endow the word Ron with a minimum two syllables – RO-ON! – sometimes RO-O-ON! – sometimes more, the sky being the limit – no matter how close the monosyllabic subject was, not least lying in his grave.
Nerys Ferris achieved a final first when, with the passing of Dot Shipwater, she became last woman standing from the glory days of The Pit. The last man standing was, by then, long gone. Nerys Ferris lingered a few more years, as an historic relic. In her final public broadcast, rocking on the veranda after midnight to a population largely comprised of working class ghosts, the former Queen loudly promoted the view that Herbert Hobbs, returned son of former school Headmaster Hobbs, retired banker, home renovator, four wheel driver, rarely-seen-wife always in white, was having an affair with local radical conservationist Mrs Greenie Fucking Blow-In. Nerys Ferris had seen them talking, swore on The Bible she had heard the 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, rocking, discovered two days hence.
4. Percival Fleetwood Finch
Dust to Dust
The final resting place of Perce Finch lies, tellingly, 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 a novella inscribed in gold Gothic, 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 fellow miner who happened to survive Perce Finch 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, the 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 his SP turnover within his folded coat sleeve, and could count cash and write a ticket with one hand. He wheezed sympathy to requests for credit, his clients being neighbours and workmates, all of whom considered welching worse than murder.
It turned out Perce was a whole lot more than twenty five per cent dusted. He’d 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 and a Pom. Perce was a goner. Nevertheless he hung on like buggery, laid bets from his bed, while his grave, readied by gravedigger Ron “Fatty” Shipwater in anticipation of a swifter demise, remained unoccupied. Drunk one night, “Fatty” tumbled into Perce’s hole, to lie undiscovered for eighteen hours. A hip flask of Red Mill OP, as always, eased “Fatty’s” pain.
During the record-breaking Stay-In Strike of 1941 – pre Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact – an event which hurled a majorly discombobulating political spanner down The Pit – Perce Finch fingered Johnno Jones, still clad in the pyjama shorts and singlet he was wearing when dragged drunk out of bed, as the mongrel who’d got his daughter – this is Perce’s daughter – Nell, Nell Finch, 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 see sense and do the right thing by Nell.
Johnno was mandated to get hitched to Nell after the Stay-In. Which was why Johnno, overnight, became superbly militant, and determined to Stay In as long as possible. Nell popped out a baby girl called Janice the day after Johnno secretly enlisted in the army. The baby grew up to be Moaning Janice Jones. Moaning Janice married Troy Meiklejohn. Angry Leonard’s son. Can she moan. Never be beaten. She could moan for Australia. Johnno was blown to bits by a grenade in Borneo.
Late career Perce Finch had the misfortune to come up against stiff competition for SP custom in the swarthy, curly-black-haired 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.
By way of respect, it was acknowledged in Retired Miners Corner at the pub that Perce Finch, had he not died of the dust, would have fucking detested like fuck favourite local dishlicker “Mystery Man” for the crime of being consistently successful – the bookie’s nightmare – on the nearby Wyong track. At least until the Wentworth Park Big Smoke Debut Incident and subsequent development of “Mystery Man’s” excruciating bilateral hip problem. It was whispered that the career-ending injury was the result of ‘a swift kick in the kennels’, after which “Mystery Man”, rechristened The Gimp, Gimpy, or Gimpo, was never to race again, his dead, tumescent body being located, too late, by several other dogs of non-racing breeds, at the bottom of Troy Meiklejohn’s backyard well.
Violet Finch, Perce’s wife, vestigially fond of Perce, in a way, was steadfastly not fond of his monumental commemoration, to design and construction of which Perce had deposited a slice of his income in a savings account, weekly, without fail, for over two decades. Violet, perhaps in pique, opted for her ashes to be broadcast from the end of a coal-loading jetty, on a suitable westerly, over the Pacific Ocean. Prior to Perce’s passing, he and Violet, although separated for 25 years, had continued joint occupation of a single miners’ cottage not much larger than Perce’s later commemorative abode. Daughter Nell slept in the same bed as her mother, until Perce’s departure.
Bob and Betty Bosisto rest side by side in a grave more king single than double, their cramped proximity a result of Betty’s allocated bed remaining long unexcavated, due to female doggedness, if anything, so enabling territorial encroachment – of a good foot and a half in the measure of the time – by short-lived Geoffrey “Tinsnips” Clutten, his colonisation of Bosisto turf the outcome of arithmetic inexactitude on the part of bone orchardist Ron Shipwater, under the influence of Red Mill OP Rum. In more sober light, the border incursion was duly noted by its facilitator but dismissed in conclusion that once a hole is dug, it stays dug.
3. Elizabeth Ann Bosisto
Fondly Remembered By Many
Betty Bosisto, née Elizabeth Ann Caulfield, 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, inconveniently preceding the 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 which led to an encounter with mine undermanager Willy Goldfinch, after which Betty continued discreetly to befriend Willy on mutually convenient occasions. For his part, Willy looked kindly upon her fatherless, chalk-boned, only child Brian and when opportunity finally arose, his brittle de facto stepson having endured eighteen months underground, secured the lad a job “up top”, as token boy and billy boiler.
Willy Goldfinch would eventually abandon wife, children, and Betty to shack up – post-impregnation in the dunes following particularly robust Remembrance Day celebrations – with 17 year old village sex bomb Nerys Ferris, of whom, more later.
As Jimmy ventured, oblivious, into teenagehood – the term yet to be invented – Betty taught her son to bake cakes and pastry in the hope that devouring his own sugary produce would address Jimmy’s lack of osteo-strength and avoirdupois. The bulk of Jimmy’s first sponge, a double-decker flooded in toilet-roof-passionfruit icing, was, however, devoured by sweet-toothed best mate Ron Shipwater, who kept his friend’s domestic secret close, believing mastery of cream buns surely lay in the near future. Over time, as teenage Jimmy came to excel in a wide range of traditional patisserie, it transpired that “Fatty” Shipwater – stout from birth – was the boy who burgeoned – ballooned may be the more accurate term – under the influence of cake and pastry, as Jimmy elected to supplant meagre dining habits 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, Betty continued to make the acquaintance of helpful male friends following abandonment by Willy Goldfinch. Before the dream of a lawnmowing empire was displaced by that of free ranging emus, Jimmy was always 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 “Fatty’s” growing predilection for alcohol as an accompaniment to sugar, Betty came to know a man in the liquor trade. On the infrequent occasions pork found its way onto the Bosisto table, via an encounter in the abattoir, or in the field of wild pig shooting, the gunman happening to pass through town, Betty, also happening to know a man who knew an applegrower, could always accompany the pig with apple sauce. A leaky boat gifted by a maritime companion was regularly deployed by Jimmy and Ron 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 worked nights in Swansea.
That Betty had an eye was never more clearly demonstrated than, when journeying by bus to a miner’s wedding in Helensburgh, north of Wollongong, Betty claimed to espy “Fatty” Shipwater’s missing father, Malcolm, hitherto presumed drowned and/or taken by a shark while fishing, but now, according to Betty, hitch-hiking out front of the Kangy Angy roadhouse, where 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 Bosisto, looked fast. Having spotted husband Bob’s burnt body tearing through the heads on an outgoing tide in a choppy Swansea Channel, Betty’s eye was known to be keen.
2. Robert William Bosisto
Drowned in Swansea Channel
It was whispered by certain parties, loudly denied by others, that Bob Bosisto 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 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 Bosisto 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, forgotten. Or disdained. Unsurprisingly, the miners of the black diamond positioned themselves at the cutting edge of industrial militancy and made a very loud noise. Embracing assorted tendencies in communism, socialism, anarchism, or at least, hard-core laborism, the major acknowledged social division, by a long chalk, was economic. Exploiters and exploited. Which did not mean the miners did not curse each other with racial and other epithets pertaining to accidents of birth. They cursed and swore at each other foully and constantly. But when the crunch came, they were more solid, more willing to take on the ruling class, for longer, at greater cost to themselves, than anybody. Quite often, they won the battle. But, in the end, lost the war.
Bob worked underground from the age of fourteen, following the traditional path of advance from trapper boy to hewer of coal, until his untimely passing.
When son Jimmy was three years old, Bob Bosisto caught fire on New Year’s Eve in Swansea 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 trying to raze the wooden bridge connecting the southern half of the town with its cross-channel twin, Belmont. 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 made of wood. On the New Year’s Eve of Bob’s death, however, an uncontained bushfire sparked by a nicotine-addicted tourist had torn through the nearby national park to threaten the western fringe of settlement and concentrate the minds of local services. A red glow outlined hills on the western horizon while closer to the coast flames leapt at several points from the Swansea-Belmont bridge. Festive exuberance led Bob Bosisto to celebratory dance in Christmas pyjamas which were highly inflammable. The channel was running hard under a king tide.
1. Brian James “Skinny” Bosisto
Sadly Missed By His Mother
No birth certificate for Jimmy Bosisto is known to exist. This much is known. Styled Brian James Bosisto in school enrolment records, “Skinny” to friend, enemy, and a mythology which continues to flourish today, Brian solely to his mother, some extension of Jimmy Bosisto was forever encased in plaster or makeshift bandage, wired in approximate position, or defied 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 Bosisto’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 dreamed vivid, expansive schemes of alternative employment, schemes which, not having come to fruition by age 14, saw Jimmy’s occupational dreaming continue throughout a difficult, injury-plagued time in The Pit, the years of pariahdom following expulsion as a scab and a blackleg, and deep into enforced semi-retirement on a disability pension supplemented by part-time employ as bowling club glassie and target of industrial drinkers’ scorn.
Avers Jimmy’s best mate, Ron “Fatty” Shipwater, it was clear on first meeting that “Skinny” was a man with a plan. And, adds Ron, a clot of the highest order.
After protracted indecision, there apparently being uncountable Bosisto Dreams illustrative of the two-pronged character thumbnail above, Ron opted to paint the following picture of Jimmy, in his mid fifties, late in what was to prove a melodramatically foreshortened life, but, in the considered opinion of Ron “Fatty” Shipwater, dreaming BIGGER THAN EVER.
Thus, at the onset of the 1980s, infused with the entrepreneurial spirit of that dawning decade, arguably on the cutting edge of the times, Jimmy came up with what Ron regarded as “possibly his finest ever get-rich-quick plan.” 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”, Ron intoned, again, as though still in 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 the last surviving hundred or so village miners out of work, only added the spice of irony, and return serve of scorn, to scab and blackleg Jimmy’s business plan.
In the words of Ron “Fatty” Shipwater:
“Bloody Jimmy had done his research. All the livestock gurus – at least, the ones Jimmy sussed as in total agreement with the Bosisto 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 plan of becoming the local Lawnmower Baron 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. Bosisto 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 Ayers Rock. 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.”