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How my father gave me a terrifying lesson at 10

Mining illustration

At the age of 10, Bernard Hare's father took him down the mine where he worked. It was an experience he would never forget.

Sometimes, even now, I wake up with my head throbbing and my ears ringing, as if my skull has been tightly clamped in a vice all night.

I haven't been to the doctor's about it. It wouldn't do any good. It isn't depression, or stress. It isn't a migraine, or a hangover. It's nothing physical at all. It's just a memory - a memory from childhood.

One Sunday morning when I was 10, my dad woke me up by tweaking my nose: "Come on, son. Gerrup! Ah've a surprise for thi!"

Oh no, I thought. My dad was full of surprises - it was the one thing I didn't like about him - and he always sprang them on you when you weren't expecting them.

His worst surprise wasn't even a surprise at all. You knew exactly what was coming. He normally struck when he was drunk. He would stumble through the front door, smash one of mum's favourite ornaments, trip over the dog, give you the beady eye, and shout, "Whiskers!"


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The Light programme with Bernard Hare will be broadcast on Tuesday 9 June at 09:30 BST on BBC Radio 4. You can catch up via the BBC iPlayer.


Then you were in for it. Your only hope was to get out of the house, but he knew that, so he would wave his arms about and block the front door.

I don't know why we called it the front door. We lived in a two-up, two-down, back-to-back terrace and the front door was the only door we had. Dad knew that if he closed off that route, escape was impossible. You could try locking yourself in the bathroom, but he would think nothing of kicking the door off its hinges when he'd had a few.

"Whiskers!" You could hide under the bed, but he would just drag you out by your heels, or turn the whole thing over on its side. "Whiskers!" There was no escape. One way or another, he would catch you. Then you got the whiskers.

These days, it's called designer stubble. In the 1960s, it was called scruffy. Either way, it hurt like hell. He would grab you, pin you down and scrape his three-day growth of razor-sharp bristles across your soft, childish face. It felt like you were being cut to ribbons and your skin was left looking like an over-used ice rink.

Image caption Bernard with his father

It's a big disappointment to a child when his father turns out to be more immature than he is. Still, I didn't complain. Many of the kids in our street were beaten up on a regular basis for the slightest misdemeanour. My dad was a nutcase, but he was a harmless nutcase (most of the time) and I appreciated that.

The old man worked on the coalface at the Savile mine, in Methley, a small pit-village near Castleford.

Every village around Leeds had a pit at one time and each village had a thousand men and boys to help hew the coal from the ground.

In November 1700, the Aire and Calder Navigation opened between Knottingley and Leeds, which for the first time made large-scale coal production in the area economically viable. As this network of canals grew, coal could be moved cheaply and easily around the country, fuelling the Industrial Revolution.

The industry grew, developed and flourished over the next 250 years and Leeds grew with it. Coal was part of the economic lifeblood of the city and other local industries - engineering, textiles, brewing, chemicals, railways, and pottery - depended on it for their existence.

Coal brought prosperity to Leeds, but at a cost. My dad was covered in little blue scars, like tattoos. If you got even the smallest cut down a pit, the dust got in straight away and turned it blue forever - and there was nothing you could do about it.

The dust got in to your lungs too. My dad coughed a lot, but not as much as my granddad. Granddad's knees were shot too, due to 50 years kneeling and crawling in damp conditions at the coalface.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Methley miners (Photograph: methley-village.com)

No-one ever spoke about it, but we all knew that sometimes nobody came home from work at all. 1825: Explosion, Middleton, 25 men and boys lost. 1872: Explosion, Morley Main, 36 men and boys lost. 1896: Explosion, Peckfield, 68 men and boys lost.

Even the pit ponies were blasted to oblivion in the Peckfield explosion and 90 children, mostly from one village, were left fatherless. When it went wrong down a pit, it went wrong big time and every member of every family involved in the industry was acutely aware of it.

Strange then that on this particular Sunday the old man should have taken it into his head to take me down the pit with him that day. I don't know how he wangled it. It would never be allowed in today's litigious and safety-conscious times. It was the maddest thing he'd ever done.

Who in their right mind would take a 10-year-old boy down a working coal mine? I knew it was dangerous because I overheard things.

Uncle Goldie, dad's brother, often called round to our house and the two of them invariably got talking about the pit. "Ah see Leetning lost three on t' thutty-niners t' other week, Poke. Bloody belt'll kill some'dy sooin, tha knows."

Image copyright www.methley-village.com
Image caption Supports being installed in 1976 (methley-village.com )

We caught the rickety blue Castleford bus and sat on the long front bench. I'd been to the pit top dozens of times, usually on a Friday when the men picked up their wages.

We spoke the Queen's English in Leeds, but Methley was out in the sticks. There, they spoke a bizarre, musical language full of strange words and inflections.

They cared more for the sound of a sentence, rather than what it actually said. I was picking it up, slowly but surely. Poke was my dad. Leetning was my dad's best mate.

Each coalface had a number and they were working on "thutty-nine" at the time. Conveyor belts took the coal from the face to the surface. The miners weren't supposed to ride on them, but they did. Fingers were often forfeited along the way. Leetning lost three. I didn't really want to go down the pit and I had no idea what the old man thought he was playing at.

Dad often threw a sickie once he had the cash out of his wage packet and the day would be spent at the miner's welfare club with my granddad. It was always a good day out in Methley, but this time it was different. This time I was going underground.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Miners enjoy a pint (Photograph: methleyarchive.org)

The old man, perhaps sensing my reservations, put his arm around me and pulled me close. "Stick wi' me, son. Tha'll be reet."

Eventually, we got to the pit. My dad was more popular than I'd imagined. Everyone at the pit top from the gateman to the engine driver greeted him as though he were a friend and brother.

"Hey up, Poke. Is that thy lad?"

Then to me: "Hey up, Young Pokey. Is tha barn darn t' pit?"

"Aye, sither. Ah'm barn darn t' thutty-niners wi' t' fa'ther."

"He's a cheyky young bleeder. Tha wants to gi'im thick end o' thi belt."

I was brought up in Leeds and they knew I didn't talk broad Yorkshire. They must have thought I was taking the mick. I wasn't, though. I was just trying to fit in and be like my dad.

We got changed, donned donkey jackets and miners' helmets and soon we were stood before the lift shaft with a dozen other men. Everyone said "Hey up, Poke" to my dad.

We all crammed in the cage and snuggled up against each other. "Dad," I said. "Why d' the' all call you 'Poke' when your name's Bernard like me?"

"That's me nickname," he said. "Everyone gets a nickname at t' pit." Nodding towards a workmate, he said, "Tha knows Leetning, dun't tha?"

Image copyright www.methley-village.com
Image caption Loading barge at the mine (methley-village.com)

"Course, but why's he called Leetning when his name's Harold?"

"Cos he's an idle swine," my dad explained, "who never does no wuck."

Leetning prodded my shoulder with his newly deformed hand. "Aye, sither, but even then Ah still do bart twice as much as thi fa'ther."

I gasped as the floor fell away. They just let the cage drop until it got near the bottom of the shaft and only then applied the brakes.

I didn't know that, of course. I thought the cable had snapped and started screaming with all my might. I wanted to make one last big noise before I died.

Aeons later, when we reached the bottom, everyone in the cage, including my dad, was doubled up with laughter. They obviously enjoyed playing this trick on innocent children. It must have livened up an otherwise dull day down the mine.

I thought that was my surprise, but I was wrong. That was nothing.

We walked for 30 minutes along a narrow tunnel. Pitch black, with only the meagre light from your helmet to guide you. The roof was 6ft high at best and the men had to bow their heads as they walked along. Twisted spikes of metal stuck out from the roof and walls at obscure angles, threatening to take your eyes out if you weren't extremely careful.

There was a dank, fetid odour, the likes of which I haven't encountered before or since - a combination of exotic gases and rotting meat.

In my bones, I could feel the hundreds of feet of solid rock pushing and crushing down on me from above. Dank, smelly, sweaty, claustrophobic, I hated the foul, festering hell-hole the moment I set foot down there.

Image copyright www.methley-village.com
Image caption Middleton Little Face (methley-village.com )

It suddenly occurred to me that my dad was a hero, coming down every day just to feed my mam, my brother and me. Spiritually and philosophically, it might have been better to let us starve.

Eventually, we approached the coalface. The noise began as a slow, distant rumbling, built into a loud, throbbing buzz, and finally became a crashing, tumultuous screech. The roof got lower and lower as the noise got louder and louder.

We had to crawl through a space no more than 4ft high to get to the coalface. All the while, the cacophony was unbearable. It was impossible to hear yourself think.

In the distance, a monstrous wheel of metal with a thousand sharp, jagged teeth spun wildly, tearing at the coal, sending shards of black rock bulleting through the air. That's if you could call it air. It was more like dust. It seared your lungs as you breathed it in.

When the machine stopped, I understood the deeper meaning of the phrase "silence is golden". The relief was majestic, like waking from a nightmare. "I want to go home," I told my dad.

He hadn't shifted more than a couple of yards from me throughout the expedition. I knew he wouldn't let any harm come to me, but I'd had enough. I wanted to go home. I'd made my mind up. I liked it better at home.

"But thy an't had thi surprise yet," he said, ominously.

To our left was a progression of metal chocks - giant hydraulic jacks which held the roof up. These went back some distance. My helmet light could only pierce the gloom for a matter of feet, so I had no idea how far, maybe yards, maybe miles. An intercom, which had been rigged up along the coal face, crackled into life. Crrrck. "Poke's lad darn yet?"

"Aye ... cheyky little bugger ..." Crrrck.

As they cut the coalface, they moved the chocks along and allowed the roof to collapse behind. "Reet oh. Ah'll start droppin 'em. Watch thi'sens."

Image caption Bernard with his father

Then I got my surprise. There was a long, wailing ululation, like the sound of a thousand anguished voices screaming in the darkness, followed by a bellowing, full-throated roar. Then the real noise began - a thundering, reverberating explosion, which almost shattered my eardrums.

This time I knew I was dead. Unless I missed my guess, the whole roof was collapsing. A black shockwave hit, knocking me from my knees and on to my side. I was left a terrified wreck.

When the dust settled and I came to my senses, the old man was hugging me like a baby. "Sorry, son," he said, trying not to laugh. "I'm sorry. Tha wain't say nowt to thi mam nar, will tha? This is just between us men."

I was shivering and shaking uncontrollably. He'd put the fear of God into me with his stupid surprises.

Almost 20 years later, during the miners' strike of 1984-85, I bumped into Leetning in the Nag's Head in Leeds town centre while I was out having a drink.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Savile miners with colliery banner (methleyarchive.org)

I'd finished college, got my degree and had a highly paid job in social work. I was therefore in a position to stand him a drink or two, even though I was also helping my family make ends meet through the year-long strike. Over a beer, I told him that I'd never really forgiven my father for the humiliation he put me through that day.

Leetning, who always had a kind of leering grin on his face, looked serious for a moment. "But tha knows why he done it, dun't tha?"

"Because he was a nutcase," I said. "He was always doing stupid things. He used to throw the dog's water bowl over me once or twice a week, just to keep me on my toes, cos he knew how much it wound me up. I know you love him like a brother, but you didn't have to live with him."

"Nay, lad," Leetning said, shaking his head. "Thi dad had to grease a few palms to get thi darn t' pit that day, tha knows. Nar look at thi. Tha passed thi Eleven Plus, tha's bin to college an' tha's got a reet good job, an't tha?"

"So?" I said. "I've worked hard to get an education. I decided that day that I'd never end up down the pit like my dad. I decided that day I'd never set foot in a pit again as long as I lived. I decided that day I wanted something better."

Leetning, grinning again, tapped his single digit on the end of his nose. "Exactly! Sither nar, sunshine?"

He didn't say anything else. He didn't need to. I'd seen the light. "Yes, Harold," I said, suddenly ashamed of my self-centredness and stupidity. "I see now."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Memorial to the village's mining roots (methleyarchive.org)

The Light programme with Bernard Hare will be broadcast on Tuesday 9 June at 09:30 BST on BBC Radio 4. You can catch up via the BBC iPlayer.

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