Theresa Le Flem on ‘The Sea Inside His Head’ and Why Coal Mining Made the Perfect Subject Matter

The Sea Inside His HeadI was living within a stone’s throw of Tilmanstone Colliery, which was a few miles from Dover in the Kent coalfields. It was during the 1984/85 National Coal Strike. Although not directly involved – there were no miners in my family – the impact the strike had on the community is something I will never forget. There were positive and negative aspects to this: the camaraderie between the miners was strong. In poverty and in fighting their cause, the people were united against the enemy. The enemy in this case was Margaret Thatcher and her government. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) did all they could to keep the pits open and save the mens’ jobs and the threat of closure affected not only Tilmanstone but the pits throughout Kent and all over the country. The proposed closure of certain pits, which were regarded as uneconomic and out-dated, provoked outrage. I’m sure most people remember the terrible scenes of violence shown on the television news. Seeing the police gathered in such vast numbers at picket lines filled most ordinary people with horror. I saw the lines of police first hand, arms linked, marching down the village street with all their shields.

Very quickly, feelings of antagonism emerged against those who didn’t support the strike – those who might betray them. A miner who continued working, or who broke the strike was labelled ‘a scab’. These men became outcasts; there was no mercy shown. This is probably when my feelings came into play. I have a tendency to sympathise with the persecuted.

Local families who had members belonging to the police-force were also targeted. Just like the ‘scabs’, their houses too were daubed with graffiti declaring the word ‘Pigs’. The village shops had steel shutters affixed to them for protection at night. Barricades lined the streets and the village began to resemble a war-zone. Differences of opinion split the community; when mothers met in the street or outside the school I remember a hush; conversation became subdued and eyes became watchful. I didn’t personally know anyone who broke the strike, but generally I began to realize how strong hostility ran not only towards the ‘scabs’ but to their families, friends and those who associated with them. I recall a young miner joking about enjoying the freedom of not having to go into work, just like a kid on his school holidays. Another miner agreed, complaining that if he could put in for redundancy he would, but it would mean he would have to break the strike. Most men wouldn’t consider this option – it was out of the question, the ultimate form of betrayal. If a man broke the strike, life simply wouldn’t be worth living. In The Sea Inside His Head, this fact comes home to Bradley in a tragic way.

I’ve worked in several factories where I never saw the daylight – only the awful artificial strip-lighting. I often felt like a prisoner, but I made many good friends, and enjoyed the companionship of people as hard-up as myself. I hope and pray that in portraying Bradley’s difficulties, some light will be shed on the subject of ‘scabs’ and the pressure of debt. What forced them to make this difficult decision? Do they deserve the total rejection they receive even now, from the mining communities? Can they, twenty-seven years later, be understood and forgiven?

Theresa Le Flem

The Sea Inside His Head is published on 30 April 2012 in hardback and is available now to pre-order with a 30% discount for a limited time only.

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One thought on “Theresa Le Flem on ‘The Sea Inside His Head’ and Why Coal Mining Made the Perfect Subject Matter

  1. Congratulations on the publication. I wonderfully evocative book of this disturbing period of our industrial history. It’s worth noting that miners were well-paid at the time – in comparison with other manual jobs. Perhaps this added to their sense of self-esteem in their determination to remain on strike – against all the odds. It was the unanticipated length of the strike which made their lives so difficult. However, despite the good salary and high value tax-free perks ( e.g.lots of free coal) mining was such a dangerous occupation, as the memorial statue outside the Fowlmead Nature Reserve illustrates. This is the site of the old Betteshanger Colliery slag-heaps. How ironic, that thirty years on, all those miles under the ground, there remains the old, rusting machinery. Abondoned without thought for their value – even as scrap. The Coal Board were apparently so paranoid that the closures would be stopped again when they eventually got to tear-down the iconic winding-towers, they simply blocked-up the miles and miles of tunnels with trucks, cables and framework still intact. The waste is particularly ironic in this era of austerity. Even more ironic perhaps, as potential sources of power at a premium, there are recent discussions from investors interested in re-opening the still un-exploited Kent coalfields.
    I wonder what poor Bradley would think when he read that in the local paper!

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