By Charles Holme
Image: The Miner - a charcoal drawing /
Credit: Charles Holme
The Final Shift
The earth has moved and all my life has crumbled
I’m bent with pain and nightmares fill my days
The pit has been the only work I’ve known of,
Now its no more. I know no other way.
I’ve lost the count of all the shifts I’ve worked on,
The hot, dark secrets of the pit unbounden.
The friendships, jokes and banter at the pit head.
I found my place among the village men.
Yet still I wake up early in the morning
The kitchen lights of others who can’t sleep
I pass the hours of daylight in the allotment
And fill my days imagining the deep.
I vent my anger on the soil – it’s useless!
And weep in silence, now a soul outcaste
Each dreadful day is blocking out the future.
I sit alone where I can see the past.
I met a lass whose uncle worked the back shift
We settled down, a home, a time of joy
Along came Johnny born of love and laughter
An only son and one delightful boy
With holidays beside the northern shoreline
Sunny days of pools and tiny fishes
Finding black sea coal beside the water.
Ice cream, sandy toes and salty kisses.
At evening in the club, before too long we talk
About the 100 men who lost their lives that night.
and “Whose to blame”, “If only …” “Where’s the Union?”
“I still say….” All no good. For nowt can put it right.
The first explosion gently shook the floor boards
The second waking us in bone deep fear.
The siren screaming. Men rush to the pit head
To help. But helpless. Only standing near,
To wait. And wait. Three men were brought up quickly
All near to death. Not him. That night I prayed.
Then news of a fire, the roadways blocked with rubble,
The seams collapsed, no sound of life. My faith betrayed.
And as the dawn broke cold the saddest news was bitter.
The pit was flooding. Hope swift ebbed away
The Newsmen came. We speechless, faded to the club
To drink and talk with pitmen that dark day.
It took four weeks before the fire was over.
A few more bodies found, but not the brave,
Somewhere he lay deep among the rubble
The earth that moved changed pit into a grave.
Our Johnny won his scholarship to the grammar
He could do anything, they said, he had the gift.
If only…. There I go again, if only he’d stayed on
And studied, it would not be the final shift.
The final shift.
By Charles Holme
About The Final Shift
YouTube video: West Stanley Pit Disaster, Durham 1909 by Colin C
At a Drawing and Painting class I copied the face of a miner in his helmet using charcoal. It was one of my better drawings and I framed it and it hung in our shower room. I looked at it a lot and saw a sadness in the face. I wondered what might have caused this sadness and this poem was the result.
Family details: I was brought up in a mining district in the North East of England. Many students at my grammar school were from local mining villages. In my family I got the message I had to work to go to university like my brothers. Many of my fellow students had been brought up to leave school and work in the pit.
January 21, 2021
N.B. The Final Shift is part of a collection of 180 poems intended for imminent publication. The poem was partly inspired by Charles' memories of the aftermath of the Aberfan mining disaster - the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip on a mountain slope above a village near Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales on 21 October 1966.