James Fitchett, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research at the School, traces the historical evolution of socio-economic illness in a Midlands city
UK Coal recently announced the closure of the last remaining coal mines in Britain. The proposal will see the pits face a phased shutdown, with UK Coal’s six surface mines being sold off with the loss of over 1,300 jobs. Thoresby colliery in Nottinghamshire, about an hour’s drive north up the M1 motorway from Leicester, is the last of over 50 Nottinghamshire coal mines to close.
My Grandfather worked in the Nottinghamshire coal mines – including Babbington colliery – now the site of the appropriately named Phoenix Park tram terminus on the northern edge of the city of Nottingham. Like many of his working class he died from ‘industrial disease’: lung disorders brought on by years of hard physical manual labour. I can recall the many clichés from this working class life – community spirit, communal pride, neat and pristinely manicured gardens on council housing estates, and the perceived nobility of hard work and proud cultural solidarity. Many of the miners I knew were expert gardeners; taking every possible chance to get out into the open air while supplementing the family diet. By the mid-1980s, around 24,000 industrial workers were employed by British Coal in Nottinghamshire – the social decay produced by the closure of the mines and the resulting mass unemployment, underemployment and sense social hopelessness were terrible.
For many the emotional, symbolic and political significance of the decision to close Thoresby far outweighs any economic or commercial considerations. It brings back memories of the bitter industrial dispute of the 1984-5 confrontation between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and the National Union of Mineworkers, and the violent clashes between the police and striking miners. The strike and the subsequent closure of mines across Britain devastated many families and communities, epitomising for many the decline and collapse of industrial life in the Midlands and beyond. On the other side of the debate, commentators see the decline of heavy industries like coal mining as a necessary consequence of global competition, progressive capitalism and the inevitable move into a post-industrial society. The collective solidarity and community of the families’ on the council estates which housed the Nottinghamshire coalminers were replaced by communities of home owners under government right-to-buy schemes, and many children from mining communities were attracted into the emerging service economies that repopulated the vast decaying industrial wastelands of the Midlands economy.
Many of the sons and daughters of Nottinghamshire mining families found work in the new post-industrial service industries that came into the city: Experian, the Inland Revenue, and Capital One financial services – alongside thriving leisure, retail, entertainment and higher education sectors – became the new coal face of the emerging consumer and credit society. The physical evidence of this transition to the post-industrial, service driven consumer culture can be most clearly seen in places like the Centre Parcs complex at Ollerton near Sherwood Forest – which opened in 1987 – once at the heart of the Nottinghamshire coal field. The 20 million visitors to the Meadowhall shopping centre constructed in 1990 – a little further up the M1 motorway near Sheffield in South Yorkshire, on the site of a former steelworks – offers an equally poignant illustration of this now well documented social trend. The great-grandchildren of the last Nottinghamshire coal miners would be hard pressed to find much evidence of the mining industry on their local landscape today. It is equally likely that they would have an ambiguous view on the industry, given contemporary concerns with climate change and fossil fuel reliance.
And yet the mining goes on! Since its release in 2009 the sandbox indie game Minecraft – created by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson – has sold over 35 million copies worldwide, with over 12 million copies sold on the Xbox Live Arcade Platform since 2012 (xbox 2014). The Nottinghamshire estates which once housed thousands of coal workers, then, now reverberate with the sounds of Creepers, Zombies and Skeletons battling it out it in retro-3D mines. There is some perverse poetry to be seen in contemporary consumers building up experience-points within virtual coal-mines not far from the physical site of many long closed collieries.
The announced closure of Thoresby sounds a fading echo of heavy industry in the Midlands, and of the march on to consumption and then to simulation. The industrial diseases that killed and continue to kill many former Nottinghamshire mineworkers remain a painful legacy for many families, as are the lasting ripples of the social and economic devastation experienced by mining communities across the UK. The latest generation of Nottinghamshire miners, together with their virtual comrades worldwide, have very different ailments to contend with today.