Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Portrait of an Asturian miner

 [This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2016.]

 
 
The coal miner's wife wakes him and he coughs. He shuffles to the small bathroom sink and spits black liquid, washing it away with with the brown tap water.

Last night he slept badly, suffering from stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting again. He had been working in the zinc mine at Arnao in Castrillon but the Belgian company who own the site have let him go to the San Juan mine. He felt himself to be quite lucky. At least there they had a river pool for the miners to wash in.

As he leaves for another day under the earth the miner looks for a last time at the mountains, at their ferns and the tall groups of eucalyptus - – pencil thin, not quite straight, just like the trees in a Dr Seuss book. He sees the houses with their sharp pitched roofs in front of deep gorges and is comforted by the roll of the hills across this green land.

Our miner is living before the era of the chemical plants and big metal factories. He knows others who dig for iron and knows it’s vital for tinned food because electricity and refrigeration have not yet arrived to this part of the world.

His mine, like many mines, is close to a river: a means of transporting the coal for trading this raw material with British towns like Cardiff and Newcastle-upon-Tyne [where my own father was born and also grew up next to a polluted river.]

This miner's children will one day see the construction of chemical industries, thanks to the mines, thanks to his labour. In fact, he thinks, as he makes the walk to the pits, the story of Asturias is the story of the miner and the story of the miner is the story of Asturias. It is one of hardship and scant reward, of growth but also ill health. It is a tale of the deep earth's hidden secrets and humanity’s immeasurable suffering with the open spaces of the valleys and their claustrophobic confines - as unforgiving and back-breaking as any imagined hell in those greedy shafts penetrating ever downwards into the planet.

Today, like thousands of other days, he will launch his body into the ground and probe for hour after hour for that black rock. Finally, at the end of the day our miner will take aspirin for his aching bones, smiling at the ironic fact that it has ingredients made from the very coal he has been digging for. He does not yet know though that, decades later, his children are going eat kiwi-fruits and chestnuts that will come to grow particularly well in the carbon-coloured soil left from abandoned open-cut mines scattered across the nearby hills.

As the miner eats his simple lunch with his hands still blackened by coal dust, he remembers his father, who was also a miner. He too worked to extract the iron that was in such high demand for both twentieth century century world wars – a metal that helped the rich become richer. His father started life as a rural worker and had to adapt from the rhythms of the seasons to the very different rhythm of an industrial timetable. He had to learn to accept days and nights with no sky or trees, down in the mines which lay right next to his cramped terrace house.

Like every other subterranean labourer, his father and he both wondered if life could ever be different for them. He’d heard that things were a bit better at the only mine run by a trade union. But it was on the other side of Asturias and he had never even visited there.

Our miner lives in Bustiello town where all of the aristocrat Marques de Camilla's workers have their neat little houses below everyone else, at the bottom of the valley. It is an orderly, rectangular village and each house has a small garden. Up the hill above them live the engineers and above them is the church, then God of course. This is what he knows: the planning of the town exactly reflects the social and spiritual hierarchy. The Marques is a conservative man. He fears the progressive men who want social change.

Further on in the mountains there are mining zones that suffered from “special measures” during Franco's dictatorship. Around Pozo Fortuna trade union activists were assassinated and their bodies were thrown down an old pit-hole. Our miner speaks about this sadly with his friends and later falls asleep hoping that the bad times will end.

In the morning, he rises and faces another day.