I grew up in a small mining village outside Nottingham called Cotgrave. The name said it all really, and the burly men who lived here looked like they’d murdered a few children in their time. It was the 1980s, and it was all kicking off with the Strikes. For a while I grew up thinking the local accent was Geordie because men from the North East relocated here when Cotgrave Colliery was built in 1964. I was more often greeted with a ‘mara’ than ‘mi duck’. The colliery closed down in 1993, and with it went an entire way of life.
Recently, eighth generation miner David Amos and Natalie Braber, a professor of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, have been researching into the language of mining communities, known as ‘pit talk’. They’ve been inundated with responses from former miners who are desperate to ensure their culture is kept alive and that their knowledge and experience can be passed down to younger generations. From their research, they’ve uncovered vast amounts of poetry which they’ve celebrated at events such as Songs and Rhymes from the Mines as part of the Nottingham Poetry Festival.
To celebrate their research, and to revisit my childhood, I’ve recently finished a broadcast for BBC Radio 4 called Talk and Tongue: The Dialect Poets. It’s broadcast Sunday 20 May at 4.30pm. In the programme I talk to various miners – or people from mining communities – who have turned to verse as a means of keeping their culture alive. Alan J Taylor performs under the pseudonym Al Rate (‘Alright’) and has penned a song about ‘powder monkeys’ – the coal miners who got paid extra for risking their lives by letting off explosives underground. Whereas Bill Kerry III discovered that his grandfather worked at the same pit in Heanor as the dialect poet Owen Watson, author of Strong I’th’arm: The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner. Bill has adapted the lyrics to folk songs so that they are more accessible.
For the past three years I’ve been working with Paul Fillingham on a project called DH Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage which will begin next year to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s self-imposed exile from Britain. So naturally he gets a mention on the show. When Lawrence used dialect in his early plays about life in a mining community they were dismissed as a ‘sordid picture of lower class life’ with middle class Edwardian critics unimpressed with ‘its lack of verbal beauty’. Lawrence was a master of dialect, using multiple variations of speech patterns that drew influences from the Erewash Valley, Derbyshire and Notts. By using dialect, Lawrence enabled the reader to understand a collier’s particular social class, their education, and their intelligence. The way his characters spoke represented the history of the community, even down to what street they lived on. David Amos helps me read Lawrence’s notoriously difficult dialect poem The Collier’s Wife, which includes this wonderful verse:
It’s a shame as ‘e should be knocked about
Like this, I’m sure it is!
‘E’s ‘ad twenty accidents, if ‘e’s ‘ad one;
Owt bad, an’ it’s his!
The programme also features Young Motormouf, a beatboxer, rapper, poet and musician who’s penned some new verse inspired by the stories of a miner who comes into his local pub. It’s a rapid fire beat poem that goes through an A-Z of mining terms. Andrew Graves and Bridie Squires also perform new works. Bridie has been creating poems inspired by local words and Andrew captures the essence of our Nottingham’s personality in Still Notts Talking. Andrew has also been working on a project called Local and Vocal with communities in Mansfield and Ashfield, but we weren’t able to discuss this in our allotted time.
Nottingham isn’t north. We’re not south either. We’re the squeezed middle, the region that people pass through on their way to somewhere else. We are, as Robert Shore wrote: Bang in the Middle. Like a great daft sponge we absorb influences from all over the shop and this complicates our dialect as well as the way we pronounce words. The programme explores some of these influences, through poetry, ballads and folk songs. If you find time to listen, share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #TalkandTongue
Talk and Tongue: The Dialect Poets, BBC Radio 4. Sunday 20 May. 4.30pm
About: James is the co-author of digital heritage projects The Sillitoe Trail and Dawn of the Unread. He is currently working on DH Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage and Whatever People Say I Am.