At The Coal Face

At The Coal Face

March 17, 2010

Making the Chapter:

If there was ever a good time to work in a coal mine in Ukraine it was probably in the 1960s and 1970s. Coal miners were among the highest paid workers and had good benefits including priority allocation of an apartment and early retirement. There were accidents, of course, but there was camaraderie between the men that is lacking today. In At the Coal Face I socialise with a group of miners in a bar in the city of Donetsk. (Given the amount of alcohol I consumed, the chapter would never have been written without my trusty voice recorder.) I uncover the unusual provenance of the city, the rise of heroes (and heroines) of labour, the decline to the “year without meat,” pit disasters and the emergence of a new group of pit owners. Football and oil exploration make guest appearances.


I entered the bar a few minutes early and was greeted by broken linoleum, nicotine-stained wallpaper, and glaucous windows. It was not my choice of establishment, but a typical working class bar that served vodka and beer from six in the morning. I had agreed to meet three miners, a father and son, and a retired miner who was now part of the editorial team for a miners’ newspaper. Benches lined the perimeter of the room, but there were no chairs at the metal tables, which stood chest high and were supported by welded piping. I ordered a beer at the bar and took it to a free table.

The barman would have been hung drawn and quartered in any miners’ club back home for serving the short measure that he gave me, only slightly more than two-thirds of a glass. But in Ukraine I’d grown to accept it and I certainly wasn’t going to argue. Ukrainian friends smile and joke when I complain about beer measures; they just don’t seem to understand the gravity of the matter.

As I waited for the miners to arrive and the froth to settle, I couldn’t help but contemplate that this town was once the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union. It provided the coal to smelt the iron ore, and to produce the metal that was used in the tanks, missiles, aircraft, ships, and submarines that threatened the West for so many years. Yet, this town was built by a stocky, and by all accounts, amiable Welshman called John Hughes.

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