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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

No Pit Pony




You know the stories – or you think you do. Coal has nearly gone, bittersweet, for it needs to go, God knows, but God knows too that men and women once fought to save it, intertwined as it was with their dignity. For 40 years the vitriol and comradeship have loudly echoed from the likes of Cortonwood, Easington, Orgreave, Lewis Merthyr and Tower. But Pontyvale Number 2 Colliery, you won’t have heard of that.

Don’t bother with any history book. The Thatcher government, with the connivance of the Police Federation and the RSPCA (yes, the cats and dogs people), stamped down on anyone who tried to get the story out during the miners’ strike and afterwards. Not too hard on the day, since the TV was wall-to-wall with the assassination of Indira Ghandi. And later? Still nothing, not in Tony Curtis’s 1997 anthology Coal, not in official papers released in 2015 under the 30-year rule, not even a line in a Max Boyce song.

How do I know about it? Because we were there, Gareth, Dewi and me. There at the heart of it, Dewi most of all. There at the Number 2 gates, October 1984.

‘Trick or treat,’ we had shouted at the coppers, in honour of the day. The police inspector had laughed, for once, and shown us empty hands and pockets. His men, with less grace, had scowled and sworn at us.

‘Trick it is, then,’ said Gareth, and smacked the palm of his hand with the length of hazel he carried.

He turned to check our readiness for the daily struggle, first Kelly, then me. He nodded. But then from Dewi’s pocket he pulled a rod, a length of rosewood a touch thicker than a pencil, trimmed of thorns. We had never asked Dewi why he usually had it about him; none of our business.

‘Dewi bach, is this all you brought? Hardly a scary weapon, is it? You may not be the biggest bloke in the world, but you’re a decent collier in other respects – helmet, dirty face, dodgy lungs and nostalgia for Capstan Full Strength – but facing us is 50 coppers, mun, with their truncheons indeed. And somewhere round the corner is one of Edwards’s buses full of scabs waiting for us to get beaten out of their way. Every other bugger by these gates has proper armament. I got what you might call a cudgel, Maldwyn here got the cricket bat he scored 99 with against Merthyr, and Kelly got the shillelagh that his grandad used on the Black and Tans. Even my cousin Anne – see her in that doorway – even she got a rolling pin with her, cliché though that is. But all you got is your crooked little stick. What you going to do with that, mun, conduct the coppers singing Cwm Rhondda?’

He paused as the police horses arrived, the two of them clattering up Nye Bevan Road to join the dark blue infantry. The brown mare looked like she’d share an orange pippin with you, but the other, a grey stallion, trod heavy and looked at us like dirt. Not a speedster you’d bet on at Chepstow races, but, dear God, not a horse you’d care to challenge. No pit pony.

All ready, then. Five minutes before shift was due – and the strike-breakers’ bus.

We had, all of us, got used to the business of the strike by now, the meetings, the support of friends and strangers, the bias in the news against the union, the deferment of bills, and the lack of pints and second helpings. But above all, the discipline of picketing the gates, the resistance to the scabs, the cuts and bruises.

And the police were settled too, the city slickers up from Cardiff, and the country boys from Newtown and the north. Nasty some of them were, enjoying their work for London’s Tories, any fellow-feeling submerged beneath weeks of overtime pay for their new blood-sport.

‘What’s that horse called?’ This was Dewi. He had taken his stick back from a disdainful Gareth.

‘Who gives a toss what it’s called?’ said Gareth.

‘I need to know.’

‘Churchill,’ said old Glyn Jones behind us, ‘if you mean the grey. God help us, striking miners in South Wales, and they bring in a horse called Churchill.’ He spat.

Dewi nodded, and began to mutter to himself. He held the rosewood in front of him, pointing it at Churchill, tracing a circle in the air. Crooked the stick was, like Gareth said, but with one thorn left at the tip we had not noticed before. As Dewi muttered, Churchill frisked, not what a police horse was meant to do, however eager it might be to trample us poor voters.

‘What you doing, mun,’ said Gareth. ‘They’ll be at us in a second.’

‘Leave him be,’ said old Glyn Jones. ‘Watch.’

What we would give now to have had smartphones back then. A video, even a still picture would have served to show the moment that gave a whole new meaning to ‘mounted police’. For in Churchill something stirred – testosterone to be exact – and in the mare he found a willing partner. Their riders were thrown, in a manner that would not have disgraced a rodeo. The sloping, damp cobbles did not give the mare ideal grip as Churchill – how would the Matt Hancock set describe it – as Churchill covered her? But she set her front legs and tossed her head like a good ’un, seeming, as Churchill did, to take energy from our cheers.

For we roared encouragement. How could we not, seeing how the coppers were confounded, torn between their duty and the sensation? Edwards’s bus drove into a lamppost as the driver gaped at the scene.

‘How did …?’ said Gareth to Dewi as the cheers turned derisive. He pointed at Dewi’s wand. ‘You’re kidding, right?’

But old Glyn Jones patted Dewi on the back. ‘Your mam would have been proud of you,’ he said.

As the chaos of laughter and bafflement progressed, we realised that whatever sorcery Dewi had aimed at Churchill, it was not laser precise. There was a degree of what Dewi later called scatter. A sergeant, much aroused, set off after Gareth’s cousin, but came up short against Anne’s defences, a one-two of rolling pin to the helmet and a knee where it counted. Greater success was had by two constables. Thinking the world’s attention was elsewhere, they took their friendship to a whole new level in a quiet spot.

‘Can you see what I can?’ said Gareth. For all the darkness of the corner to which the two PCs had retreated, we could. For several of us, it was an education.

*****

‘A pint and six straws, Tom,’ we said that evening at the Brecon Arms, and we toasted Dewi, Anne and the horses, heroes all. We watched for our big moment on Wales Today, but Pontyvale’s fame stayed local as Cardiff’s Indian communities were interviewed about the news from New Delhi. Over the weeks, word got about that Dewi had a certain way with him, and he came to be much in demand among the hill farmers. For their rams, you understand. Nothing public, just a quiet word and a tapped nose in the corners of the livestock markets.

The coppers’ disciplinaries went on for months, in secret. We attended the colliery gates each day, increasingly bitter and sad, with no light relief, no fun. Only one horse at a time.


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