When I was a teenager I sometimes knocked about with friends who lived on a neigbouring estate. One of the attractions there was a railway line that ran along the bottom of the back gardens of one street. Engines on this line hauled hoppers full of coal from the nearby Bates’ colliery, now long since closed. With that blindness to danger that many teenagers suffer from, we used to ride on these hoppers for kicks.
We sat by the side of the track, chatting and smoking while waiting for our ride to arrive. When I saw the yellow and black chevrons of the engine appear underneath a nearby road bridge, I was almost pole-axed in a fit of excited butterflies.
We hid behind a wall until the engine went by and then, as the tail end of the train was passing, we ran onto the track behind the last hopper. These were so designed that cadging a lift was no more difficult than climbing a ladder; there were bars to grab onto and even a steel step to help us climb aboard.
The whole train plodded along at about 20 mph and so it was easy to catch up, but sometimes one of our number lacked the required pace. As this slowcoach puffed and panted along the track we gave shouts of encouragement and stretched our arms out so he could grab a hand, like a re-enactment of the closing scene in Von Ryan’s Express. If he failed to make it then he was left behind, unless he had the cigarettes, in which case we all jumped off and abandoned the trip.
Once safely on board we used the lower bar as a step so we could look over the top of the hopper at the ones in front of us, remembering to duck when we went under a bridge. Someone usually stood on the buffers to keep guard by peeping out, watching for one of the drivers jumping off in an attempt to catch us. This was a common danger that could result in a severe arse-kicking, and many’s the time we alighted en masse on seeing a figure jump from the engine. We also kept a wary eye out for the colliery’s own policeman in his distinctive green mini van. We were schoolkids getting kicks, but some older fellows had a more lucrative reason for climbing aboard.
In order to secure beer money for the weekend, some less scrupulous residents of the estate boarded a laden hopper not for the ride, but to pull the lever that opened the hatches underneath, causing it to unburden its load along the track. On these occasions, word spread through the estate that someone had ‘tipped a truck’, and tons of coal was lying on the track just waiting to be collected. While those who had caused the spillage filled sacks they would later sell door-to-door, the rest of the estate, men, women, children and dogs, swarmed over the booty for a share (apart from the dogs – they weren’t interested). There was more than enough to go round.
Such spills really brought the local community together, as families from the estate laughed and chatted while helping themselves to buckshee coal. All kinds of receptacles were used to transport the filched fossil-fuel home, from, appropriately, coal scuttles, to buckets and shopping bags. And while my memory might be playing tricks on me when I say that a middle-aged woman held out her pinny while her teenage daughter scooped coal into it with her hands, they were certainly both there.
Sometimes the green mini van would make an appearance and everyone funnelled through a gap in the hawthorns to make their escape via the garden of a sympathiser. Back in the street, women would stand innocently chatting at their doorsteps as though they knew nothing about any spilled load, but their coal-smeared faces and grubby hands told the true extent of their knowledge. A few buckets and shovels may have been lost in these raids, but as soon as the coast was clear the ants returned to their anthill.
I tell this story in relation to the current deplorable unrest that has dominated the news in recent days. As the above shows, a close-knit community is not necessarily a law-abiding one. I think it is naïve for the authorities to expect parents to question their children if they are suddenly sporting new trainers, or have come into possession of brand new electrical goods. If their community is anything like the one I grew up in, the conversation might go something like this.
“Oi, me lad, where did you get them new trainers from?”
“Give over, Mum. You know fine well I got them from the same place you got them new slippers.”