Coal, brick (whether sooty or bright red), clay, soil, stone. These are my elements. I adore the smell of coal cinders. Like the dun green colour of the painted prefabs and shelters then still to be seen at the top of Moss Hall Road, the dank, tangy smell of cinders constitutes a very early memory.
Every week the coal man (a jolly, noisy chap I recall) would drop off a few bags in our concrete coal bunker in our new house on Whalley Road. I would then clamber onto the structure, and try to look into next door’s garden, for their cat Milly (was it Milly?), an irascible tortoiseshell. Or peer over the road to the NORI brick stacks. I would bang my drum (a 2nd, or 3rd birthday present) and wear my dad’s Heworth Colliery Band hat.
Whether through tending allotments in Felling and Accrington, throwing up improvised saps at Gallipoli, Antwerp and the Ypres salient, or mining East Lancashire (by way of Altham Pit), my family has had long experience of digging. I used to dream of giant horses cavorting, huge limbs and half torsos writhing in the mud under our house; maybe the spirits of buried pit ponies, returned in giant form to remind me of this subterranean heritage.
When my parents moved from the bungalow on Moss Hall Road to a semi detached (with a back garden and a backs) on Whalley Road I grasped the opportunity to dig trench systems in the overgrown, toad-infested No Man’s Land of our backs. I would wage war with spirits seen in the Larousse Dictionary of Mythology (introduction by Robert Graves). My brother went further, seeing the garden as a form of Stalag, tunnelling under the trellis to escape into the Eden of the front garden.