My dad left school when he was fifteen. It was the summer of 1952. He was a bright lad, and had done well at school: he’d passed his 11+, and had got a place at Wigan Grammar School, distinguishing himself by way of his neat handwriting and meticulous organisation. And then his dad – a coal miner, from a family of coal miners – developed pneumoconiosis, and died, leaving a wife and two sons. He was just 44. My dad left the Grammar School, and went down the pit himself, to support his mother and ten-year-old brother.
This wasn’t the end of his education. He enrolled at Wigan Technical College and completed qualifications, in geology, surveying, mining technology. Eventually, he was transferred to the brand-new, state-of-the-art Parkside Colliery, in Newton-le-Willows, and was appointed Safety Engineer. He helped to formulate the rules that were put in place across the country to make conditions safer for the men who worked underground. He was head of the colliery’s First Aid team, which he led to victory in competitions throughout the UK.
And he was a digger. Earth was his element. He gardened, grew flowers and vegetables, kept an allotment. Appropriately, for a miner and a gardener, he believed in starting at the bottom and working your way up. He wasn’t keen on the idea of university. It enabled people to skip the first few rungs on the ladder, elevating book-learning over practical, hands-on experience. Going to university delayed the process of getting a job and earning a living, the process he’d started in his mid-teens. As for studying English – well, what was the point? It took a trip into school and a meeting with my English teacher to convince him that it wouldn’t be a waste of time.
So Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’, with its division not just between the generations but between talents and ways of life, is a poem that has always resonated with me. Since I’ve had my own garden, I’ve recognised how much care and skill went into what he did. Nothing fancy – I don’t think anyone had heard of butternut squash or rainbow chard back then – but potatoes and leeks, onions and cabbages and tomatoes, enough for a family of six with plenty left over. He was a great believer in an honest job that was done well. The rasping sound of spade in soil, the clean smell of earth.
And now my son, the Dude, is a digger, too. He’s decided that college isn’t for him, for now. He’s working for a landscape gardener, wielding a spade and heaving buckets of earth. He’s coming home filthy and tired, but it’s a good tiredness. College can wait. It won’t go away.
The last few months have brought home to me how little vocational education is valued in the UK, and how difficult life is for young people who don’t want to go down an academic route post-16. The past two years have meant that opportunities for work experience have been thin on the ground. Open days, college visits, induction sessions: the mechanisms that help teenagers to make big decisions about their futures have been unable to happen. And so choices have been made based on what seems easiest, on what has the security of the familiar. School and college seem safe. It’s hard to break away and do something completely new.
I am proud of the Dude, for doing the difficult thing. My dad never got to meet him, but he’d be proud of him too. Meanwhile, I’m poised between the two, with my own squat pen and a head full of books, doing my own digging.