Whilst browsing the twatter feed of Councillor Mike ‘Burger Boy’ Flower, I notice that planning permission has now been granted for the proposed pithead sculpture on Oak Park playing field. As positive as I generally am about public artworks, I have to say that this one, and the other art projects going on for Walsall Wood, leave a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.
Our area was built on mining, coal, canals and rail. These industries, and the engineering to support them, kept hundreds of thousands in work for the best part of two centuries. The men and women who worked in the mines and allied trades were poorly educated, badly paid and generally died young; not until the coalfields in Walsall Wood were closing did miners start to get some semblance of safety at work, socialised healthcare or a decent pension should they live long enough to draw upon it. I think I speak for everyone when I pay tribute to those hard, tenacious folk who paved the way for the society we now benefit from.
Just as the last local miners reach their autumn, many suffering industrial diseases, there seems to be a desire to erect statuary and pay lip service to their sacrifice. This is worthy, and even noble in intent, but how many of those people are suffering at the hands of accountants cutting social services budgets, the paring down of palliative care and the lamentable mess that is social services in Walsall today? What does it say about us as a society when we erect expensive monuments to a dead industry, toasted misty-eyed by those who supported its’ very destruction, all the while cutting budgets that enable comfortable, humane standards of care for those left behind?
It is notable that Walsall Council talks about all this as regeneration, but how many jobs will be safeguarded or created? Essential infrastructure like road and building maintenance are being cut to the very bone while we indulge councillors in unoriginal flights of artistic fervour. After all, how many mining monuments does an area actually need? There are mining artworks springing up like mushrooms right across the former South Staffs coalfield, from the Hednesford Davy Lamp to the ubiquitous Brownhills Miner. Do we really need another tribute?
The best tribute we can pay to our forbears is surely to look after the elderly and vulnerable well, to provide a standard of care that they never dreamed would be possible. To look after our aged and infirm properly should be an ideal we all aspire to, not the erection of memorials paid for by their neglect. We are the beneficiaries of their victory, after all.