Myers Literary Guide:
HAROLD HESLOP (1898 - 1983)
Heslop was born in New Hunwick, near Bishop Auckland, and later worked for many years at Harton Colliery in South Shields, where he lived with the Gibsons at 23 Marsden Street and, after his marriage, at 1 Gorse Avenue in Cleadon. Heslop's literary output included a crime novel praised by Dorothy L. Sayers, but was mostly based on his experiences in the mines, and associated union activity in the coalfield. His attitude to industrial processes is a mixture of fear and fascinated pride. At one point he refers to the 'cooking' of coal in massive beehive coke ovens:
When these contraptions were set ablaze, they tore the darkness out of the moonless nights, and flung the surrounding countryside into a ruddy glow which hung aloft as a sulphurous visitation.Heslop goes on to describe the 'killing' of the oven and the wonderful slabs of silver coke that emerge, the splendid product of human labour.
As a scholarship boy in London, Heslop's eyes were opened to the place of such labour in the scheme of things.
The affluence and this total disregard for actual value staggered us. To watch a women doing her shopping in Kensington High Street by proxy while she reclined on the back seat of a limousine and instructed her chauffeur, was to undergo an experience hitherto alien to our imagination. To wander in Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens, and to become increasingly aware of the squalor that accompanies the deliberate wastage of social wealth, the odious contempt for time and application, the riot of splendid horses carrying their indifferent riders, the unenchanted display of clothes and opportunity, added up to an exploitation that almost choked us. Nothing that we read in Capital shocked and benumbed our proletarian souls as did the ferocity and violence of the West End of London.Heslop was cited by Sid Chaplin (q.v.) as a formative influence (alongside D.H. Lawrence) but though Last Cage Down (1935) was a critical success and is still in print, his usual fate was to have much of his output rejected. In the USSR, however, Heslop was promoted as a proletarian writer of whom much was expected. His novel Goaf, for example, is set in Shielding (South Shields), where Hunton pit is based on Harton Colliery. Other places in the North East are given slightly disguised names: Tymecastle (Newcastle), Yarra (Jarrow) Darlstone (Durham) and Tyme Dock (Tyne Dock). The first English edition is dated 1934, but what Heslop presented to Zamyatin in 1930 was a copy of the Russian translation by Lidiya Vengerova-Minskaya, which had come out in the USSR in September 1926 (publisher Priboi) under the title of Pod vlastiu uglia, with an introduction by Maisky, the Russian head of legation and later well-known ambassador in London. It had then sold half a million copies (no royalties).
Goaf is no literary masterpiece. The dialogue tends to be stilted, and Heslop has a weakness for vaguely impressionist rhetoric. He conveys nothing of the dramatic history of the mouth of the Tyne, from the Romans onward, or indeed of the coalfield, and displays little aesthetic sensibility beyond a revulsion from industrial squalor. It is quite amusing to read about his characters strolling through the interesting parts of Shields, missing every opportunity to pin the place down, give it a historical dimension or evoke an atmosphere. The scenes underground, however, drawn from Heslop's personal experience, are often effective.
Heslop was the only British writer invited to speak at the International Conference of Revolutionary and Proletarian Writers in Kharkov in 1930 and his impressions of the Soviet Union, his attendance at a show trial, and an extraordinary interview with Yevgeni Zamyatin (q.v.), who tried out his Geordie accent, are of considerable interest. The strength of his autobiography Out of the Old Earth,however, lies in his rich recollections of childhood in the coalfield, the portraits of his family and the fine descriptions of working life above and below ground. His miners are the men who know coals and the getting of coals, they possess what the owners can but own.
Heslop's work may be seen as part of the long and impressive North East tradition of coalfield writing. In particular, songs of mining life and 'pit poetry', whether humorous or pathetic, are an integral part of the region's heritage. In this compilation, Edward Chicken, Thomas Wilson, Joseph Skipsey, Tommy Armstrong, Joe Wilson and Sid Chaplin are representative names. Outsiders too, like Wilfrid Gibson, A.J. Cronin and James Henry in his savagely bitter poem on the 1862 Hartley disaster which begins: 'Two hundred men and eighteen killed', have sought subject matter in the great coalfield. Notable visitors to the North East mining areas include Joseph Grimaldi, the famous clown; Michael Faraday (and some say Emile Zola) at Haswell, and the future Tsar Nicholas I, in 1816, who refused to go down Wallsend pit, remarking that it resembled the portals of Hell and that 'none but a madman would venture there'. Prince Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew, went down Seghill mine in 1856. he asked to do some hewing and stated afterwards, 'looking mournfully at his blistered hands', that he would not work like that for six shillings a day, even if he had to starve. These latter two examples are cited by David Bean in his book Tyneside. In more modern times. Aldous Huxley (q.v.) went down the Brancepeth C pit in 1931.
Richard Fyne's great chronicle The Miners of Northumberland and Durham (1873) is a work which has influenced all who have read it. The 19th century material in Close the Coalhouse Door by Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow was taken from this source.