On Archives and Memories

by Angela Wiley

This morning at a coffee shop near Washington, D.C., I started talking with the person working across the table. As we wandered through talk about work projects, she remarked, “What’s really important, though, are the memories we make. Achievements are great, but if we leave no room to create memories with people, there is no point.” My name is Angela, and I have been working with After Coal since 2012. It hardly feels like work, so I drank up the words of coffee-shop-person-across-the-table and attached them to the archival memories I am sifting through, pulling apart, and stringing back together.

My interest in memory during the early months of this year involved combing through contemporary interviews, songs, and archival video that help tell the story of John Gaventa, Richard Greatrex, and Helen Lewis. A treasure trove of media and ephemera is housed in the Helen M. Lewis collection at Appalachian State University, and these materials are the foundation for my “reconstruction” of a shared memory. As I listen and read, it becomes clear that this trio’s experiences were never meant to be hidden, and that they were in the business of capturing shared memories of others. Now, I am a layer in the cake, so to speak.

In a practical sense, Gaventa, Greatrex and Lewis gathered stories from what would be the last generation of coal miners in South Wales. Meanwhile, bitter strikes in Wales and Appalachia offered a practical backdrop for the exchange of stories via video and conversation. Gaventa and Lewis were transplants from the U.S., while Greatrex acted as a local translator of sorts. In a 2013 interview, Greatrex illustrated the way work unfolded

Richard Greatrex, 2013.

John would come down from Oxford most weekends and we would troll off and find our subjects, again not with any great big over-arching concept, very much in that kind of anthropological “let’s find out what’s there”…And of course, because of Helen’s soft, calming touch getting to people wasn’t difficult at all, she was very much the front person for the relations with the local community. John was the organizer of things and I looked after that bloody equipment and lugged it around everywhere.

Helen Lewis follows Welsh miners underground, circa 1975. Screen captured from footage shot by Richard Greatrex.

Many of the “Welsh Tapes” offer footage from strike marches, tours from community members, and conversations in living rooms. Lewis had a particular interest in the women of coalfield communities, who were typically married to miners:

…I asked them if they would do an evening talking about what it was liked to be married to the macho Welshman miners. And so, Richard and I go to the house and the women and I are sitting around the kitchen table. And he is climbing the stairs and sitting up on the stairs kind of hiding, but with his camera. And we had this great discussion—which they really tell jokes and laugh and talk about their husbands and what it is like to be married to a Welshman coal miner, or coal truck driver.

The Welfare Hall, was a repeated location throughout the archive, and represented a community living room of sorts. Meetings among miners, band practices, and choir performances all take place in the hall. The location was also a stage for direct exchange through music.

An “American invasion” in South Wales included the Strange Creek Singers, a bluegrass band named for a town in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Their songs of spirit and struggle in Appalachia survived on video and now in digital form. With decades of distance from the filming project in South Wales, Gaventa was able to contextualize the power of exchange via music, transatlantic visits, and video sharing in a 2012 interview:


John Gaventa, 2012.

…The challenge these days is linking those enclaves and pockets of the global economy where resources are being extracted…they can be in Appalachia or Wales or Nigeria or Thailand or Malaysia or Chile. The answers aren’t going to come from a macro perspective I don’t think. I think they are going to come from a community’s perspective as communities try to come up with their solutions and able to exchange their answers with other similar situated parts of the world.

The exchange of videos, music, and stories helped document the last real generation of coal mining in Wales and in Appalachia. As mechanization took hold in both areas, and the Thatcher regime effectively halted production in Wales, both regions had to begin facing life after coal. What was recorded, learned, and compiled in the Helen Lewis Collection are threads that will be woven into a new record with the After Coal documentary. They paint an intimate portrait of a precise moment in time — and such detail can serve as a springboard for dialogue about continuing global issues.