Simanaitis Says

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SERENDIPIDLY, COAL RECENTLY unearthed in two different contexts, the London Review of Books and SiriusXM “Radio Classics.” Here are tidbits about both, together with my usual Internet mining. 

Coal and British Deindustrialization. Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s “Tesco and a Motorway,” London Review of Books, September 9, 2021, reviews four books describing the evolution of Britain’s coal industry. Like other developed countries, the U.K. is transforming from industrialization to deindustrialization, from making things to doing services. 

Indeed, the four reviewed books likely tell me more about the horrors of British company-owned “pit villages” than I want to know. On the other hand, my own parents’ heritage was not all that different from this, my dad wisely opting for a Cleveland steel mill rather than an Eastern Pennsylvania coal mine. 

Distinctly Different Coals. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s LRB article opens with “Not all coal is the same,” and this itself makes for an interesting tidbit. She writes, “The lowest ranks—the closest to peat—are lignite and sub-bituminous coal, known in Britain as brown coal. These have been estimated to make up nearly a third of proved global reserves, but are not much exploited in areas where higher-grade coal is available, because they produce a lot of smoke and relatively little heat (they are also difficult to transport and store, not least because they can spontaneously combust).”

“Next comes bituminous coal, or steam coal,” Sutcliffe-Braithwaite says. “Dark brown or black, and usually layered or banded, steam coal is widely used in electricity generation (by the 1970s, this was the destination of more than half the coal used in Britain).… Coking steam coal—which has a low sulphur content—is used to make coke, which is used in smelting iron ore.”

And Sutcliffe-Braithwaite writes, “The highest rank of coal is anthracite, which burns the hottest and with the least smoke. It is black or steel grey, brilliant, and clean to touch. It used to power the Great Western Railway, and before gas-fired central heating became widespread, was a popular choice for domestic heating, because it produces little smoke or dust.” 

Anthracite coat has been called “black diamond.”

Anthracite coal brought prosperity to the Eastern Pennsylvania region of my parents’ birth—until, inevitably, the rich veins were mined out, and strip mining replaced the underground variety. It also gave Dr. John H. Watson an adventure to chronicle in “Holmes and Anthracite.”

The Miracle of the Bells. This mining also left underground hollows that riddled the region with subsidence, the topic of which brings me to the SiriusXM “Radio Classics” coal tidbit associated with The Miracle of the Bells. YouTube shares the Lux Radio Theatre rendition of the tale, first broadcast on May 31, 1948, not long after the film version appeared in March of that year. 

The Miracle of the Bells., 1948, starring Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli, Frank Sinatra, and Lee J. Cobb.

Wikipedia offers details of this 1948 drama/tear-jerker. Briefly, Coaltown’s Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) gives her life to stardom in the Joan of Arc film. Granting her last wish, Hollywood press agent Bill Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) returns her body to Coaltown for burial and, in so doing, recalls their relationship bordering on love.

Frank Sinatra portrays Father Paul of the impoverished St. Michael’s Polish Church on the wrong side of Coaltown’s tracks. The mines’ owners and their equals attend St. Leo’s.

Lee J. Cobb is Marcus Harris, a hard-dealing Hollywood mogul with a quandary: Should he release Joan of Arc now that its star has died? 

Dunnigan, in honoring Olga’s memory, pulls a publicity stunt generating national interest: have the five churches of Coaltown ring their bells continuously for three days. He finances the stunt with bogus checks. 

The Miracle. St. Michael’s is packed for Olga’s funeral, during which a loud creaking noise is heard. Statues of St. Michael and the Virgin Mary turn to face Olga’s coffin. 

Father Paul recognizes that the statues’ pillars have been affected by subsidence from the mining. Dunnigan persuades him not to quash the faith of the people of Coaltown. Mogul Harris decides to release Olga’s Joan of Arc after all. 

Critics of The Miracle of the Bells poked fun at Sinatra’s Father Paul. (Indeed, he sings an a cappella “Ever Homeward,” in both English and Polish, as the film’s only song.) Time magazine wrote, “St. Michael ought to sue.” 

Wikipedia writes, “In recent decades the film has developed a better reputation due to its realistic portrayal of coal miners in small town America.” 

And that’s what got me reading Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s LRB piece. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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