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Carrying coals to Newcastle

Colour of his teeth has saved Siva .......

Photo private collection of A Sivakumar.

On a cool February night forty years ago, Jayantha, Rudi and I flew to London, U.K., from Katunayake airport, on no pay study leave to pursue postgrad qualifications, . I don't know about my companions, but I was apprehensive, excited, anxious and sad, all at once.. It was also my maiden flight and I was homesick halfway into my journey. At Heathrow airport, both the London weather and my immigration officer were cold and frosty. My friends and I separated upon arrival and reunited in Rugby a few days later, at our senior Kanags's place, to study for the PLAB exam. We took the exam soon thereafter, in Edinburgh, after having shacked up with Tony Sirimanne in Kirkcaldy, Fife for a few days.

After passing the PLAB, the job hunting began. Thus began one of the darkest times of my life. After several weeks of disappointment , I was able to get a locum SHO job in General Medicine at Queens Park Hospital, Blackburn, Lancashire. It was initially for one month, but they kept extending it as the consultants were quite satisfied with my work. Getting a permanent job was a totally different matter. I interviewed for an opening in the Blackburn Royal Infirmary but was rejected. Then began a long quest for a permanent post. I was shortlisted for several jobs throughout the U.K., but was turned down, usually as a local British graduate also showed up at the interview. I remember the long gloomy travel back to Blackburn, in abject dejection, after each such setback. Fortunately, my locum kept being extended for almost 7 months. I recall taking the Friday midnight coach from Blackburn to London during that time, to spend several off call weekends with Jayantha Prem and other friends, and then return to base on Sunday night, as it was tough being alone and without a secure job. To add to my misery, my father passed away suddenly in September 1981; I was unable to attend his funeral as my passport was with the Home Office for a visa extension. It was during this time when I was languishing in the doldrums that Ranjith, my dear college mate and friend, came to my rescue. An SHO opening came up in the Geriatric unit at Southshields General Hospital, where he was working. He had a stellar reputation in the department, and I was shortlisted for interview upon his recommendation. To my sheer relief, I was selected and joined Ranjith in the Geriatrics unit. We also participated in the night call rotation for General Medicine at the nearby Ingham Infirmary, which I enjoyed. Both of us passed the MRCP exam during our tenure in Southshields. Ranjith and his family were an immense source of strength and support to me then and I am much indebted.

Ranjith and I were a good tandem. We meshed well and were liked both by our Geriatric Medicine consultants, Dr. Nichols and Dr.Hassan, and the nursing staff. So, Dr.Nichols decided to show the inexperienced Sri Lankan lads a bit of the local culture and heritage. Southshields, Tyne & Wear, is close to Newcastle, which was fabled for its coal industry in its halcyon days. At the time of my training, the British miners had a strong trade union, headed by Arthur Scargill, who was often at loggerheads with the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher ( "The Iron Lady"). Since Ranjith and I had never seen a coal mine, Dr.Nichols decided to take us to one on a field trip. So, on a brisk Northeast morning in June 1982, he took several members of the Geriatric unit's nursing staff, Ranjith and I on a field trip to the nearby Boldon Colliery mine. I must confess that I was rather nervous at the thought of spending time below the earth's surface, in a confined space, with what I imagined was limited oxygen reserve. I made sure that I took my Ventolin Inhaler along, lest I ran into some respiratory problems! After the customary safety drill talk from one of the mining foremen, it was time to venture underground. We were all given white hardhats to wear. I chuckled when they gave just Ranjith and me white overalls to wear underground, so that we could be seen against the dark background below. In addition, someone advised me to keep smiling or bare my teeth while in the mine, so I could be spotted easily. The bloody cheek! I don't remember much of the time spent down in the mine as I was too worried about getting back to the surface unscathed. The area we were taken to was not too cramped but I remained claustrophobic. Looking around, I didn't see the famous yellow canary that was rumored to accompany the miners . The canary was not a mere pet or mascot but was used in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases before they hurt the miners. Legend has it that when the canary stops singing, its time to hightail it out of there as the noxious gas levels were getting perilously high. I was informed that canaries had been phased out due to humane reasons and the presence of more sensitive detectors! My experience gave me an appreciation for the tough conditions the miners worked under and the important service they provide. I was quite relieved to get back above ground at the end of our short trip! I kept a small chip of coal as a momento from my trip but unfortunately lost it later during my immigration to the U.S.

I also recalled this trip to the coal mine when our ex U.S. President, Donald Trump, mentioned about "clean coal" at one of his rallies. In his characteristic way of thinking, he thought it meant that the coal was removed and then physically cleaned, when it actually referred to the new technologies used at power plants that make coal cleaner to burn, cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions!

Our trip to the coal mine remains an enduring experience and part of the unique time I spent in the U.K., that has left me with fond memories.

Arumugam Sivakumar


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