Friday, April 10, 2020

"Mr Peabody's coal train has hauled it away"

John Prine has died. This is my favourite song of his, on face value a nostalgic tale of bygone days:

...When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn 
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mr Peabody's coal train has hauled it away...
I've never been in western Kentucky but on honeymoon in 1997 I drove through the east of the state, a scarred landscape with flattened and excavated coal-bearing hills which once stood full and proud. Founded in 1883, Peabody Energy is an actual company which still exists today. They don't like the song, as this 2015 lawsuit shows. Perhaps the original George Peabody himself doesn't really deserve to have his philanthropic legacy undermined.

But the themes of the song reach far beyond the strip mines of Kentucky; I have often thought that "Mr Peabody's coal train" is also an emblem, representing anything and everything which strips rural communities of their sense of value and dignity.

These days there are very few corporations ripping up the countryside. Green energy and wind turbine farms might be, but they say they’re not. One strong equivalent is the international and national chain stores that have parachuted in to towns and villages over the past generation and killed off so many local family-run independents, replacing painted community surnames with backlit neon corporate logos.

Powerless, disadvantaged, urban communities are in the same boat as their rural cousins.

But a prime candidate for me as a present day "Peabody coal train" is the vanilla-flavoured, suburban-minded, unaccountable, "knowledge class" managerial public sector culture which dominates everyone's lives and wields its taxpayer-funded power, privilege and editorial control over almost all of life. There is plenty to say about this, maybe another day.

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man