A Jaundiced Look at Labour Relations

This is a Friday Fictioneers submission for July 8th 2015. Thanks to Stephen Baum for the photographic inspiration. 

On his way down the mine, Chester sings to lift his spirits. He knows he’ll probably die down here, just like his father. No childish melody can distract him from that. 

Some of the men join in, tunelessly.Today, he finds himself not minding quite so much.
They turn a corner, and he falls silent but the men keep up their caterwauling.The foreman turns to look at Chester, perched in his cage.
“Canary’s fine,” he says, “The air’s clear.”
Chester doesn’t say anything, wouldn’t say anything even if he could. The foreman doesn’t know he’s been holding his breath.

As far as I know, the practice of using canaries as living carbon monoxide detectors was a reality in the coal mining industry. Why they opted for canaries, I don’t know. You’d think a nightingale would be more musical and an owl would be able to see better in the dark. If I’d been a coal miner, I’d have probably wanted to take a swan because its powerful wings would act as a fan and help keep me cool. Also, if I found myself in an Orgreave type situation, its famed arm breaking might come in handy, though I reckon most people would be scared off by its hissing. It might sound daft but I remember saying to my future wife at the time that the one thing which kept Billy Elliot from cinematic greatness was a dearth of swans. Though at least there weren’t any geese, either. I hate geese, me.

As an aside, I know it’s implausible that a canary would be anatomically capable of pulling off something like this, but I’d argue that all the singing might’ve improved his lung capacity. As to how he was intellectually able plot his revenge, well all I can say is that’s the beauty of fiction.



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28 responses to “A Jaundiced Look at Labour Relations

  1. Great tale. I like the narrator being the bird and a fun twist (though not for the miners relying on him to fall off his perch first) that he holds his breath. Good one.

  2. Very good.. To be forced into mining and in that constant fear…. holding your breath only helps a short time.

  3. Cunning canary! I like the canary as the narrator.

  4. Dear Etienne,

    That was a different take. Smart canary. I didn’t know they could hold their breath. 😉



  5. I too liked the idea of the canary as the narrator.

  6. Good on Chester, but a hard way for the men to learn a lesson!

    My #FF

  7. We both did the mines this week. I worked on a deep shaft gold mine for a while – we kept canaries at the pithead for detecting CO.
    Chester knows what he’s doing.

  8. Isn’t there a case for symbiosis: Chester gets fed and protected from cats, in return for protecting the miners from monoxide poisoning? Seems a reasonable deal, as long as miners remember to take Chester along when they evacuate.

  9. I like this, Etienne. I grew up in a mining town–we had salt mines, which tended to be much safer than coal mines, and the unions kept things running in safer, healthier ways than some of the mines in other areas. I always thought canaries were used because of their songs, but I’m not sure I ever took the time to verify that assumption. Unique POV here.

    All my best,

  10. What a wonderful take on the prompt!

  11. Clever story with a twist, and clever Charlie. The use of canaries was common – they were bred to be cage birds anyway so were easy to get, and their lungs would give out long before a man’s, which gave the miners time to evacuate. Carbon monoxide has no smell, which is why people still die near unventilated heaters.

  12. I love the canary as the narrator! I wonder how long he can hold his breath for? Good story. 🙂

  13. Oh, great twist. The revenge of Chester, great story.

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