A recent communiqué from one of our contributing editors contained an informal essay reporting on the events of his past year. Having spent the previous six months volunteering in Benguela, Angola, where he worked on farming and antimalarial projects, Gary Peatling returned home to the UK in October of 2010 and began a series of low-wage and manual jobs, ranging from census collector to night-shift factory worker.
His “Diary of a Year of Labor and Underemployment” contains much that is of interest, but one detail is of particular resonance. In an entry dated 12 April 2011, he writes of his day job as door-to-door salesperson:
I discovered today that one of the products I am selling is something called “coal paint.” It turns out to be a type of spray, which people can apply to the display on the front of electric fireplaces. […] They become gray over time, and this black paint spray supposedly enhances the aesthetic appeal by making its exterior look like it is coated with real coal.
He goes on to explain the oddity of coal paint as a product offering.
It is a curious legacy of the historical importance of the coal industry in the UK that possessing a fireplace that looks like coal is still considered a status symbol, even though hardly anyone in the country can now make a living mining coal.
This paint is more expensive than regular spray paint, because, according to the manufacturers, it can withstand the heat of a fire. Aside from the amusement afforded by a trophy of the might of Britain’s industrial past in paint form, the story got us thinking about the disparity of esteem in which concentrations of power and the processes that have made them possible are held.
Political leaders and employers have long since given up trying to support communities and workers who formerly labored in dangerous conditions as miners.
As the United States settles into a period of economic stagnation, a period in which many people do not have employment and a good portion of those who do face greatly diminished prospects, it is perhaps worth considering what kind of faux artifact of economic power pointing back to our own times might be consumed and displayed by nostalgic citizens of the future.
Some sort of stylized version of the quarterly portfolio statement, perhaps framed, presents itself as a possibility. Much like coal paint, such an ornamental flourish would neatly represent the decoupling of ground-level producers of an industry’s fuel (in this case, individual investors) from its might, cultural influence, political sway, and national importance.
Its obvious inferiority, however, would lie in its inability to withstand the heat of a conflagration.