Miners then and now

Dave Douglass reviews Martyn Waites, 'Born under punches', Simon and Schuster, London, 2003, pp416, £10.99

Coming up to the 20th anniversary of the start of the 1984-85 great coal strike, this novel is both topical and thought-provoking. A left journalist is sucked into the furore of the strike, then, like many communities, organisations and individuals, is thrown roughly back out the other side, licking his wounds and not really sure what it was he had just experienced. An ocean of difference lies between what he was then and what he had become.

Using the forthcoming anniversary of the strike as an incentive for a lengthy feature article, he heads back to the coalfield area of the Tyne and Wear. He goes geographically north, but also back in time. The book, in an interesting suspension of normal chronology, flits chapter by chapter to then, to now, to then, to now - exploring two parallel universes, changed yet linked; events separate, but coloured and shaped by each other. The characters in the two worlds at first are not apparently the same, but, as the conjunctions of perception and recall bring the two worlds together, the characters start to fuse into singular, if changed entities.

The northern mining town, I guess, is Blyth in Northumberland, but obviously draws on events from Newcastle, Northumberland and Durham overall. The description of social and personal dereliction in the abandoned industrial areas is depressingly familiar and accurate. I was reminded of Royce Turner’s recent Coal was our life, a factual study of post-strike Barnsley pit villages and the crushing feelings of hopelessness found there. This book is set on Tyne and Wear, but actually the characters and social conditions could be the post-pit communities of anywhere in Britain. That may be the reason why local dialogue presented in the book is only mildly accented and not the heavy dialect one would expect to find. The ‘what’ is obviously more central than the ‘where’.

Waites is successful in creating a feeling of menace - of something manipulative and calculating out of shot: ordinary folk trying to live their lives are set up to be trampled on. However, the book is not an even balance of then and now: the now is much more in focus and sharp, the then weaker. What is missing from it is the feeling of mass involvement, the surging mass of a class offensive. Instead we tend to get a picture of a beleaguered group of surviving neanderthals, overpowered and overwhelmed by events all round them, almost pointlessly trying to cling on.

I have no intention of being unduly harsh: this is good book - some will find it shocking; many even over the top in terms of the cruelty of some of the lives portrayed, although sadly it is not, and anyone who lives among this will recognise it all too clearly. Waites has had a good shot at trying to capture something, but did not quite get there (sadly I do not think Turner’s brave effort did either). The scale of the struggle, the odds we were playing for, the numbers of people involved to the depth of their existences, body and soul - all this gets lost in very tight focuses and to an extent, unintentionally, the big picture goes out of the frame.

Perhaps not the book Waites set out to write, but well worth the read nevertheless.