Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Penguin no. 1836: weekend in Dinlock
by Clancy Sigal

'It's not like London,' he says, his speech not yet broadest Yorkshire because we aren't among the men. 'A man doesn't let his wife go to work if he's still got legs to stand on. Not that I mind doing housework. Dishes and all that. But you must remember, in Dinlock a man'd sooner see his wife sleeping with another man than be caught doing the dishes.'

There is an unforgettable chapter in The Road to Wigan Pier in which George Orwell describes the getting of coal. The prose is simple, unadorned and compelling. The story is of the men who must travel miles underground to reach the coalface, with their backs bent under the low tunnel roof,  and their heads raised to watch for coal trucks and exposed beams. And then of the physical work itself: the need to work almost naked in the stifling heat, and shift tons of coal each day in cramped claustrophobic conditions, unable to stand straight, breathing coal dust all the while. It makes sobering reading. His intent is very clear: it is to remind his readers that they live a life of decency and comfort only because others do not. It is the idea of the modern world riding on the back of the miner.

In weekend in Dinlock Clancy Sigal also goes down into a Yorkshire pit that is worked by hand. And despite the 23 years that intervene between the publication of these two books, and despite the nationalisation of the mines in 1947, and the increase in unionism and militancy, it is striking how similar the two descriptions of a Yorkshire mine are. Sections of the pit are mechanised by 1960, but where coal is extracted by hand the conditions appear little changed, and the miners still work in appalling conditions.

The intent of this latter book is different, though. It is a semi-fictional study of the miners themselves: the way they behave, the things they believe, and the way they live their lives, together with a study of the fictional mining village of Dinlock which encircles the mine. There is greater emphasis in weekend in Dinlock on the price the men pay for working on the coalface, their tiredness, the way the work ages them, and the risk of injuries and lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis. But it also explores the price they pay for not working on the coalface, for taking a surface job or for having aspirations to be something other than a miner. These men prove themselves by taking on such difficult work; it almost defines what it is to be a man. There is pressure from the community to conform, and little tolerance for those who would tread a different path. The price they pay is the loss of respect - to be treated differently. The mining village is insular and constrained, and it is likened to a prison.

The story revolves around the character Davie, a coalface miner who has reduced his shifts in order to give himself time for painting scenes of mining life. Feted in London for his painting, he begins to conceive of a different life. But the pull of mining and the mining life is difficult to escape. The portrait of Davie defines what it is to be a Yorkshire miner: tough, boastful, inclined to drink and to run after women, and eager to smash anything or anybody when he is drunk. The picture Sigal paints of his miner-painter isn't romantic. Even more interesting is the depiction of the wives: prematurely aged, sharp-tongued, but always in the background and never speaking until they are spoken to: it is a male-dominated culture.

But then as I read further into the book, I inevitably began to wonder just how semi-fictional this could all be. It seemed so specific, and the descriptions so precise. Miners who are talented painters must either exist or they don't, and if they do they cannot be very common. It seemed inconceivable that this story was not based very firmly on someone the author had met.

The answer was given in a 1989 newspaper account available here in which Clancy Sigal explained that Davie was based on the writer Len Doherty, and Dinlock on the mining village Thurcroft. Neither story ends well. Len Doherty took his own life in 1983 and the mine in Thurcroft permanently closed in 1991.

Reading this book is like taking a pair of binoculars and peering back into the distant past.The cataclysm has already been visited on mining villages such as Dinlock, and the problems this book canvases no longer exist. But I came away with more questions than answers, and feeling the need for a postscript, an explanation of how the miners coped with the change, and what Yorkshire village life revolves around now that the mine has gone.


4 comments:

  1. My grandfather was a coal miner in Durham. I remember my mother told me their neighbour, another coal miner, used to knit the most intricate fair-isle designs. Not a particularly 'manly' activity, but an outlet for his creativity. This man also used to beat his wife. Mining communities are a world apart.

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  2. Hello Karyn, I've come to your blog via your visit to mine, (ANZ LitLovers) and I'm intrigued. I subscribe to a fair few litblogs, but yours is different because I'm not likely to be able to get hold of the books. (Which will be easier on my credit card *wry smile*)
    But your reviews are so interesting I think I'll enjoy reading them in their own right - this one about coal mining is a case in point. (BTW, from media reports about casualties, I think conditions may not have improved much in places like China.)
    I look forward to discovering more of these old Penguins via your reviews and will check out the ones I see in 2nd hand stores with more respect!
    Cheers
    Lisa Hill, Melbourne Australia

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  3. Hi Lisa,

    I've been lurking as a reader of your blog for a few months, after a saw a comment that you posted on Winstonsdad's blog that captured everything I wished to say, but expressed it far more eloquently than I could hope to achieve. I am regularly amazed at how little I know of the literature of my own country.

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  4. Thanks for my next book. You've given me a good few next books.

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