William McIlvanney (2016 [1975]) Docherty

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I think this was the first William McIlvanney novel I read. It won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. When McIlvanney was writing the book there were still such a thing as a coalminer. There’s probably a picture of one in the Daily Mail hate archives, the equivalent of a Lascaux cave drawing to remind them what these men that held the country to ransom, the aristocracy of the working-class, trade-union movement, looked like. Coal powered the industrial revolution, but the men who dug it out saw little of the rewards. Such was its value coal miners were exempt from conscription in the First and Second World Wars. In the latter war 1939-45,  men could be conscripted not only to the army, navy, or air force, but also to the coal face and coal mines near the industrial heartlands. Bevan’s boys kept the machinery of war and killing going   It must have been around the 1980s when I read the book. And according to the right-wing hate mail propaganda machine, Arthur Scargill, and the coal miners were again holding the country to ransom. The strike of 1984-85 was notable for the coal miners out on the streets collecting donations and food – we had food banks even then. Scargill, of course, suggested that Thatcher and her cronies, including Ian MacGregor, had stockpiled coal and oil and set out to break the unions and to do away with the coal-mining industry. History proved Scargill right. It doesn’t take Agatha Christie to tell us there were 84 000 coal miners then there was none. Policing operations were particularly inventive. The cover up at Hillsborough part of that sad tradition. Hi, you might be shouting, what happened to the book you’re meant to be reviewing?

Well, it’s quite a simple book, a love story of the working class. It’s quite a difficult job to make a superhero out of an ordinary working man, Tam Docherty, who died, how he lived, a working class hero, laying down his life for another. There is another argument that the real hero of the book is Jenny, his wife, who gave him three boy and a girl, but who, with little money and loaves and soup pots works miracles that Jesus would be jealous of. He only fed the 5000, Jenny has to do it every day for over 25 years. You’d need to look at Maheau’s wife in Emile Zola’s classic story Germinal to show how one wage is never enough and each child is sacrificed to the pits, for an adequate comparison of how little miners made and how far it had to stretch. Or Jenny’s daughter, Kathleen, who marries Jack, who beats her and spends his wages on booze. Realism begins with reality and not fake news.

Mick, Docherty’s oldest son, loses the sight in one eye and one arm in the trenches in the First World War and he accepts he’s one of the lucky ones. He made it back. But his search for  meaning has contemporary resonance and one of the books he reads to make sense of the post-war world is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. What he says to his wee brother, Conn, after his fight with his other brother Angus, is relevant today as it was then. Angus has broken with his father and his family. He’s got a girl pregnant and refuses to marry her. He marries someone else, Annie, and fathers another child. But Angus represents everything his father detests. Individualism, an atomised life, and every man for themselves. Tory dogma. Angus’s brute strength, he deludes himself into believing, will safeguard the future of his family. The older brother’s bitter experience, when the sky might be up and it might be crashing down, has taught him better.

‘Whit’s happenin’?’

‘Whit’s happenin’? is that folks don’t ken whit’s happenin’. They just want wages an’ they canny accept that they’ll hiv tae tak mair. Tae get whit ye want, ye’ve goat to settle fur mair, that’s a’.’

His father understood that better than anyone, he lived it. A community is not a collection of individuals looking after number one.

‘He was only five-foot four. But when yer hert goes from yer heid tae yer toes, that’s a lot of hert.’

The William McIlvanney’s and Docherty’s of this world would have their work cut out making sense of Tory councillors elected in Ferguslie and a moron’s moron elected as President of the United States. It makes a pleasant change to read about a working-class hero without the tag, Benefits, being added. Coal miners, aye, I remember them well and I understand what they stood for, what they stand for.

‘Nae shite from naebody.’

 

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Anniversary of the Miner’s Strike 1984/5 today (all those years ago) they went back to work.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “In Loving Memory.”

scargill and sun

My brother phoned me today. He works in Fife, Longannet Power station, been there about twenty years. Longannet is one of the few coal-fired power stations that is still on grid. It was opened in 1972 and has a capacity of 2400 MW. Most of the other coal-fired power stations in Scotland are closed. That’s not a bad thing. With global warming mankind is on life support and we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. I understand he really doesn’t give a fuck. Year after year his company gets taken over by another company. They all tell him the same thing. I want you to do more with less. So they tell him what shifts he’ll do. If they say nightshift there’s no extra. If they say dayshift no extra. Weekends no extra. Be thankful you have a job. They’ll shut down one unit. Then another. Then he won’t have a job. That’s life as we know it now.

Let’s look at the options. My brother-in law is a nuclear engineer. I used to go down and visit my sister in Dunbar when she had kids and they both worked in the plant. Torness capacity is 1300 MW.  It opened in 1988. All the other power plants in Scotland provide MW power in hundreds not thousands of MW.

Longannet was literally built on coal. Coal powered the industrial revolution. Not oil or gas. Coal. During the Second World War coal was so important that men were directed into army, navy, air force and coal mines. Jimmy Saville modelled himself as being a Bevan boy. Coal miners were hard men. Life was hard, brutal and short.  In my recent review of Red Dust Road Jackie Kay mentioned that (I think it was) her dad’s brother a miner in Fife got buried in landfill and had to get dug out. George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier goes down a pit. This is the 1930s, but his descriptions of getting to the coal face, which could take an hour and half of cracked head and crawling in insufferable heat, blindness, dampness and putrid air could have come straight from Zola’s Germinal of the 1850s French coal fields and the wages, as in the novel, were subsistence level. No more, no less. Workers had to live, but each mining office had an official stamp which they frequently used, to save time, because miners died every day.

Miners really were in it together and this sense of solidarity translated into union leaders that wanted a fair share for those that produced the society we now live in. In the 1960s and 1970s coal miners were the aristocracy of the working class.  Their fathers and fathers before them may not have been paid a living wage, but their unions made sure that they were as well paid as school teachers. Up until the 1990s Britain was reliant on coal for its power stations.

Bankers didn’t hold the country to ransom, because of course nice middle-class men would never do that sort of thing. Whereas miners produced coal that powered the country, bankers produced esoteric algorithms and ways of moving money from A to B so that their increasing share of C and D was moved into their accounts. When bankers weren’t doing that they were producing bespoke ways of moving cash out of the country to avoid taxation. Cheating isn’t cheating when dealing with billlions as the HSBC scandal shows and not for the first time. Government of course being a bad thing and being caught and facing a fine, well nobody died, nobody hurt.

Miners paid their tax and they paid for the nation’s wealth with their blood and the blood of their children. What has happened to the miners has happened to us all. Arthur Scargill said there was a government hit list. He said the Thatcher government stockpiled coal and wanted to fight. Then, of course, he said the NUM had been infiltrated by MI5 and we would be better investing in alternative forms of energy such as wind, wave, and solar. The man was clearly cuckoo. There used to be 84 000 miners, now there are a handfull. Longannet still uses coal in 2015. We bring it from abroad.

Lessons learned. Every man for himself.  Don’t trust the police. Don’t trust the law. Hundreds of miners fitted up by the Scottish constabulary that waved loads-of-overtime-money in miner’s faces. Being charged with an offence meant not just a criminal record but automatic dismissal by the coal company that employed them. Double wammy.

Lesson learned, employers call the shots. Wealth flows from the poor to the rich. Be grateful you have a job. Be grateful there are food banks because almost quarter of a million children in Scotland live below the poverty line. Be grateful Arthur Scargill wasn’t a banker because there would be no telling what victory would have looked like.