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’? 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.’