There are books – and then there are good books. This debut novel is outstanding.
For anyone who remembers the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, this book will transport you back in time. I remember years earlier catching a slow stopping train from Leeds to South Yorkshire, halting at various pit villages. I remember many years later seeing no working pits, only eerily empty ghost towns, communities fragmented and torn apart. As a sociology student, I’d been taught about the close-knit male focus of mining communities, in the days when we still devoured the gem, Coal is Our Life, by Dennis, Henriques and Slaughter, an evocative study of mining and miners, when communities were considered important.
The author of this book, The Litten Path, originally from Rossendale, Lancashire, writes a highly impressive tale. The plot is pacy, the family saga realistic, and the social commentary seemingly spot on. Many of the characters are unlikable, but we somehow invest in them.
It was footage of Orgreave that accelerated James Clarke’s book. Today, Orgreave remains the focus of calls for an inquiry into the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ when politicians used the police as political pawns, or repressive state apparatus, in a way more fitting to an overtly repressive regime or tinpot dictatorship.
Police horses were used to charge at the crowds, while the foot riot police drummed their shields like Zulu warriors, a sound well captured in the book. If you’ve ever been close to the hooves of a police horse, you will know how terrifying it is; the unsavouriness of the situation is captured brilliantly within Clarke’s exposition.
For those students who never believe me when I say research is vital for any book, including fiction, let me tell you the author watched a film about the re-enactment of Orgreave, he checked out documentary evidence, footage and archive material – it was very well documented. He also took part in an oral history project in Manchester, involving interviewing a miner, and also interviewed a family friend who was a police officer at the scene. His hard work paid off for his tale drips authenticity, as the plot unfolds around the protagonist, a young man called Lawrence. It is humorous in parts, engaging, and the class war manifests itself clearly in many different ways.
The language is not flowery as befits the subject matter, but there are beautiful descriptions contained within the mining wastelands of South Yorkshire:
He was heading to his gran’s along a slippery pavement embroidered with hexagons of frost.
As the blurb suggests, it is grim yet tender, painfully honest yet comical. At times, I found the posh kids, Evie and Duncan something of a distraction as they were meant to be, while I was still reeling at the idea of the ordinary people, fighting for their livelihoods, homes and families, having to eat margarine instead of butter, or going ‘down the welfare’ for their meals. Poignant. Even now it makes me angry.
I can highly recommend this read if you like gritty honesty in your books.
The photos are taken from some Leeds Postcards I bought during the 1980s.