How miners’ strike provided rich seam of drama for debut novelist

Author James Clarke

For his debut novel The Litten Path, James Clarke has taken inspiration from the events of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.

The 1984-5 miners’ strike was a seminal point in recent British history – and its aftershocks, both social and political, are still being felt in some communities today.

It is a big subject to tackle, but Manchester-based writer James Clarke, who was brought up in the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire, chose, in what some might say was a brave move, to make it the setting for his first novel, The Litten Path, published last month. But Clarke is well up to the challenge – it is an extremely impressive debut. Set in a south Yorkshire mining village over the period of the 1984-5 strike, it combines domestic drama with intelligent, nuanced documentary observation and a pacy, page-turning plot.

Clarke says he’d been toying with the idea of writing something featuring a young working class character, a writer, and had been gathering thoughts for a while.

“My own personal method as a writer is that things tend to accumulate,” he says. “But then a big tipping point came when I was living down in London and went to an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago.” The show was a 2012 retrospective of the work of the political conceptual artist Jeremy Deller. The Turner prize-winning Deller is probably best known for his visceral 2001 filmed re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, the violent confrontation between pickets and police that took place in June 1984. “I went into a room that was all about the miners’ strike and I was completely taken aback,” says Clarke. “Along with Deller’s film, there was actual footage from Orgreave, photographs, archive material and a detailed timeline and you could see how Thatcher and her government had set out to deliberately break the unions. It left a big impression on me and that’s when I decided that I could use the miners’ strike as a setting for my novel.”

Clarke then set about doing further research which, in addtion to “reading the internet dry and watching loads of documentaries”, included signing up to take part in an oral history project. “It was about the Ashton Moss colliery near Manchester. They wanted to honour the community and were asking for volunteers to interview ex-miners for an archive in the central library. I went to interview an ex-miner and that gave me a really good insight into people’s lives, how their whole identity was shaped by their work and what it was like to work underground.”

He also spoke to a family friend who had been one of the police officers on duty at Orgreave. “He brought pictures of the day, talked me through what happened and provided me with a good idea of the sequence of events. The miners’ strike is very well documented, so there is a lot of material – it took a long time but I was just trying to harvest people’s experiences and then drawing on that to flesh out my characters’ world.” That world is convincingly recreated with great empathy and authenticity. Clarke, who wrote the book as part of a Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University and writes in his spare time, says that he hopes its publication will “open some doors”; let’s hope it does – his is an exciting new voice on the Northern literary scene.

On September 29, James Clarke will be reading at Pontefract Library at 11am and at Rickaro Books, Horbury at 2pm.

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REVIEW

The Litten Path

by James Clarke, Published by Salt, £9.99

Yvette huddleston 4/5

As a debut novel, The Litten Path is incredibly accomplished.

There is a confidence and authenticity about Clarke’s voice that suggest he is a writer to watch – and he deftly draws the reader into his story right from the opening passages. Set in a south Yorkshire pit community during the tumultuous events of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the narrative centres on the experiences of the Newmans, a mining family for several generations, and in particular on teenager Lawrence.

Caught between his warring parents Arthur and Shell, both unhappy in different ways, and thinking about the possibility of a life beyond the limiting confines of his small hometown, Lawrence is intrigued by Evie, the daughter of a Conservative politician, recently arrived in town from London.

Beginning on the eve of the vote to down tools, the book features some of the major events of the strike – such as the bruising encounter between pickets and police at British Steel’s coking plant at Orgreave in the summer of 1984 – but the factual content never feels shoehorned in.

Exploring class, identity and the complexities of family life, the novel paints a vivid picture of a pivotal period in British social and political history and Clarke’s robust and lyrical style, laced throughout with a dry black comic humour, makes it a powerful and thoroughly engaging read.

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