In the 30th anniversary year of the miners’ strike, a new novel explores the role of the women. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Thirty years ago the miners’ strike marked a significant turning point in our social and political history – and it still resonates today, especially in the former mining communities which were forever changed by the events of 1984-5.
The 30th anniversary this year has inspired a number of interesting artistic interpretations – including the hit film Pride and Bryony Lavery’s new play Queen Coal currently at the Crucible in Sheffield – and it prompted author Laura Wilkinson to write a novel.
Public Battles, Private Wars is set in a Yorkshire mining community during the year-long strike and looks at its effect on the lives of families who were involved. In particular it focuses on the part that the women played in campaigning against pit closures and supporting their communities through that difficult time.
“I was in my first year at university when the strike was on,” says Wilkinson who had not initially intended to write a book about it. “I was actually researching another book set in the 1980s and looking at photos on the internet when I found one of a group of women marching down the street with a banner that said ‘Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures’. The women looked so lively and purposeful.”
That image led her to start reading more about the strike and the women’s involvement in it and gradually she was drawn into their story. “I tried to return to the book I was supposed to be writing but I couldn’t get this notion of the women out of my head.”
Although she is not from a mining community herself, Wilkinson, who is based in Brighton but grew up in North Wales, did experience a sense of identification with the miners’ situation. “My stepfather was a steelworker and when I was still at school in 1980 he was made redundant,” she explains. “Six and a half thousand people were made redundant at that time – it is still the biggest ever number of redundancies in one day in Europe. So while I was reading, I had a rush of my own memory of hardship and what that feels like.”
The central character of Wilkinson’s novel is Mandy, a bright and capable young miner’s wife and mother of three in her twenties and the book explores her political awakening as she becomes involved in a women’s support group. “She is an amalgam of a lot of different women and stories,” says Wilkinson. “I spoke to miners’ wives and girlfriends who had been involved in the strike in Wales and in Yorkshire. For many of the women their lives turned out better because of the people they encountered and the experiences they had during that year. It set their lives on a different course.”
Once Wilkinson had done her research, the writing of the book was relatively speedy. “Some books just pour out of you,” she says. “I got the first draft down in under five months and I then spent four or five months tweaking it.”
The novel charts Mandy and her family’s struggle to survive in dire circumstances and investigates the impact it has on her own sense of self-worth and her relationship with her husband Rob. The dialogue is very authentic – these are real people expressing real emotions – and Wilkinson has captured the northern rhythms and patterns of speech, as well as the humour in adversity, perfectly. Her reason for setting the book in Yorkshire was, she says, because she felt it was “the beating heart of the strike” and adds, “for reasons I can’t explain when Mandy’s voice came to me she had a Yorkshire accent.”
The strike continues to be a potent strand in our national narrative, as well it might. It altered the landscape both literally and metaphorically.
“It was such a pivotal time,” says Wilkinson. “It was a political battle, not an economic one and as a consequence it changed our world. The society we have now is a direct result of that.”