‘TONY BLAIR’S New Labour was being returned to power for a second term by an apathetic landslide. ‘People voted for them because there didn’t seem to be a credible alternative. In the country Blair’s government would now oversee, the gap between rich and poor has never been wider. The fatally dilapidated railway infrastructure, the crisis in education, in housing, in health, in social welfare. Funding withdrawn, never returned. Thatcher’s legacy-time bombs exploding all over the country.’
So writes Martyn Waites in his superb, frenetically paced thriller Born Under Punches, which takes the 1984-5 miners’ strike as its backdrop. It is a crime novel in which the greatest crime is the wanton destruction of the mining industry and its communities. This leaves local gangsters to feed off the despair wrought first by Thatcher and then by her prodigy, Blair.
The strike and its aftermath runs as a rich seam through the lives of a host of characters, shaping and influencing them, their lives and the society they live in. The book is set in a semi-fictional pit town, Coldwell, just outside Newcastle. Its central figure is an idealistic working class journalist, Stephen Larkin. He wants to use his words as weapons in the pursuit of justice for his class. Like his heroes John Pilger and Paul Foot, Stephen wants to use his writing to expose the lies and hypocrisy of a system he despises.
After years of living in London Stephen returns to the north to find the once proud, vibrant town an empty shell, the pit of coal replaced by a pit of despair. He is back to write a book commemorating the 20th anniversary of the miners’ strike. He discovers that while the pit has gone, the legacy of the strike permeates everyone and everything he encounters. The novel gives a feel for the strike and its place in history that is richer and deeper than many social historians offer.
Anyone who was active during that incredible year will find themselves there again, reliving the hope, anger and pain as the miners stood defiant. At one stage Larkin finds himself in the middle of a full-scale police riot. Suddenly you find yourself at Orgreave as the police horses charge, or at Easington as the town is placed under police control. Thatcher’s boot boys were let off the leash to terrorise miners’ communities into submission. The battle of Coldwell occurred thousands of times over as the ruling class declared war on the NUM.
This novel gives life to characters you can easily identify, such as the former firebrand turned Blairite MP, the woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and the failed ex-footballer seeking solace in smack and social work. There is also the local Mr Big, oozing menace beneath his mask of respectability, and his surrogate son, a psycho thug prepared to kill to gain his place in history.
As the cosh is passed from father to son, it is hard not to think of Thatcher and Blair. The book is full of sex, drugs and violence, but it is politics that give it a real edge. It is not a nostalgia trip-it is not about how much has changed but how little.
Waites writes, ‘There was a poster left up for the election, for the Labour Party-‘Go out and vote or they will get in again.’ ‘It showed Thatcher’s hairdo on William Hague’s head. Nick stared at the poster, squinted hard. The more he looked, the more he saw Blair’s face beneath the hair, not Hague’s.
‘He laughed. ‘Too late, mate,’ he said out loud, ‘They’re already in’.’ If you want a fix of class anger, read this book.
YUNUS BAKHSH Yunus was an active socialist in Newcastle during the strike and is now on the National Executive Committee of Unison.
This Is Not My Nose
Michael Rosen Penguin £7.99
THERE ARE times in all our lives when we feel out of step with the world around us. The numbness of the death of a close relative, the experience of moving to a new culture, or the loss of a lover can all bring a sense of being disconnected from the people and places we find ourselves in. Not many of us find a way of expressing these sensations and feelings in such a direct and multi-layered way as the poet Michael Rosen does in his new collection This is Not My Nose.
The poems explore the impact on Michael’s life of feeling at odds with the world around him as he suffered from undiagnosed illness. His poems are full of the terrible strain of the illness on his everyday life and the impact of diagnosis and recovery.
The poems link the personal transformation Michael underwent to a wider understanding of change, constancy and development on a more generalised and political level.
Several poems examine the impact of having a different perspective from those around us in society over issues such as racism and the death of Blair Peach 25 years ago. A moving, comic and memorable collections of poems.
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