Reviewed by Victoria Best
The best kind of non-fiction, I think, shows us how supposedly ‘average’ ordinary lives are really quite extraordinary. In the author’s foreward to his outstanding book of family history, Richard Benson wonders whether he’d have had an easier life turning the stories he grew up with into a novel. But he has to concede that: ‘The problem was that too many of the things people did, and too many of the things that happened to them, would not be credible in fiction.’ He’s quite right: the brass button that saves his great-grandfather from a bullet in the First World War, his grandmother’s gypsy girl spirit guide, his paralysed aunt who manages despite the belief of all her doctors to walk again, are the kind of strange truths that only great non-fiction is built upon. In this wide-ranging history covering four generations of a determined and stoical family, the reader is reminded countless times of how peculiar a beast is this life of ours, and how amazingly resilient the human heart.
Winnie Hollingsworth is the matriarch of a mining family in the heart of a mining community. South Yorkshire at the turn of the 20th century is the pumping heart of an industrial nation, and despite the dreadful conditions of work down the pits, the men are proud of what they do. It takes a bitter toll, though. Winnie’s father, Walter, is ruined by the First World War and hardened by the mines, dying at 43 of tuberculosis looking like a little old man. Winnie is the eldest daughter and the one who has taken the brunt of his temper in the form of beatings, reminding herself all the while that he does love her; it is just the hardships he has been through and frustration with his body that turn him mean. Winnie makes the kind of hasty marriage typical of the time, fearful she may be pregnant and smitten with an unsuitable first love. Harry ‘Juggler’ Hollingsworth is the life and soul of the party, with his side line as a variety turn, singing, drumming and dressing in drag as Mother Riley, who has a highly popular trick involving the mysterious appearance of a half pint of bitter from his bloomers. He’s not entirely reliable, though, and Winnie catches him once with a fancy woman, to whom she administers a brisk and brutal slapping. For Winnie is strong in body and strong in mind, and she takes no prisoners.
She has weaknesses, though, ones she hardly ever speaks of because that’s the generation she is from. Her eldest son, Roy, goes to the bad, but right until the end of her life she will be passing him handouts and covering for his awful behaviour. And her third child, Linda, comes from an affair with a man 14 years younger than herself, whom she hopes for many years afterwards will one day return to rescue her. As her children grow, so times change in the Dearne valley. Finally the mines are nationalised and the men receive decent wage packets. Televisions appear in homes and bedazzle the children – ‘This new generation’s deference will be to the glamorous’ – and Winnie, distrustful of newfangled washing machines, permits a Hoover to enter her household for the upkeep of her new carpet. However, she doesn’t rate it much and ‘for the next two decades spends Friday afternoons on her hands and knees scrubbing the carpet with soap and water.’
Whilst Roy is dodging the law and his wife, shy, quiet Pauline, who in turn has taken the brunt of her mother’s bad moods, marries and moves to a farm. And Linda will struggle to find married happiness, until finally, after two unhappy relationships, she meets up with her first love, a man whose mild epilepsy turned her parents completely against him when they were young. John will prove to be the saviour of her parents in their old age and the devoted rock she can rely upon after a devastating illness.
These stories reach a climax in many ways in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike that dominated the news when I was young and which was fascinating and horrifying to read about in more authentic detail. The fortunes of the miners seemed to swing perpetually between extremes. In the early part of the century they were shamelessly abused by pit owners, and it wasn’t until nationalisation that conditions improved. Then, in the 70s, with the help of newly powerful trade unions, they were given pay increases that took them from being among the worst paid workers to the best. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, it was clear that she intended to break the unions and teach them a lesson they would not forget.
What comes out of this eyewitness account is the unacceptable police brutality to the picketing workers. What began as a peaceful conflict escalated uncontrollably after officers from the Met took over patrolling the collieries, chasing miners who were running away through neighbouring houses, kicking doors in, breaking the heads and ribs of the strikers with their truncheons. Eventually the government got their way, and sweeping pit closures destroyed whole communities. You have to wonder what a government is for if not to manage devastating changes like the end of coal production in an area that has relied on it for a hundred years of employment. And when you think that the fire power of that Conservative government went to backing the banking industry in an era when greed was good, you really have to feel ashamed of all that happened.
This is a completely unputdownable book, five hundred gripping pages of social history that reads like a novel, filled with characters whose stories you just have to know about. I devoured it, longing to find out if Margaret left the cheating, beating Roy, how Linda managed to walk again, who survived the dreadful pit explosion of 1957, how Harry and Winnie’s marriage changed over the years, whether David would outgrow the legacy of his bad childhood. It is also a record of an industry that was dangerous at best and demonised at worst, an industry that showed Britain at its most powerful and its most abusive. It’s a really remarkable book and one that lives on in the mind long after the final pages have been read. I was moved to tears and to laughter more times than I can say by the tenderness and the tragedy of a completely ‘ordinary’ and wholly exceptional family.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Richard Benson, The Valley; A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family (Bloomsbury, April 2014) 978-0747591849, 544 pages, hardback.