Bloomsbury, £25. » Order at the discounted price of £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

The Valley by Richard Benson, book review: A social and personal history of mining

Having scored a bestseller with The Farm, a closely observed account of his father and brother losing an uphill battle on the Yorkshire Wolds, Benson swaps rural for industrial and skips back a generation in The Valley. Covering a century in the ravaged Dearne Valley near Doncaster, this epic panorama of mining life focuses on Benson's maternal grandparents, Harry "Juggler" Hollingworth and his wife Winnie. Fortunately for both reader and author, they turn out to be good company on this marathon, intriguing oddities with curious lives beyond the colliery.

Harry was also a pub entertainer specialising in an act known as Old Mother Riley's Roadshow (his trick of drinking a brimming half-pint of beer produced from beneath his skirt was never plumbed), while Winnie was an ardent spiritualist, whose guide was an unseen gypsy girl. As Benson writes in an introductory note, "In a novel characters behave more or less as you expect them to, while actual people can be surprising and inconsistent."

This does not stop him borrowing from fiction for the extended, wholly persuasive dialogue, though Benson's greatest strength is the pin-sharp detail resulting from "many long hours remembering and explaining" by his extended family. We learn, for example, of miners at dances in the Twenties having "eyes emphasised by the deliberate leaving on of coal dust on the rims" and the expert comparison of various coals from different pits "in the way that winemakers discuss grapes". The Queen, apparently, used coal from an esteemed seam called Barnsley bed because it "burns so hot for so long".

Growing up 30 miles away in West Yorkshire, I can confirm some of the novel's peculiar details. It's true that women in the Fifties would "stand in front of the fire and hitch up their skirts to warm themselves" (a habit stemming more from lack of central heating than working-class bohemianism), while in the early days of motorways, "fashion-conscious young couples [went] to dinner at service station restaurants".

Benson captures the hard graft and constant perils of colliery life with cinematic vividness, especially in the set-pieces on mining accidents, where startling metaphors erupt amid his normally placid prose. One horrific explosion in 1957, allegedly caused by management carelessness, burns Winnie's son-in-law so "his mouth is a wet pink hole in the black crust of his face, like a hole in a burnt pie." His heartbroken widow, "reduced to a pale, smoky ember", dies soon after.

Tied to reality, the narrative becomes hazily diffuse as new generations appear (if this were a book about the upper classes, we would have been given a family tree) and painfully repetitious as the men of this tough world routinely belt their women. The denouement of the miners' strike in 1984 tautens the tale. At first, the local police share their sandwiches with the pickets but the arrival of the Met sours this truce in an only too credible manner. "If we have to live in this fucking shithole," a London cop snarls at a colleague from Whitby, "we're going to have a bit of fucking fun." At the end of the year-long civil war in miniature, Harry's grandson Gary, also a miner, says, "All for nowt, then."

While I was reading this book, British Coal announced plans to close its last remaining deep mines at Kellingley in North Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire. If this comes to pass, Britain's solitary deep mine will be the employee-owned Hatfield pit in South Yorkshire, an area where there were 67 in 1945. For an unvarnished, well-crafted obituary of the human side of mining, there won't be anything better than The Valley.

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence