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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.

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