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Phil Turner

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Spoken from the heart

 

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

The Heart of It
Barry Hines
Michael Joseph £14.99

The 1984 miners’ strike was an epic struggle between labour and capital, a real life Germinal.

But for the most part, as far as novels are concerned, it’s the greatest story never told.

So it’s good to see Barry Hines, author of the brilliant A Kestrel for a Knave, which became the film Kes, attempt to redress the balance.

It’s no wonder right wing critics panned it. The Heart of It is an unequivocal defence of the year long strike.

The stories in this book not only ring true. Many of them are true and memorable for those of us who lived through the miners’ strike.

Those picket line battles that saw miners take on the full might of the British state come alive again through the return to his pit village roots of wealthy film scriptwriter, Cal.

Cal has changed his name from Karl to get back at his dad, Communist Party member and die-hard Stalinist, Harry Richards, who was union branch secretary at the now closed local colliery.

Cal lives in France with rising film actress Helene and dog Bruno and writes shitty scripts for even shittier films. But he reinvents himself after coming home to see his father, seriously ill and barely able to speak following a stroke brought on, his mother is convinced, by Harry’s arrest and jailing in the strike years before.

Cal, who was in the United States at the time of the strike and has hardly seen his parents since, knows nothing of the struggle and sacrifices that went on.

He finds out the truth as he talks to old school friends and his mother who, like many working class women in those 12 months, was transformed by the heat of the battle into a working class agitator.

She had become an orator, speaking and raising money for the strike at home and abroad. But she also later reveals an even deeper secret.

His father is a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist. He is an unbending follower of the party line, left a broken reed by the collapse of Russian communism. But he also embodies the best of that distorted tradition in his hatred of the bosses, a working class fighter who has lost his way.

Cal has sold out, but gradually the spirit and integrity of working class people shining through the poverty and degradation all around them, shatters his smug world.

Barry Hines has admitted that his book will be familiar to the thousands who witnessed the daily onslaught against the miners by the combined forces of the Tories, police and media.

There were a million strike stories and many survive in the book.

The one about the police chief angrily attempting to demolish a snowman built around a block of solid concrete is a legend.

But no matter how many times you’ve heard them, they remind you of a fight that could have been won, except for the failure of the TUC to deliver solidarity action and the treachery of Kinnock’s Labour Party.

That is one of the book’s weaknesses. The general political message is that if only miners, especially in Nottinghamshire, had united they would have won. But miners could never have won on their own.

The overall impression is of the dignity and determination of the working class to fight back. But this is spoiled by the rather clich├ęd main character of a writer who’s turned his back on his roots only to rediscover them again. Cal is as shallow as the unnecessary sex scenes, which seem only to be included to intensify the reader’s loathing for him.

Hines is better trying to capture the life and language of working people. But here again the dialogue is often wooden and reduced to caricature. Sometimes it feels as if we are in the middle of one of Cal’s scripts, something the book itself parodies.

But the gallows humour shines through in the ex-miner doing four jobs to make ends meet and another who extends his hobby of keeping exotic fish to survive.

There is a marvellous inspiring speech by Cal’s mother, Maisie, at the father’s funeral. In it she says that while the collapse of Russia may have broken him, the Russian revolution still represents the struggle of the working class everywhere to free themselves.

It is an uplifting end that really does put the struggle at the heart of it.


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