The Enemy Within
Robert MacNeil Wilson
Matador £8.99 (978-1-78589-354-4)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
FOR some, the defining moment of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was victory in the Falklands War; for others, it was the brutal suppression of the striking miners — in her words, “the enemy within”. Robert MacNeil Wilson, himself a mining engineer who at 24 was in charge of a coal face, is much to be commended for giving us a graphic account in this first novel of these turbulent times.
The hero is a mirror image of the author, a young mining engineer, Jim Greaves, who has recently joined the fictional Warwickshire coal field of Whitacre Heath as Undermanager. The book is divided into three sections.
In the first, Jim is charged with opening up a coalface within a seven-week deadline, or the mine will close. In great technological detail, the author relates how this is achieved despite a union overtime ban and with the threat of fire engulfing the mine. To help the reader, a glossary of words and expressions used in Warwickshire mines in the 1980s is provided, together with an extensive list of guidance notes on various mining procedures.
The second and longest section describes the strike itself and its effect on the community. It is a heart-rending account of splits in families, division among friends, the break-up of longstanding working partnerships, and immense suffering as individuals decide whether to return to work. The women, too, play an important part as they struggle to support their partners and, in doing so, find that they, too, have a voice to be heard. Dominating it all is the shameful brutality of the police both at Orgreave and in London, and the intransigence of leaders on either side.
Wilson is a genius with his cast list of more than 100 characters and the various sub-plots that arise in the course of the strike. But dominating it all is Jim Greaves, who, throughout, regards the miners, scabs or strikers, as his men, entitled to respect and compassion.
The final nail-biting section involves the attempt to open up a new coalface adjacent to a disused flooded working and the frantic attempt to stop an inrush. The mine is evacuated, and Jim leads five men at risk to their lives to stem the inflow before the mine is engulfed. The tension is almost unbearable.
It is underground in this desperate situation that families and friends are reconciled. When all seems lost, Jim retreats alone out of sight and, quoting to himself Psalm 23, kneels in prayer holding his medallion of St Barbara, patron saint of miners. His nerves steadied, he returns to the coalface and with the others saves the mine.
The monumental futility of the strike settled the fate of the coal industry. A whole way of life, with all the comradeship, culture, and humour of the miners and mining villages, so vividly brought out in this novel, has been destroyed. And, while the Hillsborough families have had justice, the victims of Orgreave have not.
We are now a dangerously divided country in which it is all too easy to point to “the enemy within” — immigrants, Muslims, unions, the City. What this extraordinary novel shows is that what we need above all else is that respect and compassion that Greaves showed because the miners were “his men”.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.