Monday 15 April 2013

Thatcher's Legacy in Literature: The Miners' Strike 1984/85

When the Notts coalfields were a battleground

This was a tough one. As a literature blogger it makes sense to remain as apolitical as possible – despite the temptation to do the exact opposite – but at the same time, is it not the place of literature to reflect and explore political and philosophical questions? And therefore is it not the place of a literature blog to follow suit?

This is a debate I’m going to save for a future post. In the meantime, I’m going to forge right ahead.

So the funeral of Margaret Thatcher is upon us. The final send off for a woman who has inspired love and revulsion in seemingly equal measure (although I suspect that the true ratio is not quite as evenly split as the mainstream media would have us believe).

I’m not going to get into an argument about the legacy of Thatcherism; such questions are for the “Politics Blog” that I have yet to – and probably will never – create. Instead, I’m going to take a brief look at the literature that sprung from one of the key moments in Thatcher’s 11-year tenure as prime minister: the miners’ strike of 1984 to 1985.

Having been born in Mansfield and brought up in Nottingham, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I am descended from miners, but only on my mother’s side. As my maternal grandfather had three daughters and no sons, I am two generations removed from my mining lineage, but still engaged with my heritage.

For this reason, the novel “Notts” by American writer William O’Rourke has always fascinated me. Due to a lack of a publication deal in Great Britain it has always eluded me. But its premise – not to mention its title – is something that has inflamed my interest.

The novel follows an American college professor as he journeys to England and becomes embroiled in the civil unrest between the miners’ unions and the government/police in the mid-1980s. On his journey he witnesses the strike first hand in places like Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, viewing the struggle alongside a young labour organiser from the US who has come to England to lend support to the strikers on behalf of American mineworkers.

While researching this article, I found my fascination growing, not least because reviews of O’Rourke’s book describe it as lending an international perspective to what is often seen as a definitively British struggle.

I haven’t read the book, and therefore cannot engage in any sort of analysis of it, but the fact that it exists at all is a testament to the far reaching cultural impact of the strike on the international literary stage.

Some reviews of “Notts” compare it to a book that I have read – and re-read – on more than one occasion: David Peace’s “GB84”.

I read “GB84” after struggling with “The Damned United” – Peace’s follow-up to his 2004 work – a book I expected to appreciate a lot more, given the subject matter. So, I approached “GB84” with a degree of trepidation.

This book, however, blew my socks off. Offering a scathing, furious and – above all – complex reflection of the events of 1984 and 1985, Peace comes closer than anyone to getting to the very heart of this fascinating but traumatic chapter of British history.

The book has dazzled some and infuriated others. Plotlines tumble over one another and Peace’s scintillating, dark prose zips along at breakneck speed. This is no factual document – don’t go expecting a history lesson on the standoff – but it is a pure and ferocious literary evocation of an era that left vast scars on the East Midlands and the English north.

Scars that, in some cases, have refused to heal; even two and half decades later.

Sunday 7 April 2013

"The Master Builder": Should We Just Shut Up About The 'Nudge-nudge-wink-wink'?

Gemma Arteton as Hilde Wangel

Slightly pushing the boundaries of a literature blog, I admit, this post focuses on Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play, “The Master Builder”. As readable in its own right as some of the era’s best loved prose works, “The Master Builder” cements the Norwegian playwright’s reputation as one of the 19th century’s finest wordsmiths.

In the century and a bit that has passed between Ibsen’s completion of the play and the present day, much has been made of the symbolism of the piece. The aging builder (Solness), nagged by doubt as to his potency and his skill; the vibrant, enthusiastic young woman (Hilde) who wants nothing more than to hold Solness high on a pedestal; and of course, the towering steeple Solness builds for his new house and for the church at Lysanger. Need I say more?

But to take such a ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ tack with “The Master Builder” is lazy and reductive. This is not to say that such themes aren’t evident in the play, but to write off Ibsen’s work as the ramblings of a horny old man seems somewhat unfair.

That said, this reading of the text does have a basis in historical context. Ibsen penned the play on his return to the land of his birth after 27 years abroad. Two years earlier, while on his travels, Ibsen had met and – by most accounts – become besotted with an 18-year-old Viennese girl named Emilie Bardach.

It seems likely that Miss Bardach was a direct inspiration for the play’s character of Hilde Wangel, the young girl who arrives at Solness’ home, demanding her promised kingdom. Some academics have disputed this, including Jens-Morten Hanssen, the editor of Norway’s National Library, who cites the “devilish and calculating” habits of Hilde has evidence that Ibsen was not in fact writing about his beloved Emilie.

I don’t read the text in this way. For me, Hilde is the antithesis of Solness’ aging, waning character. While she is wilful, carefree and full of joie de vivre, he is old, aching and carrying a lumbering heart. For the briefest of moments, Solness is given the chance to be free and happy once again.

As Ibsen was entering the final phase of his career when he penned “The Master Builder”, certain parallels can be drawn between himself and the character of Solness, just as similar parallels can be drawn between Hilde Wangel and the real life Emilie Bardach.

So, read as one of Ibsen’s later ‘realist’ plays, “The Master Builder”’s exploration of the dichotomies of love and duty, and of human happiness and responsibility remains a fascinating and ultimately multi-faceted one. The drama is rife with symbolism and is a tantalising candidate for any sort of analysis, but it goes far beyond common conceptions of the play as a sort of Scandinavian proto-Carry On piece with a tragic ending.

Isn’t it time we looked a little deeper?