Author Q&A: James Clarke

The Litten Path (Salt, £9.99)

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The debut novel from the Rossendale writer follows the Newmans, who have enough on their plate without a strike to contend with. Arthur hates working at the pit, Shell doesn’t know what she wants and their lonely son Lawrence has no say in anything – especially a late night mission to Threndle House, home of disgraced politician Clive Swarsby, which plunges the family into crisis. And there is still the small matter of the pickets.

You grew up in Rossendale, a town more associated with cotton mills than coal pits. What sparked your interest in the Miners Strike?
In 2012 I chanced upon The Battle of Orgreave, a project by the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller that centred on the Miners Strike of 1984. I suppose I was especially receptive to outrage back then. I was lost, mid-twenties lost, graduating from university as a recession broke lost, and I was also deeply concerned by the coalition government’s austerity cattle prod. To top that off I was living in London, failing to pay the rent with gardening and bar jobs and using every spare moment to hack away at a novel that would never see the light of day. Really it was a perfect cocktail for a young, disenfranchised writer to be jolted into action – I left Deller’s exhibition resolved to write about the strike. The fact I’m not from a mining area didn’t really trouble me when I began writing The Litten Path. Whether you’re from a gauntlet of former mill towns like Rossendale or the pit hinterlands of South Yorkshire, you will have been affected by the Miners Strike in some way. De-industrialisation, privatisation, corporate deregulation and mass consumerism, the decline of civic spirit: these are staples of a contemporary landscape forged in the crucible of Thatcher’s conflict with the unions. Besides, I’ve always said the north is the north – there’s a sensibility here that transcends geography. It wasn’t as much of a stretch as you’d think depicting Yorkshire in the 1980s.

How did you explore the human stories behind the Miners’ Strike?
I took part in a local history project where myself and other volunteers interviewed a number of ex-miners from a Manchester colliery that closed in the 1960s. These recordings, currently stored in the public archive at Central Library, Manchester, offered an invaluable insight into the industry itself, what it was like to work in a pit, the bigger picture. Because when you think about it, entire identities were shaped by the pits, not just lives, so what did that mean for people when that cornerstone was removed? After the history project I interviewed a police officer who was present at the Battle of Orgreave. They took me through the day’s events and generally discussed what it was like to be stationed on the other side of such a contentious issue. Other than that it was the usual mix of books, online articles, documentaries and films. It often felt like I was acting as an antennae to any cultural artefact that I could find relating to working-class life over the past 50 years.

How have successive governments failed the Orgreave strikers?
I think the strikers have been failed by every government that’s refused to hold an independent inquiry into the events surrounding Orgreave. Orgreave is a major miscarriage of British justice. It’s a moment where police violence was compounded by lies and a cover-up, and nothing has been done about it for nearly 35 years. Last year when Amber Rudd reneged on Theresa May’s promise to hold an inquiry, she essentially said that few lessons for today’s policing system can be learned from the practices of yesterday. The broader picture she failed to note is that even if you’re unsympathetic to the miners’ cause, the fact is that following the strike thousands of people suffered ongoing physical and psychological problems, many lost their jobs and families, and entire communities suffered a total breakdown in their relationship with the authorities. Disillusion is corrosive and contagious, and currently rife in this country. Any government that addresses the wrongs of the Miners Strike has the chance to restore some much-diminished belief in its interest in doing the right thing.

How did your research help you paint such a vivid picture of the strike in action? And were you worried that you might not be able to do it justice?
I think that with any historical project worries like that don’t matter so much as long as you have a pure focus upon richly depicting your point in time, and always prioritise truth in character and setting. Research helps with this – use a broad range of source material and be rigorous with what goes into the work. The trouble is that with research comes knowledge and with knowledge comes empathy, and occasional loss of objectivity, at least in my case. I wasn’t alive when the strike took place and I’m not from a mining town, so whilst that kept me at some remove (which is where a writer should always be) the fact remains that I’m sympathetic to the miners’ cause, which meant I had to tread carefully.

The book pays particular attention to Arthur’s wife and her frustration at her situation. What tools did you use to get into the mind of a character whose life is so different from your own?
For me it’s a matter of trying to step back, really think about who a character is and where they want to go. In Shell Newman’s case I had someone who, with a good brain in her, had let herself fall into a dull, domesticated existence. She’d married someone who didn’t understand her, and had a child she didn’t understand. How would that feel? Shell didn’t want any of it, but at the same time she wanted it more than anything, almost out of habit, expectation. Maybe all people are a little bit like that. There is that push and pull. And if you get to the heart of this conflict then the words come – your character will start making their own choices on the page.

How important was it for you to emphasise the part women played in supporting the strikers?
I don’t think you’re telling any story truthfully if you’re not considering the role of women. But in terms of this project I just couldn’t have written about the Miners Strike without representing women. They were involved in every part of the action, absolutely essential to the fight. What’s more, the female journey was one of the most interesting sidenotes to a pretty sad episode in recent history. During the strike women who had been stuck at home and in their localities were empowered as they had never been before. They travelled the country, took part in pickets and rallies, spoke at events, organised soup kitchens and fundraisers; many were politicised and given a voice, entering new, positive phases of their lives after the strike drew to a close. It was important this was addressed.

Will you be turning your pen to other events in local history in future?
Never say never.

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