Daily Archives: March 18, 2014

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (Granta, £16.99)


We all have gaps in our reading: it’s impossible not to, there’s just too much out there. Even narrowing it to the established classics, those works of literature that have been defined by longevity, makes for a formidable cross-section of eras, styles and nationalities. One of the big gaps in my own personal reading was George Eliot. I’d always meant to … never got round to … been put off by yet another entirely turgid BBC adaptation … The excuses were always there.

Then I was offered a review copy of Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch, which I accepted enthusiastically, intrigued by the cover blurb’s promise of “literary biography, deep reading and personal memoir”. And if as a result I finally tackled a volume of Eliot, so much the better. After just ten pages of Mead’s book, I was in a quandary: I was wholly won over by Mead’s critically intuitive but winningly warm-hearted prose style and could have devoured the book in one sitting. But I was acutely conscious that it would yield so much more if I read Middlemarch first.

I ended up reading the two in tandem. Mead structures her account of Eliot’s keystone work, placing it in the context of her life and career, in parallel with the eight books of Middlemarch. I pendulum’d between Eliot and Mead over the course of three weeks, feeling like I’d come to know both writers as well as exhaustively touring every scrap of geography that was distilled into Eliot’s quintessentially provincial English town. Serialised during 1871-72 and set just prior to the Reform Act of 1832, Middlemarch is one of the most immersive and unflinching portrayals of the politics, prejudices and patriarchy that underpin English society. With the media sharpening its claws over the George Eliot Hospital while I was reading it, and a major subplot in Middlemarch detailing the financial shenanigans and administrative string-pulling behind the establishment of a new hospital, the old cliché never seemed truer: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Middlemarch is primarily a study in defeated idealism: Dorothea Brooke’s is misplaced, Tertius Lydgate’s is poisoned by hubris. But there’s so much more to it, and Mead traces the book’s importance – one might even say centrality – to her life, teasing out the aspects that struck the most resonant chords at different stages in her own personal journey. The Road to Middlemarch is aptly titled: Mead’s peregrinations take us through her life, through Eliot’s, through English history and the English landscape, and through the drawing rooms, farmyards, offices and billiard halls of Middlemarch itself. It’s a perfect companion piece to a colossus of a novel, illuminating, intelligent and richly rewarding in its own right.

 Neil Fulwood

Look Back in Anger: the miners’s strike in Nottinghamshire – 30 years on by Harry Paterson (Five Leaves, £9.99)

Paterson-Harry-LookBackInAngerOn 5th March 1984, following an Area ballot, Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire came out on strike against the government’s proposed schedule of colliery closures. A domino effect followed, with the Yorkshire, South Wales and Scotland coalfields voting locally to strike. The much-repeated assertion that NUM President Arthur Scargill called for a national strike for reasons of political hubris is the first of many fallacies that Harry Paterson’s timely and unflinchingly powerful book explodes. Likewise the incessant right-wing carping, which continues to this day, that Scargill refused a national ballot; actually, a democratic vote at Conference went against it. The fact that the majority of miners in the UK were already out on strike at this point kind of speaks for itself.

Thirty years down the line, the miners’ strike remains a raw and emotional subject. Particularly in the Midlands. Every Nottinghamshire pit, most of them by a significant majority, voted to keep working. (Leicestershire demonstrated an equally pro-management stance; read David Bell’s The Dirty Thirty: Heroes of the Miners’ Strike, also published by Five Leaves, for a stirring account of the few men who stuck to their principles and supported their union.) A generation later, communities – families, even – remain divided. That is, where communities exist at all. The aftermath of Thatcher’s deliberate offensive against trade unionism is a country stripped of industry; a country of mass unemployment, of harsh class division, where a job for life is a thing of your father’s, or even your grandfather’s, generation.

My grandfather worked at Annesley. He was born in the last years of the 1800s. He was out in the Great Strike of 1926. He obviously died before the 1984/85 strike. I don’t want to conjecture about what he would have thought of the strike-breaking Notts majority. Even now, reading Paterson’s account, a sense of shame pervades. But to Paterson’s credit Look Back in Anger is more than just Scab: The Book. The opening chapters establish a history of mining and trade unionism in Britain, contrapuntally sketching in Nottinghamshire’s gravitation towards Spencerism and trying to define the prevalent social causes for such a move. Paterson progresses to a labyrinthine tour of the complex functionality of the NUM which – as the strike progresses and the union is increasingly besieged by Thatcherism, the media and the manipulated shift in public opinion – eventually sees the Nottinghamshire Area form the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers. Paterson lays bare the political manoeuvring and dirty tricks that eased the UDM into being in a series of revelations as gripping as any thriller.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that Paterson is anything but on the striking miners’ side, but the steady accretion of new evidence, accounts and documents pertaining to the strike – culminating in papers released earlier this year under the Thirty Years’ Rule – leave no cause for doubt. Thatcher secretly marked 75 more pits for closure than were publicly mooted. At the time, Scargill called her plans “the thin end of the wedge”: history vindicates him.

Look Back in Anger (the title borrowed from John Osborne) is aptly named. To read it is to get mad. Mad at what happened back then. Mad at the fact that it’s still happening now. But the book is also studded with moments which illustrate all that is good and decent in working class men and women. One particular anecdote sums up the principles of solidarity and community that the striking miners were fighting for. A Newstead miner who’d spent his entire adult life at the coalface was on the cusp of reaping well-deserved redundancy benefits. Conflicted by management threats vis-à-vis loss of benefits vs kinship with his striking workmates, the strikers backed him wholeheartedly in returning to work; he saw out his stint, and contributed all his pay pay packets to the strike fund.

Neil Fulwood