From football terrace to coal disaster [#6Degrees]
We begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain (#6Degrees) with Fever Pitch, a 1992 debut book by the British author Nick Hornby in which he told the story of his relationship with football, and in particular with one club – Arsenal. The book was a huge success not surprisingly, football being almost a religion for a large part of the British population, and went on to become a successful film.
I’ve never read it. While I’ve watched a few matches in the past and can appreciate the excitement, I have little interest in the niceties of the sport. I despair enough when I hear the amateur pundits in the pub talk about a recent match so the idea of reading a book structured chronologically around specific matches fills me with horror. Definitely not a book that will be on my wishlist.
Moving swiftly on however, the first book in my chain maintains the connection to sport.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe that was published as part of a collection of the same name that came out in 1959. Its protagonist is a teenager who comes from a poor family in a working class area of Nottingham in England. His prospects are bleak. Sentenced to time in a young offenders institute he takes up long-distance running – his prowess brings him to the attention of the institution’s ambitious governor. This is a novel about rebellious youth and a refusal to conform. It’s gritty realism is compelling.
Sillitoe was one of the so-called “angry young men” – a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists prominent in the 1950s that were united by their disillusionment with traditional British society. Sillitoe disliked the label as did most of the other writers to whom it was applied, such as John Osborne, particularly when their work became more divergent in style and theme.
The angry young men also included John Braine whose novel Room at the Top provides me with my second link. Braine was a Yorkshireman by birth who left school at the age of 16 to work in variously as a shop assistant, factory hand and librarian before turning his hand to writing. Like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top provides a realistic portrayal of life in a working class community. It’s central character is Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man of humble origins who is determined to make something of himself and leave behind former acquaintances who he despises for their lack of life and character. But his complex relationship with two women shows he is a man of dubious morality. By the end of the novel, he is forced to consider the question of his responsibility for a tragic event. This is a novel which deals brilliantly with questions of morality and social mobility.
My third link comes from another writer whose work is characterised by a social ‘edginess’. Stan Barstow wrote A Kind of Loving (1960) as the first part of a trilogy featuring Vic Brown, a young man from Yorkshire who is slowly inching his way up from his working class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and they are forced, by the social rules of the time, into marrying. A housing shortage in northern England means they have to live with Ingrid’s domineering mother which further cramps Vic’s style. This is a novel very much of its time which deals with ambition, consequences and compromises.
Social realism of course was not the exclusive purview of male writers. Almost a century before the angry young men made their mark, Elizabeth Gaskell turned her attention to the brutality of life in the industrialised towns of northern England. My fourth link in the chain is one of her best known novels, North and South. Set in Manchester (Gaskell novel calls it Milton) the novel looks at the troubled relationship between workers and and mill owners as seen through the eyes of one woman, the clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Forced to move north from her childhood home in the leafy south of England, Margaret’s senses and sensibilities are shocked by the poverty and suffering she witnesses. It’s fair to say that Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s contemporary, covered some of the same issues but I preferred the more nuanced approach adopted by Gaskell – while she detailed the social misery experienced in the slum dwellings of the workers, she balanced this by showing that not all mill owners were oblivious to the suffering of their workers. If all you know of Gaskell is her Cranford novels, you may be as surprised by North and South as I was when I read it about five years ago (see my review here).
Let stick with books set in the industrial heartland of the UK as we move onto number 5 in the chain. The Stars Look Down is a 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin which takes place in a coal mining community in Northumberland. It traces various injustices experienced by its inhabitants over a period from just before World War 1 until the 1930s. Cronin conveys his theme through three principal figures who represent different points of view: one is a miner’s son who follows a political career to try and improve the life of people around him , the second is a miner who goes into business but is accused of being a war profiteer, and the third is the son of an unscrupulous colliery owner. Cronin’s story includes a number of pivotal moments which force these people, and the community to question its values. Like Gaskell he doesn’t come down unequivocally on one side or another – broadly you can see his sympathies lie with the workers but he also shows a recognition that some of the mine owners can be decent human beings.
I can’t get to the end of this chain and ignore fiction written about social conditions in my own part of the world – Wales. So for my final choice I’m selecting a novel that was one of the most highly talked about among my parent’s generation. How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn about the Morgan family whose male members all earn their living in the dangerous world of coal mining. It’s a story told by one of of the sons, Huw, whose academic ability sets him apart from his brothers and gives him a chance to build a future away from the mines. This is a family saga so we get the usual quota of thwarted love affairs, sibling rivalry etc but its the background of the harsh working conditions experienced by this family (and their neighbours) and their total dependancy on the mines, that provide the main interest. Cronin claimed he based the book on his personal experience though this was hotly disputed. Nevertheless the world he depicts is one my parents recognised and felt was authentic, from crippling strikes that caused hunger and set father against son, to questions about whether mine owners compromised safety in the interests of cost cutting and, inevitably to a disaster underground. The title of the book is a recognition that while coal mining brought jobs it also turned the green hillsides into black mountains, a situation that lasted well into my adult years.
And there we must end this chain. We’ve come a long way from the terraces of a London football club, travelling via northern England to Wales, encountering social disruption, class warfare and (mercifully) not much sport……I didn’t think I would be able to link book number six in the chain back to Fever Pitch but just as I was about to press ‘publish’ I had one of those light bulb moments. Fever Pitch is set on the terraces of various football clubs. Much of the action of How Green was My Valley takes places within the terraced houses of the South Wales valleys. How about that for a connection???