Author’s notes: Until Our Blood is Dry

Until Our Blood is Dry explores how the miners' strike tears apart a South Wales mining community

Until Our Blood is Dry explores how the miners’ strike tears apart a South Wales mining community

Until Our Blood is Dry is set in a fictional South Wales village during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The novel explores the impact of the strike through three characters whose loyalties are tested, who must decide; who am I, what am I, what side am I on?

It’s the question many novelists dread being asked; so what’s your book about, then?

Strangely, though, the question has never fazed me. Put simply, Until Our Blood is Dry is about a small South Wales community ripped apart by the 1984-1985 miners’ strike.

Thirty years have passed since the strike ended in March 1985, but many of us remember it all too well. The dispute forged a new sense of class unity on the one hand but formed deep divisions on the other.

The more I read and listened, the more it seemed that the many different voices were all asking the same question: who am I, whose side am I on, where do I belong?

Across South Wales, almost 100% of the coalfield workforce walked out on strike in March 1984. Nearly all had stayed out, come March the following year.

The strike launched a solidarity movement beyond the coalfields that helped many working-class women to find a voice for the first time.

But it also pitted coalfield against coalfield and neighbour against neighbour. Money worries and political differences split communities, even families.

There were casualties. Nine people died during the strike and 20,000 were injured.

Until Our Blood is Dry takes the events of that year as its starting point. It explores the deeper issues that the strike unleashed — questions about identity; who am I, what am I, whose side am I on?

The strike forces the novel’s three main characters — the overman Gwyn Pritchard, his schoolgirl daughter Helen and her lover, Welsh-Italian Scrapper Jones — to question their loyalties as divisions harden between the men who strike and those who do not.

All three come to very different conclusions that have far-reaching consequences for their families, their community and their pit.

To research the book, I spent months trawling the archives of the British Library and Collindale Newspaper Library in London, reading academic books and daily newspaper reports from the time, for and against the strike.

I listened to protest singers from the time, including South Wales’ own Dave Burns.

But I also spoke to people involved in the dispute and visited the South Wales Miners archive at Swansea University, which opened up a hidden seam of writing and oral history by miners and women from the support groups.

Listening to those voices on crackling cassette recordings from the mid-Eighties, telling their stories of the strike without the benefit of hindsight was like taking a trip back in time.

The poems, songs and publications that survive the strike also keep the events of that year alive.

The more I read and listened, the more it seemed that the many different voices were all asking the same question: who am I, whose side am I on, where do I belong?

A writing tutor once told me that nearly every debut novel is rooted, directly or indirectly, in the author’s formative years. When I think back to the strike, I remember it as a time of lost innocence.

Until Our Blood is Dry is the novel I needed to write.

The miners lost the strike and the pit closure programme gathered pace, with devastating effect.

In 1983, the UK produced 119m tonnes of coal a year and employed more than 287,000 people. In 1984, the UK had 170 pits. By 2012, the UK’s half-dozen surviving pits produced less than 17m tonnes of coal and employed barely 6,000 people.

The novel took seven years to write. Strangely, though, it feels like a book whose time has come; the questions the miners’ strike raised also feel very urgent today.

Cutbacks, bleak job prospects, economic uncertainty and a media under intense scrutiny are all too familiar in GB 2014.

Around the world, thousands of people are taking to the streets to demand change. That feels very like the mood of the Eighties.

A writing tutor once told me that nearly every debut novel is rooted, directly or indirectly, in the author’s formative years. When I think back to the strike, I remember it as a time of lost innocence.

The decision to run down UK coal production ripped the heart out of the former coal-mining communities, including the South Wales villages of my childhood.

For so many of us with family ties to mining communities, whose forefathers’ skin was scarred with blue dust, that’s hard to forgive — impossible to forget.

Even so, it’s a minefield to write a novel that may seem like historical fiction to readers who weren’t born in the Eighties but is based on events that fiercely divide opinion, to this day.

And so, when I talk to people about my three embattled characters — about the fictional village of Ystrad that is not my grandmother’s Oakdale and not my grandfather’s Tredegar — I come back to a famous quote by Aneurin Bevan that is also the title of an album by the Blackwood band Manic Street Preachers.

Bevan was paraphrasing Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.

This is my truth. Now tell me yours.

Until Our Blood is Dry by Kit Habianic is published in paperback by Parthian Books, price £9.99. ISBN number 9781909844537.


What inspired Until Our Blood is Dry?

Why write a novel about the miners’ strike? Some answers here, in an interview with the Western Mail, which serialised the book.


STOP PRESS: space in your suitcase?

Get #UntilOurBloodisDry in Kindle summer sale for less than a quid!


Pitstop: Settling Scores writer Nick Jones

 

Remembering the miners’ strike:

 

165,000 people on strike

11,313 arrested

7,000 injured

5,653 tried in court

960 sacked

200 imprisoned

11 people killed

 

Source: Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, 2014

 

 

June 18th marks the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, the most infamous moment of the year-long miners’ strike. Thirty years on, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is pressing for a public enquiry into the events of that day, looking in particular at how the authorities policed the mass picket.

 

“National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor planned to close 75 pits — closing two-thirds of the pits in South Wales — six months before the start of the dispute!”

 

 

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This blog marks the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave by interviewing Nick Jones, a journalist who covered the dispute for the BBC.

Nick is a contributor to Settling Scores: the Media, the Police and the Miners’ Strike, published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. The Cabinet Papers: Thatcher and the police uses newly declassified documents to explore how the prime minister took a hands-on approach to the dispute.

 

 

How did Settling Scores come to pass, and what questions does the book cover?

 

Settling Scores is a follow up to Shafted!, which was published to mark the 25th anniversary of the dispute. The aim of both books was to explore many of the hidden issues, such as the extent of government involvement and in my particular case manipulation of the news media.
 
 

Why was it important to you and the other contributors to look back at the miners’ strike? 
 
Journalists played a significant part in the final outcome of the strike because once the industrial strength of the National Union of Miners had been contained by the police, the offensive moved to the media frontline and the campaign to persuade men to break the strike.

When half were back at work Mrs Thatcher could claim victory, which is what she did.

I think broadcasters got swept along by this narrative and in part became cheerleaders for the return to work, hence my soul searching, which I described in Shafted!
 
 
You sifted through cabinet papers to examine the government handling of the dispute; what were of your key findings?

 

For me the key findings were that six months before the start of the strike the Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor informed Peter Walker — and Mrs Thatcher was told — that his intention was to close up to 75 pits, and that — just days into the strike — Mrs Thatcher issued a secret instruction to chief constables to “stiffen their resolve” to replace the rule of the mob with the rule of law.

MacGregor’s secret warning about the extent of pit closures was kept top secret and “solemnly” declared that he had never mentioned the 70 pit closure hit list that Arthur Scargill said existed. Thatcher, MacGregor and the NCB always insisted the NCB wanted to close only 20 pits.

Mrs Thatcher’s intervention led to the creation of what amounted to a national police force. Within days pickets heading south were being stopped on the motorways, and those from Kent at the Dartford Tunnel.

 

 

What is the most surprising or striking thing that you discovered from the papers?

 

I think the most striking revelation was the extent to which Mrs Thatcher was micromanaging the government’s response to the strike.

The cabinet papers are often underlined by her; there are hand-written notes in the margins.

She agreed no further mention should be made of MacGregor’s aim to close 75 pits, which he had said would mean closing two-thirds of the pits in South Wales — and this was six months before the start of the dispute!
 
 
 
What other questions do your co-writers explore in Settling Scores?

 

One chapter deals with the question of the reporting of the Orgreave confrontations and whether the BBC’s coverage was biased against the pickets.
The NUM distrusted journalists, especially those from television and radio who were considered part of the establishment. Much of the filming was as a result done from behind police lines.
 
 
Nick Jones and Settling Scores! editor Granville Williams will discuss the book, the media and the miners’ strike at the South Yorkshire Festival at Wortley Hall, Sheffield on August 16. Visit the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom website for more information about the book. You can also find out more about Settling Scores! on Facebook.

 

 

STOP PRESS: The Feminist Library is holding a day-long event from 12-8pm on Saturday 21 June, looking at Women of the Miners’ Strike, with readings, film screenings and debates. I will read from Until Our Blood is Dry during the evening session at the event in Lambeth.

 


my work in progress, Owen Gower, (Still) the Enemy Within

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June marks the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, a defining point in the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-1985. To mark the event, this week’s Pitstop interview features Owen Gower, director of the new documentary film, (Still) the Enemy Within, which talks to former miners about the dispute and its aftermath. The film makes its premiere in Sheffield this week.

 

“Thirty years ago, Thatcher went to war.
These are the miners who fought back.”

 

Please introduce (Still) The Enemy Within
The film is a feature documentary that tells the story of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike from the point of view of the miners and supporters who fought on the front line.
These were the people prime minister Margaret Thatcher labelled “The Enemy Within”. They faced an onslaught by the government, the police and the media as they fought for a year to defend their jobs and communities but many have never spoken on camera before.

So why the miners’ strike?
The miners’ strike is something that remains incredibly relevant today. It was a huge confrontation that shaped the world we live in today and is filled with amazing stories and events. Yet much of this history has remained hidden.
Instead of the mainstream perspective that’s been given to us, we wanted to bring to light what it was really like for those fighting on the frontline, as well as introducing it to a whole new layer of young people coming to it for the first time.

How did you set about planning and researching (S)TEW?
One of our executive producers Mike Simons, who brought the project together, was a journalist throughout the strike and is the author of two books on it. He has kept in contact with many of the miners and strike photographers for the last 30 years.
This was incredibly valuable as not only did he have access to an incredible group of characters and amazing images, the miners were also willing to open up on camera to us in a way that they simply wouldn’t have with anyone else.
The film is really a culmination of 30 years’ work that Mike has been laying the groundwork for.

What is the most surprising thing you discovered along the way?
By far and away the biggest surprise for me was the humour. The miners were filled with hilarious stories, often in the middle of mayhem, whether pretending to be joggers to get past police road blocks or accidentally setting fire to their own leg right in the middle of the Battle of Orgreave.
They had us in stitches the whole time. It’s something you rarely hear about with the strike but, despite the difficulties and the hardship, for many of the people in our film it was the best year of their lives.

If you could have done one thing differently, what would that be?
The truth is that with the strike being a huge event over such a long time, there were so many amazing stories we just couldn’t fit into the film. By the end of the production, it felt like we could have made a hundred films and still never capture all the incredible experiences of the people involved.
Ultimately I am happy that we’ve made the best film we can and that it remains true to the experiences of the miners and supporters in the film.

What are you working on next?
I really believe in telling the stories of people that the mainstream media has ignored or kept hidden. We have a number of projects in development, but sadly they’ll have to remain top secret for now.

What do you hope your audience will take away from seeing the film?
I think many young people who come to this subject for the first time will be shocked about what the miners went through in their fight for British industry.
But I also hope audiences will also be inspired by the incredible solidarity that took place.
The strike transformed the lives of those involved and gave a glimpse of just how incredible it can be when people stand together.

(Still) the Enemy Within has its debut screening at 1345 at Showroom 4 Cinema in Sheffield on June 7.  STOP PRESS: Owen and the team from production company Bad Bonobo will host a Q&A session after Saturday’s screening.


stop press — finchley literary festival

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I’ll be reading from Until Our Blood is Dry at the Spoken Word Showcase, part of Finchley Literary Festival at Friern Barnet Community Library on Friday night.

Greenacre Writers promise a night of poetry, fiction and non-fiction prose, featuring Amy Bird, Andrea Michael, Bill Todd and surprise guests. Compere, Allen Ashley.

All welcome, 1900-2200 hrs, Friday May 30.

Contact greenacrewriters@gmail.com for information.

Until Our Blood is Dry, Parthian Books 2014, is serialised in the Western Mail to mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike and is the Welsh Books Council’s book of the month for May.

 


my work in progress, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

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My Parthian Books stablemate Debz Hobbs-Wyatt talks about her debut novel While No One Was Watching, a taut thriller set against the backdrop of the killing of JFK…

 

 

Please introduce yourself and While No One Was Watching

Hi I’m Debz and I work as a professional editor and critiquer as well as a small publisher, to pay my way but my real job is an author.
I gave up my day job five years ago to live the dream and have since had close to 20 short stories published, was shortlisted in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize last year and won the Bath Short Story Award last year too! And to add to a year of lovely successes that you never think will happen to you, Parthian Books published my debut novel While No One Was Watching.
The premise of the novel is what happens when you turn your back and is about a little girl who disappeared from the grassy knoll at the exact moment Kennedy was assassinated and is still missing 50 years on.
 
So why a novel set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination?
Well why not? No actually, she says — waving the banner for the short story — I really learned my craft writing short stories and this idea came during that phase and started life as a short story.
I liked the idea of a psychic holding a child’s silver locket and saying to a reporter that it belonged to a little girl who disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and is still missing. And I loved the idea of taking an iconic moment in history and looking at what happened at the same time; something overshadowed and yet for one young mother, a moment that changed everything.
It’s a moment in time so many remember, even though I wasn’t born, but it’s a significant historical moment and one I know continues to fascinate. Although it is a catalyst for the story and is very significant — the story is actually set now and has many layers.
How did you plan and research the book?
I never overplan with a first draft as I like the magical things that happen when you don’t, but I did a lot of reading for this, as you might imagine. While the Kennedy assassination is significant and needs to be represented accurately, at the same time I would never overload with facts. It adds authenticity though so you need to research.
The short story was a good blueprint to work from when adapting into the novel. I used the same characters, same voices but got to know them a lot better!
What is the most surprising thing you discovered along the way?
That sometimes you think it’s you creating a character when really they’re writing themselves. Lydia Collins my African-American psychic just talked to me and showed me her story! Being a writer is a creative licence to give in to the inner voices!
If you could have done one thing differently, what would that be?
I wish I knew what to say! I always felt the original ending wasn’t filmic enough and I talked to my lovely editor Cerys about this as she said the same. I was really happy with the final reworked ending, so would I have done anything different? I don’t think I would.
What do you hope your reader will take away from the book?
I hope they will see an old story from a new angle. I hope they learn something new, not necessarily about Kennedy but about being human, about love, loss and how everything can change in a single moment.
Follow Debz on Facebook and on Twitter or visit her blog. And buy her book from Amazon here!
WNOWW

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