Our Friends in the North

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Review of 'Born under Punches', Martyn Waites, Simon & Schuster £10.99

1984: Coldwell, a fictional north east mining town, is under siege by the police. Stephen Larkin, a passionate young journalist, wants to expose the truth about the miners' strike--what's at stake for Coldwell and the country, and what Thatcher and the police are prepared to do to win.

2001: Coldwell is a bleak landscape of unemployment, despair and addiction. Tony Woodhouse, a former professional footballer, runs a drug counselling centre. 'Slapping a band-aid on and sending them out again,' as he puts it. Louise, his ex-partner, is in a loveless marriage, her daughter falling in with a nihilistic dealer. Ex-miner Mick is trying to overcome alcoholism and a dysfunctional family. Mary Poppins this isn't.

This is 'Our Friends in the North' territory (and not just geographically). Although its scope is more limited--switching between 1984 and 2001 rather than charting entire lifetimes--it weaves its tapestry of characters impressively through each other's lives. By contextualising them within the defeat of the Great Miners' Strike, it brings home the devastation Thatcher's victory wreaked on working class communities, and is a better explanation of crime and delinquency than Downing Street will ever manage.

There are weaknesses. Waites's habitual references to contemporaneous songs quickly wear thin, bringing to mind the recent glut of glib nostalgia television shows. He also seems to be using sex as a metaphor for drug addiction--sex as consolation and escapism, as well as a microcosm of society as a whole--sex as an expression of power, control and exploitation. Although these are all legitimate and interesting themes, at times their exploration feels gratuitous.

The novel really comes alive, aptly enough, under the punches of the police. The depiction of the violence meted out to pickets, and their frustration at the media's collusion in demonising them as 'the enemy within', has an emotional power that transcends the raw polemics of the youthful journalist who witnesses it. This exercise of state power in the cause of neoliberalism--breaking working class organisation to enable deregulation--is a warning to those who, even in the face of rampant imperialism, would see the state as antagonistic to capital.

This novel has much in common with the political tradition of this magazine. The acknowledged influence of Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons' book on the miners' strike is one indicator of this. The inclusion of the Redskins' music is perhaps a greater giveaway. But the plot is never subordinated to rhetorical analysis, and rightly so--art needn't be agitprop to enrich our understanding of the world and its injustices.