The Northern Clemency

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Philip Hensher, Fourth Estate, £17.99

The Northern Clemency is a novel set very firmly in the era of Thatcherism against the backdrop of the miners' strike, privatisation and the selling off of council housing. It recounts the histories of two Sheffield families, both of middle management class.

Mr Sellers is a manager with the electricity board, who has beavered away to stockpile coal to help defeat the National Union of Mineworkers, thus enabling the sell off of nationalised electricity. His reward is a gold-plated switch valve and early retirement. Meanwhile, Mr Glover, busily mortgaging council house buyers, loses the respect of his youngest son, and his wife has an affair.

Hensher aims to emulate the classic family sagas of the 1930s, but his literary style sometimes obscures the comic political ironies that run through his novel. He illustrates the social chaos of Tory Britain, picturing callous money laundering upper class drug dealers, women working as strippergrams, low paid night cleaners and teenagers floundering amid the social conflicts that surround them.

He gently exposes the smug self-centredness of life behind the festooned drapes of the Sheffield middle class, unfazed by the brutality of the state as it crushes the people who inhabit the surrounding pit villages. He describes the miners' strike and the battle of Orgreave vividly, describing Arthur Scargill as a Stalin-like hero figure, seen as the author of his own downfall.

He creates the impression that individual solutions in the end pull the communities around after a period of disruption and defeat.

The failure of the left is caricatured in his description of the young revolutionaries in the strike, suggesting that various tragedies affecting the families stem from the failure of the two significant changes of the 1960s and 1970s - the upturn in class struggle and sexual liberation.

He focuses so obsessively on the middle class that what remains is a simplistic impression of Thatcherism. Hensher's droll approach draws the reader into the middle class comfort zones: flower arranging, dressing up for war games, garden shrubs, gimmicky gadgets, reviving the tango. They shield the main characters from the crises around them but leave some of their offspring in a state of disoriented rejection.

As the revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, "It would be childish to think that every class can entirely and fully create its own art from within itself." A social class which tries to do that will look childish and over-indulgent, as Hensher, in his main characters, tends to be.

In reality, the middle managerial class is not unaware of its actual role. The paths it takes are ultimately decided by the class it chooses to serve. Hensher's skill is to raise this question, but the novel leaves it unresolved. Moreover, he skirts around the issues of racism and of Aids and overlooks the great anger of 1992 over the final pit closures and the great cheer that echoed across the land at Thatcher's downfall. Nevertheless, he has left us with an engrossing, rather overlong but incomplete portrait of that era.