Reviews||

Public Battles, Private Wars by Laura Wilkinson

1st Apr 2014

★★★★
Public Battles, Private Wars
This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the most rancorous industrial dispute in modern history. The Miners' Strike began in March 1984, ending twelve months later. Laura Wilkinson's latest novel shines a spotlight on women's experiences during this time, and the integral role they played in the movement.

 

Now based in Brighton, Laura Wilkinson grew up in North Wales, where her first novel, Blood-Mining, was partly set. She has also contributed to a number of short story anthologies, as well as penning an erotic romance novel, All of Me, under the name of L.C. Wilkinson.

Public Battles, Private Wars takes us to the fictional Yorkshire village of Fenley Down, where Mandy Walker, a twenty-three year-old mother of four young children, is married to Rob, a handsome, hard-drinking miner. On the same day that Rob is injured in an accident at the colliery, a familiar face reappears – Mandy’s best friend from her schooldays, Ruth.

Having left Fenley years before, Ruth returns with a new husband, a veteran of the recent Falklands War. With a slim figure, new clothes and a teaching job at the local school, Ruth seems to have it all. As the strike begins, she persuades Mandy to join an action group headed by her formidable mother-in-law.

At first, Mandy puts to use her natural flair for cooking at rallies and meetings. But when a journalist interviews her for the local newspaper, she becomes a plain-speaking, if reluctant, voice for the miners and their families. For Mandy, who had lost much of her youthful spark amid the pressures of child-rearing, this proves to be a lifeline.

Mandy's story is based on the experience of many others like her, in what quickly became a national movement. Women Against Pit Closures - as these groups were collectively known - offered miners' wives like Mandy the opportunity to make their voices heard in what was primarily a male-dominated sphere.Mandy’s story is based on the experience of many others like her, in what quickly became a national movement. Women Against Pit Closures – as these groups were collectively known – offered miners’ wives like Mandy the opportunity to make their voices heard in what was primarily a male-dominated sphere.

Much to their surprise, the miners’ cause attracted the support of student radicals, and the women’s involvement bears comparison to the Women’s Peace Camp which had been established at RAF Greenham Common in 1981.

But feminism was still something of a dirty word in Fenley, and at the time, Britain’s most powerful woman, Margaret Thatcher, was also the strikers’ nemesis, or in franker terms, “that bloody woman.” However, the main political players – including Thatcher’s ally Ian McGregor, and even trade unionist Arthur Scargill – all lurk in the background.

Even the pit villages weren’t immune to Eighties kitsch, of course. Scrunchies, Athena posters and discos playing Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ add background detail. And there are references to the leading women writers of the era – including Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy, by way of Jilly Cooper.

Laura Wilkinson does not ignore the many hardships suffered by mineworkers and their families in a struggle to preserve a way of life that would ultimately vanish. Thatcherism was at its height, and many agreed that these people were “dinosaurs.” Benefits were vindictively slashed, fuel supplies cut, and households relied on food parcels to survive. Wilkinson also touches on related issues then becoming prominent, such as Bulimia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Most crucially, the lives of women like Mandy and Ruth were changed beyond recognition. The days of housewives unquestioningly standing by their men were numbered. Public Battles, Private Wars recalls this turbulent time in a direct, unpretentious style, bringing women’s experience to the fore where once it was marginalised.

Goodreads are giving away six paperback copies of Public Battles, Private Wars. You can enter here (closing date is April 26th.)