Andrew McMillan

Canongate, £14.99 

When the proposed coal mine at Whitehaven in Cumbria was given the go-ahead in 2022, it felt like stepping back in time. Surely coal mining had already joined the dinosaurs as a relic of the past?

Yet despite the urgency of reaching net zero, the mining industry that was once the engine of British industry is far from forgotten.

The past lies all around us, but that is particularly true of the old, closed mines that riddle our landscape. As the miner in McMillan’s novel reflects as he and his fellow miners tramp off to work: “And beneath their feet, a mile down, history; waiting to be hacked into chunks and pulled out.”

Pity, the poet Andrew McMillan’s debut novel, takes on the past, and its grip on the present. His setting is an unnamed Yorkshire town, not far from Sheffield. Its football club won the FA Cup in 1912, as did Barnsley FC, and since McMillan comes from Barnsley, it’s a fair assumption this is where the novel takes place.

That the town’s great sporting achievement happened in the same year as the Titanic sank does not go unnoted; tragedy has haunted this town since the 19th century, and more recently still.

McMillan’s characters are linked by their connection to the mines. Alex and Brian’s father was a miner, as were they. Now in their mid-50s, they are struggling with their own identity, weighed down by the blight of post-industrial decline and, in Alex’s case, by denial of his real self. Alex’s son Simon, who has no recollection of the era when mining was the heartbeat of the town, makes a living in a call centre.

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That work is dull, but he finds a creative outlet in posting gay porn videos, and performing as a drag artist.

When the novel opens, Simon is preparing for his biggest gig, where he intends to appear as Maggie Thatcher. Half a century on she is still a hate figure in Yorkshire’s former mining communities, where her obduracy during the miners’ strikes of the mid-1980s has never been forgiven.

He wants his buffoonish act of mockery to change how people think, recalling his English teacher saying that “The fool in Shakespeare always carries the truth. They nearly always had a Yorkshire accent too … because apparently people found that funnier.”

In short, elliptical chapters, revolving between each character, McMillan paints a portrait of the down-at-heel and traumatised town: what it offers, what it has lost. Gradually, he builds a bridge between the two.

In a profoundly political tale, his cast of men, young and middle-aged and absent, negotiate a realm of emotional tripwires in which what came before continues to mould the present.

The Herald: Police and pickets clash at Ravenscraig during the miners' strikePolice and pickets clash at Ravenscraig during the miners' strike (Image: free)

While Alex is coping with the collapse of his marriage, his brother Brian is taking part in a university project. A well-meaning party of academics has arrived in town to mark the anniversary of a now distant disaster.

Asking participants to recall what the town was like when they were young, they coax testimony from them with tea and sandwiches.

The academics’ detached but sensitive perspective acts as a foil to the intensely felt stories, and sorrows, of McMillan’s cast. The university group’s focus is on what the town was, and is, and how people feel about what happened.

Their attempt to fathom how we understand place and the past offers a structure for the tumultuous events around Simon and his boyfriend Ryan, whose lives are only beginning, and for the weary, heart-sore Alex and Brian.

What you might call the central characters, however, go unnamed. One of them is the town itself. The academic notes that several participants resent how often it is said that bigger football clubs “should be doing better against a team like this”. In this, and other ways, the town is belittled. “Their achievements,” notes the academic, “like those of the local football team, are always ‘over-achievements’; the tragedies and violence of the town are international news, its successes are not.”

And whereas many were appalled when Michael Gove spoke of people being sick of experts, that was not the case here: “In places like this, where ‘experts’ are held responsible for low-wage, low-esteem and low-potential lives, the phrase rang true.”

Simon is given most prominence, his dramatic, daring persona allowed to shine.

Alex and Brian are cogs in the story while Ryan plays second fiddle. Yet the pivotal character, or at least the one whose voice carries most weight, is the miner of old whose voice interleaves the pages.

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In short, intense passages, using repetition and refrain, he describes the wearying morning ritual of heading off to the pit, and the grim conditions underground: “Headlamps pointing the way down the tunnels. No talking, a last intake of breath, grasping at what’s left of the air from the surface.”

When imagining what it was like hewing a living from the coalface, McMillan’s writing is at its most powerful.

On publication in 2015, his first collection of poems, Physical, was acclaimed as one of the finest of the past 25 years. The concerns of that and subsequent works, in which he fearlessly explores masculinity and desire, are also the bedrock of Pity. Bringing to the novel the clarity and economy of a poet who looks unflinchingly at life and longing, sex and angst, the sparseness and vividness of his prose clothes the bare political bones of this raging lament. Nor is he sentimental.

There is honesty, and occasionally humour in his depiction of the town and its inhabitants, his loose ends and unresolved problems a mirror of life.

A slim but potent tale about the different ways in which men express their maleness, Pity is about generations of Yorkshire masculinity. What these men must face and endure has changed over the years, but perhaps not as much as we might think.

What came before us and what will follow are inseparable. As the academic concludes, “It’s not so much that history repeats itself, it’s that it crushes on, relentlessly.”