What we thought: Thirty years ago, the miners’ strike set miners against pit bosses and government, working men against policemen, neighbour against neighbour. It ripped apart communities and drove families to destitution. And nowhere were its effects more deeply felt than in South Wales.
Kit Habianic’s Until Our Blood Is Dry takes us into the heart of one of these communities. She shows us the men driven by desperation to save the life of the coal mines – even though they know those jobs are likely to kill them, either slowly through illnesses such as ‘black lung’ or abruptly, in rock falls or gas explosions. She shows us the different kind of desperation that drives the handful of ‘scabs’ to defy their unions and cross the picket lines to go back to work. She shows us the white-collar managers, making decisions about the future of the mines with scant understanding of the lives that depend on them. And above all, she shows us the women fighting to hold their families together – standing on the picket lines, organising collections and finding ways of putting food on the table even when the last penny has been spent.
“You lasses,” as one of the men says; “more balls, more brains, more guts than any of us.”
Her heroine, Helen, barely sixteen herself, is caught between her father, an overman and one of the hated ‘scabs,’ and Scrapper Jones, the boy she loves, who is a hot-headed strike supporter. In the course of the book, she learns a lifetime’s worth of lessons about the price of loyalty and the need to love and to belong.
If I say this is an important book, I am in danger of making it sound ‘worthy’ and dull. It is anything but that. Habianic captures the beauty of the South Wales valleys, the sound of Welsh voices and the strength and heart-breaking tragedy of these lives.
The world Habianic describes is long gone, swept away in the wholesale pit closures that followed the breaking of the strike. So is this now just a piece of history? Today, when more and more families are turning to food banks to meet their basic needs, it’s worth remembering what happens when ordinary working people are driven to desperation. Even more, it is worth remembering some of those ‘workless’ generations who are subject to so much scorn today are in that situation because the industries that once sustained them were systematically dismantled without anything being put in their place.
You'll enjoy this if you like: Stories of Rebels and Outsiders from Saturday Night, Sunday Morning to Feral Youth
Avoid if you dislike: Women on the front line, Working Class Heroes, Wales
Ideal accompaniments: Welsh cakes and a cup of tea. And a pint of Brains SA for when the going gets tough.
Genre: Literary Fiction.