Ken Coates Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ken Coates

Community and Communication

(Spring 1960)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 1, Spring 1960, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Weekend in Dinlock
Clancy Sigal
Secker and Warburg, 197 pp. 16/-

Clancy Sigal has written a tragedy: but not the tragedy he thinks he has written, of Davie, the miner-painter who is torn into two opposing selves, worker and artist, and finally imprisoned by the very people who first awoke him to the prospect of a wider freedom. This tragedy is a non-starter: because he hasn’t drawn it from life but from the folk-imagination of New Left Art Critics and evangelists for a popular culture. The tragedy which Clancy Sigal has written is that of Clancy Sigal: of the idealist who wants people to grow into fully conscious human beings and to create (or preserve) a community, but who is stuck in a world where they don’t and he can’t.

It is easy to show that Davie’s story isn’t true. Enough to point out that the whole artifice by which Sigal’s narrator discovers that his hero has given up his art to return to the back-breaking exhaustion of coal-filling: an artifice on which the ‘novel’ of Dinlock depends entirely, is entirely false. The narrator, on a one day visit to the pit, is given leave to wander about the pit by himself (a freedom which would, if granted, cause the official responsible to be hung drawn and quartered under the appropriate subsection of the coal mines act), in order that he might discover that Davie, whose pit-clothes he had borrowed that very morning, while Davie was presumably in bed, is no longer an unemployed artist but one again a collier. Miners know that you don’t get set on as quickly as that: it takes at least a day or two to get over the formalities: but even if Davie had been given princely priorities, he couldn’t possibly have appeared on the same shift as the narrator if he hadn’t already applied for his job when the narrator began his plunge into “sheer impossible blackness”. Just as Sigal bends the practice of colliery routine to his creative will, so he twists the miners’ way of thinking to fit his own. His miners gossip about Stalinists, for instance. Now Clancy Sigal knows that Stalinism is a funny sort of communism: but when a miner tells another miner that he’s a communist, he’ll be called a communist. When I was a CP member in the pit, I was often called Stalin, in friendly banter: but never a Stalinist.

Yet it isn’t really fair to pull the novel to bits, because this book is a key document: a New Left view of the working class. Clancy Sigal, because he’s an egalitarian, because he wants socialism, wants also desperately to be accepted by the miners. He wants to fit, to prove that he can break down the barriers. And, because he’s a scrupulous writer, it’s clear on his own account that he doesn’t begin to fit. (He’ll fit even less if any miners read his book, because they’ll take great exception to his marginal remarks about their fondness for adultery and fisticuffs.) We see his obsession with being ‘accepted’ in his descriptions of his role in the incessant weekend booze-ups, in his reports of his conversations, and above all in his account of the visit to the pit. The minute he gets his eyesight when he arrives at the coalface, he seizes a pick to try for himself. He banters like an old hand as he goes: “I thank the men finally for the use of their heading and the pick, and they say, Any time.” (p. 168)

He obviously resents the way in which the Union man who accompanies him keeps rubbing it in that he doesn’t belong: so he says that he gets along with the men better: they tell him of jags and potholes while Union man lets him trip and bang his head. But the men tell him because he doesn’t belong, while the Union man, who a foot a piece in two worlds [sic!], is, it might be suggested, not so concerned about who belongs where. But even he wouldn’t be taken in by Sigal’s parting shot: when asked if he feels tired he says “Christ no. I could go down again right now.” True, we get the impression that this is a bluff: such a bluff only shows how far away he is from being assimilated. Even assuming that he was believed, what did he show that he was capable of having a look at a pit. He doesn’t seem to realise that “going down” means nothing in terms of setting the bounds to the Dinlock community: it is work that counts.

This is a sensitive book about what mining looks like to an outsider; but it is also also a book about the impossibility of community in our society, about the different species which our murderous division of labour has evolved side by side with one another. Clancy Sigal’s desperate concern to be as masculine as the many men he goes to live among may seem queer to many readers: if it does, this is sad indeed, it is human enough to want to fit in. But it is a fact of social life that people don’t make contact, don’t fit in to each others’ communities, which fact is only underlined by Sigal’s valiant attempts to undermine it. Yet the brotherhood of man must begin in the Dinlocks of the world, and the art of the new world will begin there. Tomorrow.

How many years away is that?

Ken Coates   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 November 2015