The Valley is an intimate, detailed, humorous, and occasionally dark account of a community seen through the struggles of Richard Benson’s family; in particular those of his grandmother Winnie, and his grandfather Harry. Harry was known charismatically as The Juggler, so called after Harry’s own grandmother who was the first to carry the epithet as Juggler Jane.
Benson’s eye for detail, meticulous research and engaging dialogue transport the reader into another era. He occupies the minds and domestic life of his family with such detail and writes with such urgency and tension, it is as if you are holding a camera in your hands rather than a book, and that this is a novel rather than a social history.
Richard Benson spent the early years of his life in the mining village of Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire, before leaving with his mother and father for a farm in East Yorkshire. His first book, ‘The Farm’ was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. The Valley won the Portico and James Tait Black prizes, and was serialised as a Radio 4 book of the week. He celebrates the rich cultural lives of his forebears: home crafts, the inevitable rag rugs; books from the library, mainly historical romances; the spirit world and séances; dancing, sport, allotments,and the extensive musical career of The Juggler.
There is plenty of humour, often featuring motorbikes, the courting rituals of his mother and father, and ways of living that are constantly passing into history. Changing social expectations are also a rich source of humour. The Juggler’s sister Clara, having lived in a well off part of Manchester returns to the family home in Goldthorpe to find her grandmother, Juggler Jane, in the kitchen, “’God almighty, what’s she cooking?’ Clara says. ‘I’m not eating hedgehog, Jane. It’s 1932!’”On another occasion Juggler Jane chivvies her five year old grandson Tommy to pull harder when they are both tugging a trunk across the kitchen floor, ‘Pull, sirree, else I’ll be after you wi’ my rhubarb again.’ (64-65)Jane uses rhubarb to whack naughty children’s legs, and the legs of naughty men too.
Darker emotions are evoked with references to physical violence and domestic abuse. And I challenge anyone to read of the deaths of five men in the 1957 pit explosion at Barnburgh, and the suffering of those who were not immediately killed, and not be moved to tears (184).
Major political events, such as the General Strike of 1926, the Miner’s Strike of 1984, and post war social change are evident in the detail of family life. In the 1960’s and 1970’s parental conventions of restraint, stoicism and the absence of public displays of emotion were met with ‘…the disapproval of a younger generation whose lives sometimes seem to consist of nothing but giving greetings and kisses’ (356). This is but one of the delightful signifiers of changing times and an illustration of one of the major inferences of The Valley: that change is the only constant.
Richard Benson steers us through the successes and failures, aspirations and fears of a family when coal was supposedly king. It is a family whose own fortunes are tied irrevocably to the fortunes of mining and the villages that supported it. It tells the story of lives fought for and lived with passion, and of lives destroyed, and lives cut tragically short. The Valley is written with sentiment, but is neither sentimental, nor mawkish. Benson takes advantage of the 544 pages for nuance and the avoidance of cliché. It is a book about bravery without heroes. It is, ultimately, uplifting.
Richard Benson (2014) The Valley: A hundred years in the life of a Yorkshire family. Bloomsbury