Thurcroft: weekend in Dinlock

‘Mining is an abomination – and the pit village is an accessory to that abomination…a fiercely warring world unto itself…’

It’s 1959, and Clancy Sigal, Hollywood talent agent, escaping the shadow of America’s McCarthy witch-hunts, is in London where he befriends Davie, a struggling painter. Davie is a miner from Thurcroft in South Yorkshire. Sigal returns with Davie to ‘the edge of the world’, to engage with a Yorkshire dialect that ‘is impossible to the newcomer; broad, thickly slurring, archaic.’ Sigal becomes immersed in what Davie calls ‘the core’ of the village: the face workers, and the NUM.The six foot tall American lives and drinks among them, going underground to witness the beauty and brutality of their labour. 

Sigal was born in a tough district of Chicago in 1926, to two trade union organisers, and he remained a political activist into his 91styear. During his time in London he began a relationship with Doris Lessing. On his return to the U.S he became a prodigious writer, penning novels, newspaper articles, and screen plays including the Oscar nominated 2002 film ‘Frida’.

‘weekend in Dinlock’ is a poetic, breathless, fictionalised account of Sigal’s time in Thurcroft. The tension at the heart of the book is Davie’s desire to escape the pit that is destroying his health and would see him ‘relegated to that sub world of Dinlock which, in the eyes of the coal face men, includes dead-beats, surface workers, and clerks’. 

Painting was to be Davie’s escape, but  if ‘you live in Dinlock you must make Dinlock your life, and you cannot live in Dinlock and be accepted by the core if you have a real means of escape.’ Sigal lays bare ‘the thick electrical web of village intrigue’, with its limitations, pressures and prejudices, as well as revealing its warmth, friendship and humanity. He was subject to the same ‘elaborate parry and thrust of jibes that pass for communication in Dinlock’ as everybody else. Sigal called it ‘needling’ When I was growing up in South Yorkshire it was called ‘Codding’ – slang we were told, until we found it in the language of the Shakespeare we were studying at school: Codding, jibing, needling, call it what you want, it was a constant test to see if you could take it. Codding was mainly verbal, but could also be physical: forcing Sigal’s size ten feet into size nine pit boots; boots so tight they crippled his feet as he scrambled the mile underground to the coal face: testing, always testing what kind of man you are. A man’s world where, ‘A man doesn’t let his wife go out to work if he still has legs to stand on,’ and ‘sooner see his wife sleeping with another man than be caught doing the dishes…’

‘“But I’m a painter, man!” says Davie, almost in a roar.’ ‘Davie’, was based on a miner living and working in Thurcroft, Len Doherty. Len Doherty escaped the brawling, explosions, rock falls and pneumoconiosis to become, not a painter, but an award winning journalist and author of three acclaimed novels. In 1969 he was named Provincial Journalist of the Year. In 1970 while returning from assignment, he fell victim to a Palestinian terror group, the PDFLP, atMunich airport. He never fully recovered. Len Doherty, miner, writer, campaigner, in the best tradition of working class rebels, didn’t know his place, wouldn’t accept that place. Sigal said later, ‘Weekend in Dinlock is my first book.  It was written at white heat, over two weekends. I owe my writing life to a Yorkshire miner named Len Doherty who opened his heart, and his village to me.’  

Dinlock is a monumental evocation of the values, sights, sounds and smells of a disappeared world. His 40 page account of the coal face, where he witnessed ‘a unique self respect, an unfleshy dignity…both elemental and deep driven’, where the ‘fraternity of the naked worker need not be fierce’, stays long in the memory.

Many on the left never forgave Sigal for weekend in Dinlock, preferring their own romantic account of what Sigal refers to as the ‘shock troops of social progress’. Sigal wrote as an outsider, from a tough Stateside working class background, and while admiring the robust organic nature of the village, was no romantic. Coal mining was romantic only ‘as long as you are not working down the pit.’

weekend in Dinlock (1962) Clancy Sigal. Penguin 199pp

The Secret Defector (1992) Clancy Sigal. Harper Collins 227pp

Going Away (1998) Clancy Sigal. Carroll and Graf 514pp

The Good Lion (1958) Len Doherty. 352pp