On June 18th 1984, I was swigging beer in a scuzzy bedsit on the eighth floor of a tower block in downtown Kowloon. It was our ritual: after teaching English all day and most of the evening, my mate Kevin and I would crack open a couple of bottles and sit on our beds, chatting, watching the news on a black-and-white portable TV with a fuzzy reception. That night, they were showing footage of clashes between riot police and pickets outside a coking plant 9,500km away in South Yorkshire. The Battle of Orgreave, as it came to be known.
I’d been caught up in picket-line scuffles as a member of the National Union of Journalists and had witnessed mass brawls as a teenage football fan in the nineteen-seventies. But sitting half a world away – beer in hand, a ceiling fan stirring the humid air – I was shocked into silence by those violent scenes from Orgreave. That wasn’t Pinochet’s Chile. It was home. Those were our police. As newspaper reporters who’d taken a year out to go travelling, Kevin and I viewed the footage with a journalistic eye. It was a news story, a dramatic piece of reportage on Thatcher’s Britain being played out on a dodgy telly, ticker-taped with Chinese subtitles. Hazy as they were, though, those images also planted the seed of an idea in my mind for another kind of story. A fictional one. Not that I realised it at the time. In fact, that seed wouldn’t germinate for thirty years.
Strictly speaking, the story arose from a commission by Comma Press, a Manchester-based independent publisher, to contribute to an anthology of short fiction about protest. From a list of suggested historical events – the Peasants’ Revolt, the Diggers, the Aldermaston marches, the Brixton riots, Greenham Common, the anti-Iraq War demo, among others – I was immediately drawn to ‘the Battle of Orgreave’. Each writer was to be paired with an academic expert in his or her chosen topic, who would act as research consultant, providing a factual framework to support the fiction. In my case, that expert was Professor David Waddington, of Sheffield Hallam University, a leading authority on the policing of public disorder and the social impact of the 1984–85 miners’ strike and the programme of pit closures which followed.
While I was in Hong Kong, Professor Waddington was present at Orgreave as an academic observer. Three decades later, we were in his office at the university, sipping coffee and sharing the cake his wife had made, while he recounted his memories of that day and explained the context. Actually, we spent much of the morning discussing the fortunes of Leeds United (not good), the Labour Party (even worse), and the influence our working-class fathers had exerted over us. One of the reasons I left journalism was because I enjoyed chewing the fat with people who I really should have been interviewing. That morning, my task was complicated by the fact that I had more information about the Battle of Orgreave and the strike than I knew what to do with, but still no sense of my story’s imaginative landscape. There was no story. No plot, no characters, no structure or timeframe, no angle. No narrative voice.
Then, as I helped myself to more cake, I mentioned to Dave that I’d been living in Kowloon in the summer of eighty-four and had watched Orgreave on TV. I told him how a friend back in the UK – Gerry, the son of a retired miner from County Durham – had sent me and Kevin an envelope stuffed with Coal Not Dole stickers that we’d pasted all over the MTR, Hong Kong’s underground system. I told him, too, how the one time I’d met Gerry’s dad, he’d struggled to talk due to the breathlessness caused by pneumoconiosis after a lifetime working in the pit. The conversation strayed once more to our own fathers – mine, a sheetmetal worker; Dave’s, a miner and coking-plant worker; both union men; both called Pete – and how our socio-political sensibilities were still shaped by these men even though we were in our fifties.
It was this personal turn in the discussion which germinated the seed that had been planted thirty years before. As I headed back to Sheffield station, a cast of characters began to gather in my head. They brought the makings of a plot, along with some settings and scenes, and a structure: alternating timeframes (Hong Kong/South Yorkshire, 1984; South Yorkshire, 2014). I had my narrator, too — a fifty-something, London-based, journalism lecturer, originally from a coal-mining community, whose father suffered a life-changing injury at Orgreave. The story would open at the father’s funeral, in 2014, then cut to June 1984, with the narrator watching footage of the violence on TV in Hong Kong, as yet unaware that his dad was caught up in it. What emerged, as I developed the piece over the coming weeks, was the tale of a family fractured by the events of that day, by the strike itself, and by the closure of their local mine.
By now, the historical was so interwoven with the autobiographical – and both so warped and wefted by the stuff I’d invented – that the individual threads (research, experience, imagination) were almost inseparable from the fabric of the story itself. When I sat in the grounds of Rotherham Crematorium, roughing out the scene where my narrator attends his father’s funeral, I was drawing on memories of my dad’s cremation in Croydon eight years before. In describing the Battle of Orgreave, my story is ventriloquising Dave’s first-hand account, blended with the images I’d watched on TV and again, more recently, on YouTube. When my hero examines (and tries to atone for) his failings – as a son, a journalist, a socialist – I am facing up to my own.
As Milan Kundera says, “The novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel.” Of course, we add some building materials from the lives of others, too, and from the world around us as we perceive it, and from the things we look up as well as those we make up. Along with scraps of everything we’ve ever read or watched or heard, all that we’ve been taught or learnt for ourselves, everywhere we’ve been, everyone we’ve known, every experience we’ve had. And all that we can imagine. Such are the potential sources of our ideas, which we try to articulate as best we can in Q&As and website articles. Or which those of us who also teach creative writing at university are required to explain to funding bodies assessing the provenance of our ‘research outputs’
As a writer, though, I know that fiction is not merely an output, or the product of a developed idea. For me, it is a process; a process of exploration and synthesis whereby I only discover my story in, and through, the act of writing it. By which point it often bears little relation to the idea that supposedly initiated it. Which means, doesn’t it, that where ideas come from is much less interesting than where they are taken? Afterwards, I can try to unpick all the threads for anyone who asks. However, as soon as I do that the fabric disintegrates and the pattern is lost. And at least one of those threads might, quite literally, be so far-fetched that drinking beer and watching TV count as research.