The author of possibly one of the best novels about British coalminers and their communities, Clancy Sigal, was a Chicago-born Jew who came to Britain during the McCarthy period having previously been an organiser for the United Automobile Workers.
The author of numerous novels and a prodigious journalist, Sigal travelled to South Yorkshire and made a number of visits to various pit villages particularly Thurcroft, about 10 miles north east of Sheffield. Here he befriended the miners and wrote about their lives and in 1960 his novel based on this experience, Weekend in Dinlock, appeared (published by Secker and Warburg).
He developed a close, if somewhat rough and ready, friendship with a miner called Len Doherty who became a source for ‘Davie’ the main character in the novel although Sigal insists both Davie and Dinlock were composites of people and places he had encountered while in South Yorkshire.
Doherty, himself an accomplished writer and one-time member of the Communist Party, went on to work for the Sheffield Star and is best known for the novel The Man Beneath (published in 1957 by Lawrence and Wishart). Davie, by no means an idealised ‘hero’ is often cantankerous, drunk and never backs down from a punch-up. Yet he is also a brilliant painter and is torn between moving to London to establish himself as an artist or to stay with his community in Dinlock (in the end the latter wins out). Although the novel occasionally lapses into cliché – tough Chicago Jew shows he’s as hard and boozy as any Yorkshire miner – Weekend in Dinlock nevertheless shows a world which had been rarely expounded in literature, at least since a short-lived boom of writing about mining life in the 1930s with the novels of B. L. Coombes, Fred Boden, the poetry of Idris Davies and others.
Weekend in Dinlock was much-discussed at the time of its publication, particularly in the New Left Review where it received mixed comments but was clearly seen by all as an important publishing event at the time. Kim Howells, in his obituary of Sigal in the Guardian, states that that the British left pooh-poohed the novel dismissing it as exaggerated. Howells, the clapped-out cultural ambassador of Blairite philistinism, doesn’t mention any names and in fact this, by and large, didn’t happen.
Even those who had reservations about the novel took it seriously. Weekend in Dinlock appeared at the same time as the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ or ‘social realist’ novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Allan Sillitoe) and Room at the Top (John Braine) were shifting critical and cultural attention from London and the south east to the industrial north. Unlike both these novels however, Weekend in Dinlock was never adapted for the big screen, although it may have had some influence on Ken Loach’s film 'Kes' and his TV drama 'The Price of Coal'.
Sigal went on to write a number of other novels, including Zone of the Interior (1976), The Secret Defector (1992) and a memoir of his mother A Woman of Uncertain Character (2006). Eventually, he returned to America and ended his life as a screenwriter in Hollywood, never abandoning his maverick, hard-hitting left-wing stance. It is highly likely, given the author’s death, that Weekend in Dinlock will be republished. If so, go out and buy it: this is a classic. I re-read it just last year and despite some rough edges it has stood the test of time and although the novel describes people and places now receding into history, this is a history that did much to shape our world.
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