On 2nd April Reading Wales book group met up to discuss The Small Mine by Menna Gallie. At the heart of the story is the death of a young miner, Joe Jenkins, working in a small, privately owned mine. One reader suggested that many events in the book bore resemblance to the Gleison mine accident.
The book is set in the 1960s, long after nationalisation, at a time when many such small mines were in operation. The mine-owner Ben asks Joe to work an extra shift on his own on a Sunday so that the men can get on with their work the following day. An ex-fireman in the mine, Link, whom Ben had made redundant shortly before decides to have his revenge on Ben by showing a tram full of coal down the mine, not knowing that Joe is working in the mine. Although the book primarily criticizes the lack of safety precautions in the mines, the way in which Joe’s death affects the whole community is presented as the real issue.
The people on whom it has the most impact are the three women in Joe’s life. His mother, whose life revolves around Joe, becomes stuck in the past through the meaningless repetition of formalities with the neighbours who come to show their respects. Sall, Joe’s lover, whose unfaithful husband left her, trades friendship and intimacy for sex with the local men and cannot publicly admit her relationship with Joe by going to the funeral. The book criticizes double standards towards men’s and women’s sexuality where her husband’s affair with another woman is accepted, while she must not make not any demands on the men or expect any ‘empty words’ from them. Cynthia, Joe’s new girlfriend, finds herself in a limbo state where their relationship has not been officially accepted by their community yet, while at the same time it being public knowledge. As a result, the community does not know what attitude to take towards Cynthia’s loss, who does not want to be treated as an object of pity. She hates and finds stifling the ‘prescribed form of grief’ her mother as well as others show and decides to move to Nottingham because the future in Cilhendre holds nothing for her.
Joe’s death, however, has a wider impact. As Raymond Stephen puts it: Menna Gallie’s novels are haunted by the desire for the good of the community. While the enquiry is being held into the causes of Joe’s death, Ben’s mine is temporarily closed and all the men who work there are without jobs. Therefore, Joe’s friend Stephen, who often acts as a mediator whenever a conflict arises, decides not to reveal what play Link’s revenge played in Joe’s death. He knows that doing so would only lead to prolonged unemployment of the men and that Link is tormented enough by his bad conscience and will have to live with the knowledge for the rest of his life. Over all these events hovers a concern that Joe’s father voices when he first learns about Joe’s decision to work in a privately owned mine over a nationalised one. Is such an act a betrayal of the community and its values?
The reading group enjoyed the book and found it an easy read. The humour of Menna Gallie’s books has been likened to the one of Gwyn Thomas and phrases such as ‘cough shook his body like a pneumatic drill’ do indeed remind us of Thomas’ Dark Philosophers. Despite dealing with a serious issue, The Small Mine is also a snapshot of the life in a mining valley in the sixties, and, as one reader pointed out: it paints a picture of not only the small mine, but also the small life, world and the closeness of its community.