Pity by Andrew McMillan review – men and memories in a Yorkshire pit town

Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection physical, an explicit yet tender study of masculinity in the post-industrial north of England, was a thrilling paean to young queer male experience in the noughties. In 2015 it became the first poetry collection to win the Guardian first book award; its successor, playtime, took the inaugural Polari prize for LGBTQ+ literature and was followed in 2021 by pandemonium.

McMillan has now harnessed his considerable talent to writing a novel. Pity, appearing 40 years after the 1984-85 miners’ strike, which convulsed parts of the UK and divided working-class communities, draws on three generations of men from the same family whose lives have been dominated by the local pit – closed since the end of the strike – near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, McMillan’s home town.

This is not a novel specifically about the strike and its outcome, although its embittered legacy is skilfully threaded through its pages. Pity is a book about male identity and sexuality – whether anxiously concealed or proudly open – and about the ravages of history and politics, most significantly on the working-class towns and cities of South Yorkshire such as Barnsley and Sheffield. Comprising multiple viewpoints, the narrative is impressively ambitious for a book of fewer than 200 pages.

The perspectives of middle-aged brothers Alex and Brian, Alex’s twentysomething son Simon and his new boyfriend, Ryan, intersperse with sections narrated by anonymous bystanders and those headed “fieldnotes” – painfully earnest observations from a team of academics who are visiting Barnsley as part of a project on urban memory to mark the 50th anniversary of an unspecified catastrophe. There are also regular incantations of the pitch-dark past in a recurring, rhythmic account of a group of miners leaving for work one day at dawn. “The street rolling on endlessly, like a runaway train … One of the men once said he could hear the coal laughing.” These repetitive italicised elements read most like poetry; they hint at a long-ago tragedy revealed briefly, devastatingly, as the novel concludes.

The book begins with a swift scene setter that’s fully in tune with McMillan’s confident spareness and cool lack of sentimentality. It’s the 1970s, and teenage Alex is more interested in a purloined soft-porn magazine than in the unknown crisis that has sent his mum rushing from the house. His older brother Brian catches him in the act of tentative self-pleasure, unaware that Alex is more interested in the man in the photos than in the woman. It’s reminiscent of the “hands off cocks; on socks” scene in Barry Hines’s classic A Kestrel for a Knave – but McMillan isn’t about to give us a rerun of his fellow Barnsley writer’s best-known work.

The story quickly moves to the present day, with Ryan a security operative at the local shopping mall, and Simon working at a call centre by day. By night he’s a drag queen, preparing for a takedown of Margaret Thatcher in his next show – not in his usual slot in a club in nearby Sheffield but here in Barnsley, where his long-divorced dad drinks, and the code to the door is 1912: the year Barnsley last won the FA Cup. Ruefulness is much in play in this book, as well as an understandable pride in civic achievements. Pity is concerned with hiding and uncovering – from Ryan’s security camera surveillance to Simon’s OnlyFans account (which Ryan, who plans a career with the police, is nervous about). The pair have only recently met on Grindr, and McMillan’s subtext subtly conveys the hesitancy of Ryan’s queerness compared to Simon, and the prior damage wrought by section 28. Simon recalls being outed at school via text message, an echo of an even less progressive time when his father, young and fearful, scotched rumours by turning away from his true self.

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McMillan pays detailed attention to Simon’s construction of his drag persona, describing how Thatcher herself was a drag act of sorts: “she recognised gender as something malleable, had vocal lessons to lower her voice, watched her posture”. Unemployed Brian, who initially attends the memory project because it offers free sandwiches, struggles to articulate a past trauma, both municipal and personal: “his own street was a mouth with half its teeth missing”. But he also explains that people have little choice but “to get on with their lives”. McMillan, also a professor of creative writing, slyly inserts himself into this section as one of the academics “with an accent that seemed as though it had begun here but flowered elsewhere”. It underlines that social mobility is possible for some but not others.

Pity is a novel of huge compassion, especially for its older characters, former pit workers Alex and Brian, persistently trapped underground in spirit, if not in actuality. “Pits close: we still sink into them,” Brian writes, but the words themselves are a form of release. And underneath it all is history, viscous and tarry, its forces ticking away like a timebomb.

Pity by Andrew McMillan is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy atguardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

The Guardian