Former pitman Robert MacNeil Wilson saw first-hand how the miner's strike split communities. Now he's drawn on his experiences to bring the conflict to life in a novel

Nothing could stop it now. They’d tried everything. Round the corner, out of sight, he broke into a run. Stooping under the twisted, steel arches, he scurried along between the snaking rails of the narrow track. He hadn’t expected to survive this long…

So starts The Enemy Within, the new novel by Robert MacNeil Wilson. It is set in the very different world of the 1980s miners’ strike, an amazing, historic struggle that transformed Britain. BBC One’s recent Last Miners documentary, about the closure of Kellingley colliery, in North Yorkshire, the last deep coal mine in the UK, coincided with the book’s publication, with its final part being shown on the day the book was published.

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“Kellingley Colliery’s tragic closure, a week before Christmas 2015, brought to an end the huge industry that powered the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s rise to prosperity and its victories in the two World Wars,” observes Robert, a former pitman from another of Britain’s last pits. “With its passing, I felt the need to write this story to provide a unique, lasting and definitive record of what it was like to live and work in the deep mines and pit villages of Britain; the conditions, the culture, the comradeship.”

In writing his novel, Robert made use of his own extensive experience of underground work and of dealing with massed picketing. In the early part of his mining career he spent time in a number of Yorkshire mines. More recently, he was back at this year’s Durham Miners' Gala to meet fellow pitmen and promote his book.

During the strike, as a young, underground manager in charge of several hundred miners at a colliery, he had positive and dramatic dealings with secondary picketing miners from Yorkshire. He drew heavily on this, in writing this story, with much of it taking place in a fictional Yorkshire pit village and featuring the experiences of a group of Yorkshire pickets and their families.

Whilst fictional, the book includes a uniquely vivid, complete and realistic portrayal of the events of the infamous Battle of Orgreave and its controversial aftermath. It ends in a cliff-hanging climax, in which a group of principal characters come together in a desperate bid to prevent an inrush, very similar to that which occurred with the Yorkshire’s tragic Lofthouse Disaster.

So who were "the enemy within"?

“Margaret Thatcher used this term to describe the leadership of the NUM," says Robert. "It soon became clear that others were applying it to all miners – not just strikers, but everyone in the industry. So, I suppose, it ended up including me. But there are others in my story and, in its final part, key characters come together to confront a particularly terrifying, inanimate enemy.”

Robert's novel tells the stories of a young, colliery manager and his men as they fight to save their mine, their industry and, ultimately, their very way of life. Half a mile underground, they’re faced with an impossible deadline before being forced to confront the deadly hazards of fire, flood and roof collapse. The miners’ strike casts them onto opposing sides of a conflict which severs the bonds of family, friendship, and love, turning their pit village into a battlefield, just as it did in real life. "I’ve made sure that the women’s stories are told, as their parts in their community’s struggle cause them to see themselves in a new light," says Robert. "As the story races to its climax, only time and events will determine who of them and which of their relationships will survive…”

He was inspired to write the novel after going into the kitchen one morning and finding his daughter listening to an item on the radio about the anniversary of the strike. "She asked about my experiences and I mentioned an incident in which one of my toughest miners got angry, then broke down and cried at an appalling injustice he was telling me about. She listened then said, 'You should write a book about your experiences'. That got me thinking," says Robert.

Characters include Jim Greaves, a serious, committed, young underground manager; Paul Wood, a militant fitter and union man, who works hard with Jim to keep their pit open – and ultimately save it from destruction when disaster threatens; there’s an engineer and dangerous, rogue called Mad Jack. "My favourite is Susan Wood, Paul’s loyal wife and a brilliant mother who carves out a new, dynamic role for herself; she’s bright, brave, beautiful and sexy," says Robert, who is already planning a sequel.

He has plenty of first-hand experience to draw on. After graduating in Mining Engineering at the University of Nottingham, aged only 24, he was in charge of a coalface, half a mile underground. During the miners’ strike, he lived in a pit village and, on several occasions, was in sole charge when his pit was besieged by massed pickets. "It was a terrible time, but it wasn't terrible down there in the pit," he says. "t was an awesome and exciting way of life."

  • The Enemy Within by Robert MacNeil Wilson (Matador, £8.99) from bookshops and from Amazon, in both book and Ebook forms.