The Stars Look Down by A J Cronin (1935)

Review by Helen N:

This book if expressed simplistically might be expressed in the words of the old Music Hall song – It’s the same the whole world over…

It’s the Poor what gets the blame but it is much more than this. It lays bare the poverty and danger of the lives of miners in the North-East where the mines run under the sea. It shows the difficulty of escaping such a life and the dishonesty and deceit of those who put money first. But though it could be a story of clichés, because the main characters are complex and feel very deeply, the reader follows the inevitable outcome to the end.

At first I found the unremitting poverty of the families of the miners on strike very hard to read about but gradually the strong plot and interesting characters began to interest me.

Cronin’s gift for description made the world, both the hardness of the miners’ lives and the opulence of the wealthy, come alive. The early tragedy of the disaster at the mine in which the hero’s father is killed, is described very graphically, almost unbearably. Cronin knew at first hand what he was writing about, as he had worked as a doctor in the Welsh coal fields.

This is a book with a social conscience and there are times when the sheer impossibility of delivering the ordinary working people from the selfishness and contrivances of the money makers, almost makes the book unbearable. When David, having risen to be Member of Parliament, loses his seat and in forced to return to working in the mines, everything seems hopeless, except that, unlike many of the other characters in the book, David has kept his integrity and self-respect.

His life is contrasted with two contemporaries, Joe Gowlan and Arthur Barras. Joe is a character similar to others in the work of Cronin. He has no feeling for others, no desire other than to make money as easily as he can, though he does work hard when it serves his purposes. There is a chilling passage in which he and other like-minded business men discuss how they are cutting corners and producing shoddy goods in order to profit from the War. Joe never gets his comeuppance; the book is too truthful for that and he climbs ever onwards, stepping on the faces of lesser men.

Arthur is pitiably afraid of his unpleasant and bullying father. When he could tell the truth about him at the inquiry into the mining disaster, he doesn’t, but the lingering guilt over this increases his determination not to go to war. He goes before an unfeeling tribunal, chaired by his father and ends up in prison. His experiences there are written about with deep feeling and you want very much for Arthur to succeed. But his lack of proper guidance and experience means that even when he is in charge of the mine, he ends up losing everything and becoming unpopular with the work force as well. In the end he retreats, beaten by life and his unhappy upbringing.

The women, as is often the case, are not drawn with such detail but David’s wife, Jenny, is an interesting character, charming but flawed by her desire for respectability and attention. Laura, the wife of Joe’s employer with whom he has an affair, is both cold and passionate and serves the purpose of giving Joe the social skills he needs to climb his way out of poverty. Their relationship is reminiscent of the much hailed new writing of the Nineteen-Fifties – Room at the Top etc.

It is not surprising to learn that this book was the inspiration for the film Billy Elliot.

Cronin’s writings (in The Citadel 1937) are credited with helping the establishment of the National Health Service. On the basis of this book the arguments for the nationalisation of the mines are also overwhelming.

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