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Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain

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Before gas lighting was available, people either accepted the dark or depended upon candlelight and lanterns. He is noted for a forthright and abrasive interviewing style, particularly when interrogating politicians. Mines were horrible places and miners were, except during a brief period between the successful strikes of the early 1970s and the failed one of 1984–5, poorly paid. Jeremy Paxman is quite an old man now and apparently has health problems but, in my opinion, it is still better to have the book read by him than anyone else. She makes an interesting observation when she points to the fact that “the overlap between adventure and children’s literature is important because of adventure literature’s reliance on the epistemology of the constrained narrator; child narrators can easily inhabit such a role, as with Jim Hawkins, but even adult narrators of adventure literature are touched by the genre’s association with naivete” (123).

often drowns out the voice of exhaustion” — the sense that industrial Britain was “living on borrowed time” (9). Of course, the Tories wanted to break the NUM – it would be strange if a Conservative government did not want to weaken organised labour and amazing if Conservatives at the time had forgiven the miners for bringing down Edward Heath with their strike in 1974. The son of a naval officer, Paxman is particularly good on the role that coal-fuelled ships played in establishing the hegemony of the Royal Navy, and thus also of the British Empire, in the late 19th century.And although safety measures had improved over time, the death rate was still high, with roughly 1,000 fatalities per year in the industry, the great majority of them deep underground. Its history is one of humans and humanity, of a primeval struggle that encompasses enterprise, politics, religion, ingenuity, excitement and toil. Some parts of the book were rather too political for my taste, but overall it was an interesting read.

And all of it thanks to the legions of men who travelled into the earth to hew the ‘black gold’ by hand.A fascinating chronicle of a vanished industry and a commodity which was once essential to every aspect of life in Britain. This half covers the emergence of trade unions, the industrial strife throughout the 20th century and the decline of British coal mining. From its beginnings to its end, the industry that made our country what it is, for good and ill, was a brutal business. The long, slow decline in the British coal industry covered the union/owners/government interactions in great detail, but how the out-of-work miners coped was explored only superficially.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) remained influential in mining areas after the pits had closed and it has sometimes made itself into a curator of memory. Told through the stories of real people, Paxman's history travels to Wales and the North of England, where communities were built on mining; to the industrial revolution; to the families who profited on coal and remain the richest in the country; to the beginnings of time and coal's geological formation; to the great tragedies such as Aberfan; to the picket lines of the miners' strike; to the formation and fruition of the Labour party. Whilst this was an interesting read, which aimed to provide a balanced view of the history of coal in Britain, I was left thinking that there were too few voices of the miners in the narrative.Written in the captivating style of his bestselling book The English, Paxman ranges widely across Britain to explore stories of engineers and inventors, entrepreneurs and industrialists – but whilst coal inevitably helped the rich become richer, the story told by Black Gold is first and foremost a history of the working miners – the men, women and often children who toiled in appalling conditions down in the mines; the villages that were thrown up around the pit-head. He did give a good impression of how unpleasant working in the mines was, even at such a distance from the reality, as well as the importance of coal until the late 20th century. An interesting book, somewhat spoiled in the audiobook format by Mr Paxman’s somewhat mumbled narration.

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