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Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain

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Beynon and Hudson, however, are unsentimental about the lives of miners and sceptical of the notion that the nationalisation of the mines in 1947 produced a golden age for those who worked in them.

If you already know British history then some of the information won’t be new to you, but it gains new context here, demonstrating how coal, this dirty rock which caused so much human misery and polluted the environment, was a vitally important factor in the development of the country. 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. Should anyone be tempted to live a simpler form of life, the miserable light offered after dark suggests some very long and boring winters before gas lighting and the advances enabled by coal were significant, as well as the prosperity enabled by such an impressive navy maintaining sea routes and trade. It was a “place where you slept and ate, visited the doctor, fell in love, had your children and entertained yourself” … One day soon, Paxman says, we may forget it was ever there. From its beginnings to its end, the industry that made our country what it is, for good and ill, was a brutal business.Still, the whole history of what it meant to be a miner, or to be in a mining community, comes across well here. Although the author does not make the point, the early coal miners were close to slaves, working under truly dreadful and dangerous conditions. There is a romance, somehow, about mining and miners, but the reality is laid out here and I am very glad I read this. The major sign of the book’s ambition is her claim that “novels that might not seem to be about extraction, such as The Mill on the Floss and News from Nowhere, emerge as extractive literature when placed in the context of environmental history and considered from the standpoint of genre” (22).

As a 70 year old Nottinghamshire boy I never appreciated all the political issues of the coal industry that this book revealed. Railways and steamships eroded distances; year-round warmth and light made previously unusable time productive for both work and leisure purposes. Equally important, Britain’s main interest in Africa lay much farther north because it needed to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal, the lifeline to its richest colony, India.In the end, coal was replaced by gas and oil, both with much better means of transportation and energy density. Black Gold tells the incredible story of how this filthy rock came to kick start the Industrial Revolution and create almost every aspect of the modern world. 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. Coal and the mining of it may be old-fashioned and something we prefer not to think about, but it mustn't be forgotten. In this brilliant social history, Jeremy Paxman tells the story of coal mining in England, Scotland and Wales from Roman times, through the birth of steam power to war, nationalisation, pea-souper smogs, industrial strife and the picket lines of the Miner’s Strike.

I thought the death of coal mining in the UK was a political decision, which it certainly was, steered by Thatcher and aided by Scargill, but I had never realised that the end was simply bringing forward the inevitable. Anyone looking at strikes in Birmingham factories will come across men who had started their working lives underground in South Wales and migrated to escape unemployment between the wars.

The ends of some words were lost, the author/narrator added a few words on occasion, and there was at least one expletive uttered that did not appear in the original text. The two greatest industrial strikes of the 20th century - both detailed here - were both about coal. In the brilliantly intelligent and attentive style of his bestselling book The English, Paxman here offers a fascinating exploration of British identity, social class and history.

He is also quizmaster on University Challenge, has written and presented television series such as Empire, The Victorians, Great Britain's Great War, and is the author of numerous articles for many publications . My world view is 180 degrees away from that I held in my 20s and I now deplore conservative ideology in general, and Thatcherism in particular which has led, pretty directly to the decline in public sector services and general social infrastructure currently afflicting the UK, exacerbated by BREXIT of course.A Hovis television advertisement of 2008, celebrating the last hundred years of British history, featured miners, along with V-E Day parties and a Churchill speech, though, revealingly, it depicted a scene of a picket line in 1984 rather than of an actual working mine. Paxman's book could hardly be more colourful, and I enjoyed each page enormously' DOMINIC SANDBROOK, SUNDAY TIMES 'Vividly told . The sheer scale of its extraction at ‘peak coal’ (the first couple of decades of the twentieth century) almost beggars belief, as does the number of people involved in mining and related industries. Too often, the reverse was true: it prevented people working at their own rate and made human beings slaves to a relentless machine” (91).

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