Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain

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Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain

Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain

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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. Coal drove the Industrial Revolution and the primacy of the British Empire, but more than that, freed humans for the first time from the rhythm of nature.

At times, Paxman’s capacity to combine confident generalisation with vivid detail reminded me of A J P Taylor, though I suspect that this might be partly because some of his historical knowledge does, in fact, derive from Taylor’s work.A lucky few owned land, and by some fluke of the law therefore claimed possession of whatever lay beneath it. Both mention the development of steam engines, their bringing forth coal from the earth, and the society, economics, politics, and culture they produced. The book ends with a long section explaining the complex rise and fall of miners’s unions, and the relationships among mine owners, miners, and the British government. And while sympathetic to the development of the unions who improved the lot of their members he also sees the failings of the NUM especially regarding the strike of 1983/84.

The history spans the opening of the first coal mines and finishes with the decline of the industry. Up to a sixth of the population of some places took anti-depressants, while mental illness added to the physical ailments from which many former miners suffered. It also reinforces the usual way of business and profit being prioritised over welfare, safety and the environment. Or, in the blustery rhetoric of Lloyd George, appealing to striking miners during the First World War: “In peace and in war King Coal is the paramount Lord of industry. Paxman explains the role that coal-fuelled ships played in establishing the hegemony of the Royal Navy.Paxman's book could hardly be more colourful, and I enjoyed each page enormously' DOMINIC SANDBROOK, SUNDAY TIMES 'Vividly told . 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. This becomes a particular problem when they deal with what became, in many ways, the defining event for the NUM: the strike of 1984–5.

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. 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. Britain, he points out, would never have become the world’s first industrial superpower were it not for coal. In Mike Leigh’s film High Hopes, the disappearance of coal is used as a metaphor for the rise of the rootless, yuppie society of the 1980s.Its history is one of humans and humanity, of a primeval struggle that encompasses enterprise, politics, religion, ingenuity, excitement and toil. Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson have produced a very different kind of work on a subject that they have lived with for much of their lives. It symbolised a hope for a brighter, cleaner future, making after-dark streets available to respectable people and allowing everyone to see where they were going. The coal industry loomed large in my youth, from three day weeks in the 70s to the miners strike of the 80s. Paxman also has a Taylor-esque propensity to skate over awkward complexities that might slow the pace of the narrative.

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