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

RRP: £99
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Boris Johnson’s sardonic reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “big early start” towards renewable energy has come at the perfect time for Jeremy Paxman’s Black Gold, a history of how Britain industrialised, modernised and thrived. Britain, he points out, would never have become the world’s first industrial superpower were it not for coal.

Sure, “steam made it possible to mechanise almost anything, from spinning and weaving, through the manufacture of wire, ships and needles, to the threshing of corn, the tanning of leather and the folding of envelopes.Those that dug coal out of deep mines gave their health and often their lives to make a few people incredibly rich, and to propel the UK to make an Empire that was magnificent if you where a beneficiary of Imperialism, but vile for everyone else. Such combinations of omitting important facts with a lack of rhetorical strategies that might cover for them weaken an intriguing and often convincing argument. Laced with Paxman's trademark acerbic wit and corruscating thumbnail sketches of the great and good.

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.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. The book is remarkably sympathetic to the miners and their families, so many of whom suffered terribly during the industry’s emergence. 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. Paxman attempts to be balanced and fair (except when it comes to lawyers whom he refers to as the parasite's parasite, which on the whole is unfair except in the context of the example he gives), but he shows no real insights into the characters of the people involved and who made decisions which saved or decimated the industry. 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.

Disjointed structure and surprisingly poor editing unfortunately damage what’s otherwise a very interesting and engaging popular history of coal mining and it’s impact on industry and empire in Britain. This suited the Department of Health and Social Security, since men defined as suffering from long-term illnesses were removed from the unemployment statistics. From its beginnings to its end, the industry that made our country what it is, for good and ill, was a brutal business. Failing to know the role of diamond mining in South Asia is perhaps a very minor point, but failure to understand the British Empire’s relation to Africa is more serious.The NUM often seemed – like the French army after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – to be building its identity around the celebration of what had, in fact, been a crushing defeat. Paxman's main argument in the political sections of the book is that coal mining was unproductive and unprofitable in the 20th century long before Thatcher came to power (the peak of coal production was in 1913 then never recovered from WWI) so it is hard to see how it could have survived to the present day anyway. Both describe, Paxman in far more detail than Miller, the lives of miners and the horrible mining disasters that happened all too frequently. The seismic influence of coal forces Paxman to spread his ink across politics, economics, art, industry and culture: the grubby rock gets everywhere. Almost all traces of coal-mining have vanished from Britain, but with this brilliant history, Black Gold demonstrates just how much we owe to the black stuff.



  • Fruugo ID: 258392218-563234582
  • EAN: 764486781913
  • Sold by: Fruugo

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