state of the nation richard vinen
The Miner’s Lament Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain
By Jeremy Paxman (William Collins 320pp £25)
The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain
By Huw Beynon & Ray Hudson
(Verso 416pp £20)
Coal used to be everywhere in Britain. Without it, there would have been no foundries, no trains and no gas lamps. Just after the First World War, there were over a million miners. They exercised a powerful influence on the labour movement even, and perhaps especially, after they had left the mines. 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. One of them, ‘Teg’ Bowen, eventually became lord mayor of the city. ‘Moss’ Evans, the son of another, became leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Jeremy Paxman approaches this topic with characteristic panache. His book covers almost every aspect of British history in the last couple of hundred years. It is punctuated by accounts of those moments – usually a result of pit accidents or strikes – when miners attracted national attention. Paxman is, however, as interested in the use of coal as in its production. He describes the fortunes amassed by those people, often aristocrats, who owned land from which coal was extracted: the third Marquess of Bute (1847–1900), for instance, was said to be the richest man in the world. He also shows how indifferent the rich and powerful could be to those who dug coal. During one strike, George V was more disturbed by the possibility that pit ponies might be left untended than he was by the plight of the miners.
The son of a naval officer, Paxman is particularly good on the role that coalfuelled ships played in establishing the hegemony of the Royal Navy, and thus also of the British Empire, in the late 19th century. Coal meant that ships became faster and better protected than they had been previously (the coal itself sometimes stopped projectiles), though one drawback was that they needed to put in at coaling stations, which meant that their movements were more predictable to enemy ships and also that their crews spent more time ashore. The ships of Nelson’s navy, a century earlier, were almost continuously at sea.
Elegantly written and often very funny, this book is studded with acidic character sketches. The footnotes alone are worth reading and tell us, for example, that London’s remaining 1,300 gas lamps are tended by four lighters who travel on motorbikes. 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. Paxman also has a Taylor-esque propensity to skate over awkward complexities that might slow the pace of the narrative.
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 is about the miners of Durham and South Wales. It describes how the closure of almost all pits in the 1980s and 1990s meant the end of the social institutions that had been built around the mines. In former mining areas, the young sometimes had little to do: in one Welsh village, the authors say, they could be found smoking dope and drinking cider while sitting on the ‘dole wall’ behind the bus station. Up to a sixth of the population of some places took antidepressants, while mental illness added to the physical ailments from which many former miners suffered. This suited the Department of Health and Social Security, since men defined as suffering from long-term illnesses were removed from the unemployment statistics.
Former miners often remember a world of discipline, danger and mutual loyalty. The terms in which they talk put one in mind of military veterans, though – intriguingly, in view of the bitter conflicts on picket lines – one ex-miner compared his working life to that of a policeman. 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. 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. Few went underground if they had much choice in the matter and the most shocking revelation in this book is that the local authorities in Durham deliberately discouraged new industries in the area because they knew that young men would not become miners if they had any reasonable alternative.
The authors intend, I think, to trouble their readers, but some of the ways in which their book troubled me were to do with their approach. Their intimacy with those about whom they write gives their book an emotional power but it also raises questions. 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. Beynon and Hudson often see their topic through the eyes of those associated with the NUM.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. Beynon and Hudson adopt the language of the NUM. They describe working miners as ‘scabs’. They admire the ‘discipline’ of a miner who worked alongside a man who had broken the strike without addressing a single word to him. What does such ostracism say about the ‘community’ that former miners now regard as having been so important?
Perhaps because this book has been so long in the making, the authors do not make much use of the official documents that have been released in the last few years. This means, in particular, that
Literary Review | october 2021 6