In Review

Book of the week: Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman

Paxman’s history of coal is told with ‘characteristic panache’

In today’s ecologically conscious age, a popular history centred on coal “might seem a foolhardy undertaking”, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. But coal’s importance in Britain’s modern history “can hardly be exaggerated”, and Jeremy Paxman has produced a book that “could hardly be more colourful”.

Britain, he points out, would never have become the “world’s first industrial superpower” were it not for coal: this “black gold” powered factories, ships and railways; heated homes and offices; and created towns and villages.

And yet, as he rightly emphasises, coal was “dirty and dangerous” from the start – the cause not only of endemic pollution, but also of many appalling accidents. At Seaton Delaval in 1862, 204 men and boys perished underground when a pumping engine collapsed. An explosion at Senghenydd in 1913 killed 440. Today, such tragedies are largely forgotten – and coal has “almost vanished from our national imagination”. Paxman does a “fine job” of trying to restore it.

Approaching his chosen topic with “characteristic panache”, he shows how coal had an influence “on almost every aspect” of British history over the last few hundred years, said Richard Vinen in Literary Review. He describes the vast fortunes amassed by owners of land from which it was extracted – among them the third Marquess of Bute, who was already one of the world’s richest people when he inherited his title as a baby in 1848.

“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.” Such ships, he points out, were not only faster than their predecessors, but also better protected – even the coal itself, stored in bunkers on their flanks, sometimes stopped projectiles.

“In the 20th century, coal’s dark history came back to bite it,” said Emma Duncan in The Times. As a fuel for ships, it was supplanted by oil, which “produced four times as much energy, pound for pound”. Its decline was hastened, too, by strained industrial relations” – miners were “readier to strike” than other workers, and the “industry was appallingly run”.

Paxman ends his narrative with the 1984 miners’ strike–an event that had a scarring impact upon the nation, but which was also in a sense unnecessary, since decades of stalling productivity had already “doomed the coal industry”. Nonetheless, it provides a “dramatic finale” to a “vividly told” and enjoyable book that “throws new light on familiar features of our national landscape”.

William Collins 392pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Black Gold book cover
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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