The story of coal is the story of Britain, says Jeremy Paxman in Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain (William Collins £25). Coal gave us railways, an industrial revolution and entire towns and villages. So it’s surprising that, these days, we don’t often discuss it. “Much of what went on in the dark beneath our feet is already almost forgotten,” says Paxman. “Such is the story of coal.”
It’s a gripping story, says Kate Hubbard in The Oldie, told with plenty of “Paxmanian indignation and scorn”. His descriptions of the “brutish business of mining” are bleak. Until the 1840s girls as young as five did 12-hour shifts in the pitch black. Men dug on their hands and knees, often naked because of the heat. “Scabs studding their vertebrae were known as ‘buttons down the back’.” Accidents were frequent and often deadly – 85,000 miners died between 1873 and 1953.
Above ground, meanwhile, landowners only grew richer, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. In 1848 the 3rd Marquess of Bute inherited so much Welsh mining land that at six months old he was one of the richest people in the world. For his 20th birthday, 10,000 local children sang “God bless Lord Bute” while thousands of men toiled beneath them. But landowners are not the only villains in Paxman’s tale. Arthur Scargill, the leader of the miners’ strike, is a “weaselly faced communist” who only looked out for himself. When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, an ex-miner texted Scargill: “THATCHER DEAD.” He replied: “SCARGILL ALIVE!”
Still, mining communities were not just places of dirt and desperation. They were places “where you slept and ate, visited the doctor, fell in love, had your children and entertained yourself”. These towns were bursting with life – “allotment associations, pigeon and poultry clubs, brass bands, choirs, youth organisations, whippet racing and eagerly contested giant-vegetable competitions”. It is strange to think that in a few decades all of that was gone. One day we may forget it was ever there. But this book “does a fine job of bringing it alive, and deserves the widest possible readership”.
Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.
On paper, Richard Osman’s literary success makes no sense, says Nick Duerden in the I newspaper. When the 50-year-old published his debut crime novel, The Thursday Murder Club, in 2020, he was known for being a TV presenter, not a writer. What’s more, his subject matter – a team of 70-year-olds solving murders in a Kent retirement village – “hardly sounded like the stuff of runaway bestsellers”. But somehow that’s what happened. The book sold a million copies and Steven Spielberg has snapped up the film rights. Unsurprisingly, Osman’s follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice (Viking £18.99), is doing just as well. In its first week on sale it shifted 114,202 copies – making it the fifth most successful book for adults since records began.
No surprise, says Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. Osman’s novels sell because they’re unpretentious fun. These are cheery whodunnits, “warming cockles that had been badly in need of de-icing for months”. The dialogue is “sitcom-snappy” and the plot breathless –our old-age detectives find themselves embroiled in a £20m jewel heist. But as in the first book, the real joy lies with the characters. There’s ex-spy Elizabeth, “omnicompetent, acid-tongued”; ex-psychiatrist Ibrahim, “relentlessly logical”; ex-trades unionist Ron, “gung-ho, sports a Chairman Mao tattoo”; and ex-nurse Joyce, “prone to malapropisms but sharp as a tack”. They are all completely lovable. Book snobs think Osman is overblown, “but I’m betting that most of his million-plus readers have found friends for life in these characters”.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo, narrated by Lesley Manville.
📝 Evelyn Waugh had strict demands for letters. “A letter need not be a bald chronicle of events,” the author wrote to his wife, Laura, in 1945. “I know you lead a dull life… But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children.” Columnist Dolly Alderton agrees. Consider this “a gentle reminder to all my WhatsApp contacts”, she wrote on Instagram.