Posted by: billpurdue | January 21, 2009

39; A coal miner’s life.

There’s still much interest in North Notts about the history of coal mining and in particular the working lives of miners. Being a miner’s son myself, my attention was drawn to Tommy Turnbull: a miner’s life by Joseph Robinson [ Tempus Publishing £14.99 9780752442136]. This is not a Nottinghamshire mining biography – Tommy Turnbull worked in the same pit – Harton Colliery in Durham – for the whole of his working life.  He began at age 14 as a coal sorter progressing to a hewer at the coal face towards the end of his career before he took on lighter duties due to failing health just before retirement. But this is not just about the work Tommy did, but the sheer drudgery of life in the Durham coalfield, both at home and at work. There was the constant struggle against extremely harsh working conditions down the pit, when the coalowners looked on miners as the lowest of the low and health and safety had not been invented. Whenever they wanted to reduce wages, they locked the colliery gates and when they thought the time was right to restart production, refused employment to those they considered to be troublemakers.

We also read about Tommy’s early childhood and , later on, when he had managed to save the princely sum of £7 to by a bike, how membership of a local cycling club transformed what little leisure time he had and eventually led to romance and marriage. If anyone is in any doubt how hard the life of a miner was in the first half of the 20th Century, they should be required to read this book.

Biographies of ordinary working people can vary enormously in the quality of writing and readability. They can also suffer from an eagerness by the writer to describe some working practices in too much detail. There’s none of that in this book – it’s a page turner and in many parts it almost reads like a novel. I was hooked from the start. In the epilogue, we read that the author is Tommy Turnbull’s nephew, who must have spent many hours listening to his uncle and making notes for the book . There’s quite a lot of “local lingo”, but a glossary at the back of the book takes care of that. You can find some interesting historical details about Harton colliery here

On a lighter note…. here’s something to help you amaze your friends at parties…or perhaps just something to browse through in an idle moment. ‘Quote Unquote‘ is a BBC Radio 4 panel game, hosted by Nigel Rees, which is wheeled out on the airwaves from time to time. For some reason it often seems to be the butt of jokes, but I enjoy listening. It’s a darn site better than some panel games on Radio 4 which seem totally pointless and very contrived. Anyway, Nigel Rees has been able to put together a number of books of sayings and quotations as a spin off from the programme. I’ve just bought All Gong and No Dinner [ Collins £12.99 9780007249350] which is a collection of domestic sayings which attempts to explain the origins of at least some of them. So if you want to know how phrases like “as dim as a Toc H lamp” or “to powder one’s nose” originated, this is the book for you. On the other hand there are some phrases sent in by listeners which are peculiar to their own family and seem to defy explanation (such as this toast: “here’s to the Pope and his paraffin lamp” – any ideas? If so let Nigel Rees know).

Scottish crime

I’ve just listened on the internet to a reading of an extract from the latest crime thriller by Stuart MacbrideFlesh House [Harper £6.99 9780007244553]. The style reminded me of ” Taggart”: it’s read in a Scottish accent, which is entirely appropriate as it’s set in Aberdeen, and there’s a touch of very black humour. It’s getting quite a bit of promotion at the moment – if you miss Rebus, try this.

Sorry, no time for  mail order remainder booksellers in this blog – I’ll deal with them next time.

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