Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black Diamonds: A Book Review

Once England was an economic powerhouse, fueled by coal. Within living memory, Margaret Thatcher shut down the nationalized coal industry as a financial drain. Coal was no longer king, nor had it been for many years. Catherine Bailey's BLACK DIAMONDS takes us back to the day when British coal made the country a manufacturing power, when the sun was not setting on the Empire.

The book focuses on the very intriguing Fitzwilliam family, made rich by the coal that existed under the land they received for supporting the dismantling the Catholic Church in England. Fans of Downton Abbey are aware of the great changes in fortune that ensued after the end of the First World War. BLACK DIAMONDS is an accounting of the decline in the Fitzwilliam family's fortunes, a story that is centered on the family's estate and the mining towns that were part of it.

Ms. Bailey describes the lifestyles of the people who made the place run, from the social activities of a peer of the realm to the ordinary existence of the miners. She brings the reader from the Edwardian era when the money was rolling in, through the Great Depression when Earl Fitzwilliam made an admirable effort to help his employees when the coal industry went into a decline. The book provides insight into the change that British society underwent after the war, with the rise of socialism that doomed the coal-funded aristocrats. The labor unrest that began at the close of the Nineteenth Century provides a backdrop to the entire book, and helps to explain the actions that followed through the years. Nationalization of the coal industry comes as no surprise.

Readers may find the story-telling a bit choppy, with long anecdotes interrupting the flow of the narrative. The inserts are of interest, however, because the Fitzwilliam clan brushed shoulders with British royalty and America's version of royalty, the Kennedys of Boston. Throughout the book, the reader will watch the earls decline in quality, and the great house that was built on coal is presented as a suitable analogy to the end of an aristocratic line. In general, the book is well worth reading for its portrayal of a radically shifting political landscape that saw the end of a traditional way of life, but failed to substitute a new industry for the dying trade of coal mining.

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