I don’t read as much as I should (unless scrolling through Twitter counts?) so it has been a real pleasure to spend the last week staying in a house with a well stocked bookcase and a wood burning stove. After days spent on family walks kicking through autumn leaves, settling down for an evening’s reading in front of the fire has been pure bliss.
I’ve managed to polish off three books in the space of a week (what? I’m an English graduate, reading fast is my only skill) and I want to try and write some kind of review of them. On the surface, they are all totally disconnected. But by the time I’d read all three I was sensing a thread of connection between them all, and it’s this connection that I want to tease out.
The first book I picked off the holiday cottage bookshelf was a local history book called ‘Above and Below the Limestone: the pits and people of Easington District’ by David Temple. It was an account of how the coal mining industry developed and declined over two centuries in County Durham, where we were staying. The limestone of the title is a key to understanding the development of mining in the area, as the early miners had to get
through the limestone in order to get to the coal underneath – and stop the mines filling with water as they dug through the water table. It was a costly, dangerous venture which needed massive investment – and ruthless exploitation of the workforce. The communities which sprang up around the mines became the birthplace of the trade union and labour movement. After a few decades of gradual improvement in working conditions, the pendulum swung back the other way in the 1980s and 1990s. I knew, of course, that many mines had been closed in the years following the 1984 miners’ strike, but it still came as a shock to me at the end of the book to learn that there were no coal mines left in County Durham (In fact, there are no deep pit mining operations anywhere in England now, since Kellingley closed in 2015). This was particularly jarring as just a few pages earlier in the book, the author mentioned that many of these pits were believed to have at least another century’s worth of coal.
Following on from this trip into the past, I then picked up Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science fiction novella ‘Fahrenheit 451’. In a world where houses are fire proof and books are banned, the book’s central character, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to seek out and burn the last few remaining books. As he gradually comes to realise that the 4-wall surround TV system and recreational drugs which occupy his wife’s leisure time are not making either of them happy, he starts to wonder if, perhaps, what is missing from their lives could be found in the books he has spent his life burning. He starts to hoard books, his colleagues force him to destroy them and he eventually goes on the run.
I’ve never read any of Ray Bradbury before, and despite finding his prose style a little complicated to begin with, I soon found myself drawn into this story. The toxic effects of popular culture are brought home particularly well in one scene as Montag tries to recall the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, but can’t because the catchy jingle of a toothpaste advert keeps breaking into his train of thought. The banning of books and promotion of dumbed-down mass entertainment in this fictional future is part of a deliberate government strategy to keep people from challenging government decisions. And it was here that the connection with ‘Above and Below the Limestone’ first struck me: one of the photos of the old mine banners in David Temple’s book bore the slogan ‘Knowledge is Power’. The destruction of the mining industry in the UK has seen the loss of an educated, politically active working class which can hold governments to account. How convenient it would be for the rich and powerful if us little people never joined a trade union, never campaigned for workers’ rights, never read a book or asked awkward questions…
Finally this week I read Bruce Springsteen’s newly released autobiography “Born to Run” – although I had to read it in snatches when my husband wasn’t looking, as strictly speaking it was his book! I’ve been a Springsteen fan for most of my life and it was a joy to hear his story in his own words. Some of Springsteen’s best songs are about ordinary people, the working life and the rough hand that fate – or an uncaring government – can deal, and they are brilliant stories, creative, poetic and thought-provoking. With the fate of the British coal industry and Ray Bradbury’s frightening vision of the future fresh in my mind, I found “Born to Run” to be a bit of a ray of light. It reminded me that music and culture and a passion for social justice don’t have to be highbrow, or the preserve of the privileged few. Despite the best efforts of right wing governments and their media cronies to disempower us and dull our senses with ‘prolefeed’, people from perfectly ordinary backgrounds like Bruce Springsteen can demonstrate extraordinary talent and creativity, and inspire countless others around them. Maybe – hopefully – the world of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ will remain a work of fiction…
So there you have it. Three very random books in one week. Have you read anything worth sharing recently? Or found any unexpected connections between different books?