Monday, 22 August 2011

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey

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About the Book

Wentworth is today a crumbling and forgotten palace in Yorkshire. Yet just a hundred years ago it was the ancestral pile of the Fitzwilliams -an aristocratic clan whose home and life were fueled by coal mining.

Black Diamonds tells of the Fitzwilliams spectacular decline of inheritance fights, rumours of a changling and of lunacy, philandering earls, illicit love, war heroism, a tragic connection to the Kennedys, violent death, mining poverty and squalor, and a class war that literally ripped apart the local landscape.

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About the Author

Catherine Bailey read History at Oxford University. She is a successful award-winning television producer and director, making a range of critically acclaimed documentary films inspired by her interest in twentieth century history. Black Diamonds  is her first book. She lives in West London.

Book Reviews

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  1. Hi,
    This is Gareth from the Red Deer Readers in Sheffield. We're currently reading Black Diamonds in preparation for our meeting on September 6th. It's an article of faith that we don't discuss our books ahead of the meeting so all I'll say for now is that I'm looking forward to discovering what both groups make of the book.

  2. Summary of Red Deer Readers discussion of ‘Black Diamonds’ by Catherine Bailey

    It was a particularly good turn-out on Tuesday with 14 of us in the upstairs room at the Red Deer pub. The book was a huge hit with the group and was described by many as ‘very readable’, ‘a fantastic read’, ‘totally engaging’. The narrative generally swept us along and the writing style succeeded in pulling us in and making us want to keep reading (as well as talking to friends about the book and recommending it).

    That is not to say that we all thought it was perfect – a couple of the group described a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the book and we did highlight some minor flaws - but the general consensus was that the positives far outweighed any negatives.

    The subject of the book struck a chord partly because Wentworth is so very close to Sheffield and well known to many of us – though none of us had any idea about the existence of the house let alone its former grandeur and its history. It transpired that a couple of our group had been to the house on training courses some years ago but, again, with no sense of the history of the place. The central theme of the hardships suffered by miners also had a particular poignancy for one of group whose grandfather was very seriously injured down a mine at the age of 15 and went on to suffer health-wise and financially for the rest of his life.

    We did all enjoy the fact that a key part of the story actually takes place in Canada. We had not known this when suggesting the book and it seemed to be a very appropriate element of the story given our pairing up with the Fireside Readers.

    The strength of the book for most of us was the use of ‘authentic’ voices to bring to live some of the details of life as a miner or living/working in the Fitzwilliam house. We found these passages vividly reinforced the images conveyed by the detailed descriptions by the author. (The very detailed descriptions sometimes annoyed people – the insistence on regularly describing the weather conditions was a bugbear for one of our group!). On the whole, we did admire the ‘meticulous’ research that had gone into providing as full a picture as possible when so much of the evidence simply did not exist. The view was also expressed, however, that too much of the book was based on speculation and relied a great deal on the author’s best guess; sometimes it would have been fine to just say ‘we don’t know’.

    The story gave us so much to consider as we read it and as we discussed it together: the insights into our local history, social history, the wider national and international political scene. Coal, which gives us the title of the book, is effectively the central character as we are shown the vastly different impact this product had on the lives of the wealthy landowners and of the miners. The dangers, the poverty and the inequities suffered by the miners and their families made for emotional reading and were all too vividly described by the author. We felt the hardships of working in the mines were epitomized by, for example, the explanation of the work of the young boys and their pit ponies. And we were moved by the George Orwell passage about the suffering etched onto a woman’s face which managed to say so much about the harsh lives she and so many thousands others faced.

  3. Summary continued...
    In contrast, whilst being horrified by the vast inequalities between the Fitzwilliam family’s wealth and the miners who worked for them (acknowledging that these miners seemed to have a better deal than many), many of us found ourselves with some sympathy for a family that got torn apart both by squabbling and in-fighting as well as the changing political arena. We enjoyed, if slightly guiltily, reading about the wealth and the glamour of the Fitzwilliam’s and their household and feel it is a great shame that the house has not been maintained to be enjoyed by the public nowadays.

    Wealth and glamour leads us the Kennedy connection. Whilst some of the group enjoyed and were fascinated by this link to this iconic American family, there was a general feeling that this story was a bit of a side-issue. Given that Kick Kennedy’s main relationship was with someone outside the Fitzwilliam family we felt it took up too much of the book. However, it did help place the family story in a wider international and political setting.

    Members highlighted all sorts of details from the book that had stuck in their minds – many of them relating to the suffering of the miners (the first day down the pit for a young boy, the horrific injuries and deaths for miners and the pit ponies, the pittance families had to live on, etc). In addition, there are so many interesting snippets that paint such a vivid picture of the social mores of the time, e.g. the way illegitimacy was dealt with, the lack of proper treatment of epilepsy or being deaf/dumb, the religious and political impact on daily life. We noted also the sense of déjà vu when reading about political upheaval, financial crises, miners’ strikes, etc.

    We felt that all of this detail provided a fantastic backdrop for the very human story of one family and all those connected with them.

    So, using our very sophisticated voting technology, as we do at the end of every discussion, 12 of the thumbs around the table were well and truly in the upright position – with two more hovering at halfway!

  4. Questions arising from our discussion on the 21st (there will probably be more as the transatlantic discussion continues):

    What did the Red Deer Readers find most significant about Black Diamonds?

    Development of societies and civilizations is slow. The rigid class structure of the Edwardian Period is really only 100 years away. How does the class system affect your lives today?

  5. 1) What did the Red Deer Readers find most significant about Black Diamonds?

    For me it's that there's this amazing history centred around a house, so close to where I've lived for over 20 years, and I knew nothing about it. Makes me wonder what other secrets are held in the South Yorkshire area.

    2) Development of societies and civilizations is slow. The rigid class structure of the Edwardian Period is really only 100 years away. How does the class system affect your lives today?

    In most respects it's irrelevant, though the fact that Britain has a monarchy is intolerable to me. I'm staunchly republican. I think that money and power are far more influential and that race, gender and sexuality are far more interesting.

  6. For me, what was 'most significant' (though that's an elusive phrase) was the view of a past that both is and isn't distant (it's utterly removed from life as we live it now, and yet it was near here and not that long ago...). william Gibson once wrote that 'the future's already here: it's just not very evenly distributed': I guess the same is true about the past still being with us, in pockets.

    As for the class system (and there's a big question!) it's only one of many sets of social relations that have influence (money and power, though not entirely unconnected, have the main influence, as Gareth says). But it's tricky: on the one hand people born into different backgrounds do still have very different life chances, but on the other, I'm sure the same's true in Canada (and Cambodia, for that matter). I think class has got a lot less pronounced over the last 20 years (and I'm sure it's not how you probably think it is over here: it's more of a Middle/Working Class distinction than upstairs downstairs!).

    According to a recent survey (I'm a researcher by day!), 71% of Brits consider themselves to be Middle Class (only 24% Working Class) with a charming 4% 'not sure'. [Noone said they were Upper Class - and 'numbers may not total to 100% due to rounding', as the conventional blurb goes...].

    Day to day, I think people are a bit aware of class differences, but it's nothing like it was back then (you never hear anyone say they think that class hierarchies are a good idea, for example): in that sense, I think it's changed pretty quickly (of course, there's still further to go and I agree with Gareth about the monarchy!).

  7. Thanks for the William Gibson quotation, Oliver - it's a fine one!

    We do debate the monarchy here as well and as William and Kate were here not that long ago, the discussion raged on. I was surprised at the number of monarchists who stepped forward.

  8. There are some books that just stick in your mind - love them, hate them or a bit of both, they provide food for thought and discussion. They create images which move you to tears, or fill you with anger. The reader is presented with another culture, another world, another set of values, to compare and contrast with your own.
    For most of us, we had a love/hate relationship with Black Diamonds. First, we were in a discussion of the nature of nonfiction. Due to the deliberate destruction of the Fitzwilliam family records, the author had a limited number of facts to weave into a story and although her research was exhaustive, there appeared to be a fair bit of speculation in between. Was this nonfiction or a non-fiction novel?
    There is no question; the story is a fine one. It begins with a mystery. It reveals the attitudes, culture and morals of the Edwardian aristocracy and those of the common man. There are fortunes beyond imagination and the largest private home in England contrasted with the poverty and squalor of the coal miners in the surrounding villages. The shadow of illegitimate birth casts over the lives of all. Few of either class are untouched by tragedy.
    In our usual pattern, Fireside Readers read one or two nonfiction books per year – all have been modern rather than historical nonfiction, so we don’t know if some members’ struggle with the book was due to our inexperience; the details were overwhelming. Others thought that the details were necessary in order to have a sense of what it was like to live at that time, to understand the culture. One suggested that the author needed a better editor - underneath there was a really fine story which became too weighed down by details and tangents.
    Like The Red Deer Readers we questioned the time devoted to the story of Kick and Peter, although he was the last of that line, we felt the focus drifted toward the Kennedys and away from the Fitzwilliam dynasty.
    The story of the miners and their struggle appealed to everyone. It was revealing about the nature of society at that time that in the midst of a double disaster in Denaby, the remaining miners and their families cheered the King and Queen. It was such a long time before the miners and other labourers began to think that they deserved better.
    We learned to hate the aristocracy. It was pointed out that the miners were far more kind and took care of one another, while the aristocracy appeared to be wallowing in gossip and nastiness. It was difficult to comprehend the utter obliviousness they had to the plight of others. Even though Billy was seen to be a much better mine owner because his mines were safe, and he did organize to keep men working, he did those things as a feudal obligation. He knew, as the situation deteriorated that he had to keep the miners calm and it was difficult to discern if his actions (food distribution, polo lessons) were motivated by his compassion for the miners or by his own best interests.
    Black Diamonds provided what every great book club selection does – fuel for a lively discussion, a basis for the formation of strong opinions and the opportunity to come to know a world and culture other than our own. When we began the Transatlantic Red Deer Project a member said that she wanted to be exposed to something she wouldn’t ordinarily read, a book that would open a door for her. Thank you Red Deer Readers for meeting that criteria so admirably.

  9. Like Gareth the most significant aspect of the book for me was reading about a house and family that was so wealthy on such an enormous scale and yet I have only been to the garden centre nearby! I was one of the group with a thumb at half mast and this was for similar reasons to the Canadian group. I thought it was a bit disingenuous of the author to write a book ostensibly about one subject but most of it was about subjects that were closely (or tentatively) related!

    I disagree a little with Gareth and think that the influence of class is as strong today as it has ever been as it still forms the foundation of the location of money and power. It is perhaps less noticeable on the surface (and emerges in more subtle ways like access to top universities, jobs and influence). The middle may also have grown - but this hasn’t changed the “relationships of power” (how quaint that phrase seems these days!). I think you only have to look at the background of the members of the current government cabinet to see that its grip is as strong as ever. We may no longer have servants and chauffeurs, and a smaller number of people live in abject poverty, but there are still substantial inequalities in the country that relate to class background.

    I do agree that it has less of an obvious influence in everyday living. My Gran for example thought our family was getting “above our station” (direct quote) when my oldest sister went to university. Maybe she was right as I think I would have made a very competent housekeeper or ladies maid based on a toxic blend of Miss O’Brien (Downton Abbey lady’s maid) and Mrs Danvers (Rebecca)!

    Unlike Gareth and Ollie I love the monarchy but mostly because they are so foolish and such good entertainment – not sure the hereditary peer system is a price worth paying though for the occasional chortle!

  10. I was sorry to have missed the meeting! I originally had a "hate hate" relationship with the book - feeling a little disconnected with the story since I had no prior knowledge of the story. I agree with some other members, the writer did not have a lot of factual evidence upon which to base the story, so she used theory etc. to weave the tale. I think I prefer my non-fiction to be non-fiction and my fiction to be fiction - melding the two formats seems a little muddy for me and can lead to misunderstandings on the part of the reader.

    All this being said, I believe the author did a good job of filling in details and provided a well rounded picture of not only this family, but England as a whole during this era.

    Thanks for the read!

  11. I think Claire's comment about 'relationships of power' is nicely phrased (though at least it's less feudal now than then!).

    I also agree about the need for more robust editing: though that may be partly the effect of it trying to skirt around too many stories with too little source material for each (meaning there wasn't the material to tidy it into shape, like topiary with a rather thin and straggly hedge...!).

    Very interesting to hear the Fireside readers' responses - thanks.