A Rose in Wigan–Part 2

Between mines and mills and factories, there are more steam engines per person in Wigan than in London, Pittsburgh, Essen or anywhere else. It happens to fit nicely that the palm oil we import from Africa lubricates those engines. The world runs on coal, and Wigan leads it. As long as we have coal we will continue to do so.’

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith set in Wigan in the 1870’s. It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

The author had certainly done his research and weaves details about working class life in Wigan 19th-century into his story. He visited the town and met with local historian and some former pit brow women. Here’s a cutting from the local paper

Pit Brow lasses meeting Martin Cruz Smith

In an interview in 1996 he reveals that he was a fan of George Orwell and had read The Road to Wigan Pier. and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that his hero is called Blair, the real name of Orwell was Eric Blair.

Wigan, a working class town built on coal and cotton, wasn’t a pretty place during Victorian times and I’m sure his description of Wallgate is accurate

The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this.

I found it fascinating to read the names of places I knew in the book. His hero stayed in the Minorca Hotel on the corner of Wallgate and King Street. It’s still there, but has gone through several name changes over the years – it’s now called the Berkeley and at one time was known as Blair’s. Here’s how it looked in about 1900

Minorca Hotel.

The Minorca Hotel on Wallgate (from Wigan World website)

Various pubs are mentioned, there were a large number in Wigan, including the one nearest to where I live, the Balcares (now renamed the Crawford Arms) on Scholes – the name of both a thoroughfare and a district of the town just west of the town centre. In fact much of the novel is set in Scholes, which at the time was populated by miners and other workers packed in back to backs and houses built off dark, narrow courtyards.

Scholes, Wigan, 1890’s (from Wigan World website)

The slums were cleared in the 1960’s and I lived there for a few years in a Council flat. And now I’m only a few minutes walk away from the district. So it was rather odd to be reading about the same streets and Scholes bridge, which I still cross regularly, in a novel by an International renowned author.

His descriptions of working in the mines are excellent, and really bring the experience of going down a mine to life

The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a cross-hatched well of stone and timber and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly for ever.

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892 (from Wigan World website)

Blair crawled out into a narrow tunnel, the length of which was populated by shadowy figures wearing only trousers and clogs, some only clogs, covered by a film of dust and glitter, swinging short, double-pointed picks. The men had the pinched waists of whippets and the banded, muscular shoulders of horses, but shining in the upcast light of their lamps what they most resembled was machinery, automatons tirelessly hacking at the pillars of coal that supported the black roof above them. Coal split with a sound nearly like chimes. Where the coal seam dipped, men worked on knees wrapped in rags. Other men loaded tubs or pushed them, leaning into them with their backs. A fog of condensation and coal dust rose from them.

Miner hewing coal.

Miner hewing coal (from Wigan World website)

Given my line of work, I was particularly interested to read his descriptions of the dangers posed by firedamp and the way that miners could “read” the danger using their Davy Lamps

From the German Dampf. Meaning vapour. Explosive gas.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leveret. ‘Methane. It likes to hide in cracks and along the roof. The point of a safety lamp is that the gauze dissipates enough of the heat so that you won’t set the gas off. Still, the best way to find it is with a flame.’ Battie lifted the lamp by a rough column of rock and studied the light wavering behind the screen of the gauze. ‘See how it’s a little longer, a little bluer? That’s methane that’s burning.’

And there were other “damps” too

When firedamp explodes it turns to afterdamp. Carbon monoxide. The strongest man in the world could be running through here at top speed, but two breaths of that and he’ll drop to the floor. Unless you drag him out, he’ll die. In fact, I’ve seen rescue attempts where one, two, three men will drop trying to pull one man out.

The Davy Lamp (By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In designing his lamp, Humphry Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings.

The novel was well written, and not just the details about Wigan and life as a miner. It was a gripping story, if a little far fetched. The ending certainly was. But a good read nevertheless.

Wolf Hall

This is a long book – over 650 pages – and it’s taken a while for me to finish it. But it was worth it.
I’m not particularly a fan of historical novels, but the book had a lot of press attention before and after it had won the Boooker Prize and the story captured my interest.
Thomas Cromwell has had a “bad press” in most works of history and literature but Mantel is very much on his side. He’s portrayed very sympathetically as a man driven by principle and not just personal ambition (although he clearly had plenty of that too). The Catholic Church and the “sainted” Thomas More, are portrayed much less sympathetically as reactionaries and vicious persecutors of “heretics” – an accurate picture, in my opinion.
Cromwell certainly was ambitious, rising from a very humble background to high state office. He was clearly very bright and knew how to position himself to his best advantage. But he was a progressive – seeing through changes that allowed England to start to drag itself out of the Middle Ages, bringing in religious and political reforms that paved the way for the development of a more modern society. Starting a process that would be built on by his ancestor, Oliver.
AS for the book; the story was difficult to follow at times – the plot is complex and,there are a lot of characters who pop in and out. This wasn’t helped by the structure of the book, a few long chapters broken down into episodes and it wasn’t always obvious that there was a change of scene. However, it was worth persevering.
Mantel writes well, the story progressing gradually rather than building to a climax. This was the first of her books that I’ve read. Her others have never particularly appealed to me, but having enjoyed “Wolf Hall” perhaps I should  try another of her novels.
Picture credit – Wikipedia

The man in the High Castle

I’ve been re-reading a few of the SF books I read many years ago when I was at University and was well into science fiction. Philip K Dick was a favourite author then.  He’s become quite well known as a number of his books have been adapted for the big screen. “The Man in the High Castle” is the third of his books that I’ve read recently.

The story is based around an alternative history where Japan and Germany won the second world war. There are several interlinked stories based on a handful of main characters. There’s a strong philosophical streak – Dick was clearly influenced by some aspects of oriental mysticism.

The plot starts strong and some of the individual stories are promising, but, to me, it runs out of steam towards the end, almost as if Dick has lost interest, and some of the sub plots aren’t fully explored. Nevertheless, I enjoyed rereading it after all these years.

Rating 3.5/5

Humphry Davy – a man of two cultures

Its 50 years ago since CP Snow gave his Reid lecture on the “The two cultures” about the division between the arts and scientists and in many ways the division is probably more pronounced today. Science is perceived as difficult by the general public but I think that most “scientists” do very little to try to get over this barrier and help to increase understanding of science.  I studied Chemistry at University and worked in a scientific discipline all my life and my experience is that many people with a scientific education don’t have much interest in the arts and humanities. Yet, this has not always been the case. Before the 20th Century, there was much less of a barrier between the arts and sciences – “educated” men and women, (and I include self educated working class people in this category) cultivated an interest in both.

Personally, I’ve always had a passion for history, literature and reading in general. A long time favourite book is Richard Holmes‘ “Footsteps“, a book which combines biography, travel and autobiography. His biography of Shelley is also a favourite. So when I heard that a new book of his was due out that focused on the development of science in the “romantic age” I bought a copy hot off the press – even though it was in hardback, as I didn’t want to wait the extra months it would take for a paperback edition to be published (mind you a half price offer made it even more tempting!).

As in Footsteps, Holmes covers the life of more than one subject and also wanders off down sidetracks related to the main theme. One of the main topics is the life of Sir Humphrey Davy. I’ve always had an interest in this pioneering chemist so was keen to read this section of the book. He is best known for his invention of the safety lamp and he is also credited with the discovery (or isolation) of sodium, potassium and barium. But there is a lot more to his life.

Humphrey Davy came from humble beginnings in Cornwall, being born in Penzance in 1778. In 1794 he was apprenticed to John Bingham Borlase, a Penzance surgeon, but in 1798 was taken on by Thomas Bedooes (well known at the time as a Radical) to work as a laboratory assistant in the latter’s newly established Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. It was here that Davy was able to develop his talents as an experimental scientist, before finally moving to London in 1801 to work at the Royal Institution.

There was no separation of arts and sciences for Davy – he moved in both worlds, as did many other prominent artists and scientists at the time. He was a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who took an interest in his work, as did others, including Shelley and Keats – Davy even wrote poetry himself. Men of ideas were interested in more than one sphere of knowledge and culture.

Given my work as an occupational hygienist (its O.K. – nobody knows what that is!) it was particularly interesting to read about Davy’s experiments with gases in Bristol. He explored the effects of nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide by conducting inhalation studies on himself. On more than one occasion he came close to death by exposing himself to high concentrations of carbon monoxide.

For most people Davy is known as the inventor of the miner’s safety lamp. Although this is surrounded by controversy (not least disputes about who first developed the lamp with George Stevenson) Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings. However, the ones really responsible for this were the greedy mine owners. Davy cannot be blamed for the misuse of his invention by others.

Although he had radical tendencies in his youth, he moved to the right in older age as he became part of the establishment (sadly this is too often the case – his contemporary, Wordsworth is a particularly notable example). He also had a tendency to seek glory and credit for inventions and could be jealous of others who worked with him – notably Michael Faraday who started out as Davy’s assistant. Nevertheless there is much about him to admire and Holmes, who is clearly sympathetic towards his subject, has written an educative and entertaining account of his life. And although the book as a whole is excellent, it was worth shelling out for a hardback book for this alone.