on 18 June 2010
This reviewer once had the pleasure of meeting the subject of the book -- Robert Saint: pitman, musician, composer, amateur Vet.... all of his own meetings with this memorable man, are described entertainingly by Peter Crookston, despite a shortage of personal archives on the man himself. Robert Saint's life and times are interwoven with the moving story of the demise of coalmining in Britain in the 20th Century --- a story " needing to be told ".
Perhaps the 'Miners' Hymn' as the brass band tune called "GRESFORD" is known, is the real thread running through the book, connecting miners past and present, in this obviously heartfelt tribute.
on 1 January 2011
The Pitman's Requiem - a Requiem for a way of life
Unlike the previous reviewer, I never had the privilege of meeting the subject of this book, and gives the spine of the thread that binds it together - a thread that describes the now dead Great Northern Coalfield that stretched almost the length of the old traditional counties of Durham and Northumberland.
Saint, a pitman, a bit of a chancer (in the best sense of the word) and who augmented his wartime factory work as the leader of a small dance hall combo, is now only known (if that) as the composer of the Miner's Hymn 'Gresford' a tune named after the pit in the North Wales town of the same name that saw, in an ear of similar events, one of the greatest mine disasters of the 20th century. This tune, 70 years on is still in the play list of every silver band based in a former colliery area. Other than that, Robert Saint is a name utterly forgotten in the condescension of history.
The author, Peter Crookston, despite a life spent in London literary circles, comes from the North East and knew Saint as a boy. This is the peg for his portrait of the pit villages, the pitmen and their families. He shows for the benefit of those who do not know or understand this unique area, how totally septate these villages in the hills of Durham and the low lying lands of South East Northumberland (and their neighbouring communities in the East Cleveland Ironstone region) were from the big towns that outsiders might see as representing the region. Pitmen might visit Newcastle, Sunderland and the Teesside towns for shopping or to watch a big match, but for the rest of their life, they retreated to the certainties and close communal ties of the villages and small towns. Today, even after the closures and ordeal of the great last strike in defence of a wway of life in the mid 1980's, these villages are still there, and whilst many of the older residents still have their family ties to the pitmen who were their ancestors, the newer inhabitants - commuters to the big cities of Tyne and Tees or Durham students attracted to affordable housing - do not have that certainty and linkage. If they invest a small part of their earnings on this book, they will learn much about their new home. I hope they take my advice !
on 20 August 2010
Mining communities have long provided compelling backdrops to works of literature and drama, from Zola's Germinal to Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliott. They have also been exhaustively studied by sociologists and social anthropologists for insights into the working and social lives of men and women who survived against the odds in physically crippling jobs while maintaining both their individual dignity and their community spirit. Peter Crookston's book offers a beautifully written journalist's account of a Durham mining village woven around the life of Robert Saint, the composer of Gresford, a brass band composition commemorating an earlier mining disaster in which 256 workers died. Crookston brings his formidable observational qualities and writing skills as a journalist to produce a gripping narrative with utterly compelling characters and a heart-rending culmination in the demise of the mining industry under assault by Thatcher and her henchmen. The story is told in a gentle, unpretentious way, frequently giving voice to the characters themselves, many of whom the author knew personally or got to know in preparing the book. Apart from capturing a critical moment in a disappearing world, the book offers a vantage point from which to reflect on our own culture, what we have lost in a world of sensationalism, consumption and constant internet browsing: the loss of community which did so much to sustain and nurture those miners in their desperate plights.
on 24 June 2010
In truth, there may have been few who mourned the passing of an age that demanded large groups of men to be sent below the earth in order to draw coal from its depths. The sense of loss must always have been more to do with the destruction of whole communities, their way of life and the means of sustaining themselves and families. No mother, wife or sweetheart could have rested easily on the ever constant prospect of pit disaster and would surely have preferred their menfolk to have pursued any other way of earning a living.
Peter Crookston has interwoven two stories. One is of a miner, musician and vet called Robert Saint who's life seems something of a mystery. This popular bandleader and composer of the miners hymn `Gresford' was also devoted to the care of sick and rescued animals. His varied life style was clearly an influence on the mind of this author as a young boy. The other story is one of real pitmen struggling with the fact of a dying coal industry, threatened loss of livelihood and an end to a way of life that is steeped in tradition. There are individual stories of heartache and hardship here, told by those very people who were affected by the desolation of pit closures.
Pitmen's Requiem is a sad reminder of an age now passed on but there must always remain a certain nobility and pride in those men who were required to spend half of their often short lives in the deep, damp bowels of the earth. It must also be true that every one of them would surely have preferred a more healthy and better way of providing for their loved ones. Lastly, there can be little doubt that pit closures saved many a young man from following in his fathers foot steps and spending a working life in that dark world below.
on 15 June 2011
The Pitmen's Requiem is a book that encapsulates not only the life and devotion of Robert Saint, but of the life and times of every pitman.
Peter Crookston has used his journalistic trait to look at the man whose composition `Gresford' to the attention of a contemporary reader. This essential and often over-looked period has been brought back to life to the people that lived through every period of the mining era, right through to the reader of today.
This book is the cornerstone that every book of its kind can now follow.