When Mark Hudson set off for a mining village in Co Durham to write a book about his father's family, born and bred there, he never dreamt that it would win the biggest literary prize in the UK. And few at the awards ceremony this week were aware that his
Men! I thought as I entered Horden Rugby Football Supporters' Club.

I'd walked through the heavy drizzling blackness along the interminable rows of two-bedroomed bungalows known as "the cottages", where, in different houses, my grandfather and my great-grandfather had both ended their days, and where Percy's second wife, Mary, still lived. Suddenly I saw ahead of me a brilliantly lit interior of men. Men who didn't so much inhabit as wear their bodies. Men who hung predatory over the snooker tables, as ineffably potent in their stillness as an African shepherd leaning on his staff in the vastness of the savannah. Men who rationed out their flint-like gazes - who knew where they should rest, and didn't bother with owt else. Men who stood with their backs to the bar and their loins foursquare to the world, throwing out their harsh laughter like a challenge.

I walked mechanically up the couple of steps out of the drizzle into a meagre corridor. Ahead was a board announcing fixtures. There was no mistake; this was it. I walked into the room whose window I had passed. It was large and low ceilinged with hard chairs and Formica-topped tables - a plastic banquette and a pall of nicotine the only concessions to comfort. To my right was a table full of old men. The nearest, a tiny individual, sat looking up at me, his neck craning from his jacket collar, like a tortoise's from its shell, his grey eyes bright with hostility.

"Whadyerwant?"

"I'm supposed to be meeting Denis Reardon [a pit technician]," I said, taking a step forward.

"Sign the book!"

I signed.

"Ten pence!" The fierceness with which they demanded this piffling amount of money still took me aback.

Alec Thompson, the "old" man I'd met at the Reardons', appeared looking rather dashing in an olive green suit. He was taller than I remembered him, and impressively upright. "They're not here," he said. I assumed he meant Denis. They were supposed to be introducing me to a very old man who could tell me more about Horden. I asked him if he wanted a drink. "Just get yerself one," he said.

I advanced towards the bar in a manner that was supposed to look nonchalant and unconcernedly self-contained but was in fact a strange mixture of a jerk, a shuffle and a lope. Why did I feel so painfully awkward in these Northern clubs? It wasn't as though there weren't such places in London, but they seemed to exist in a peripheral dimension of urban life that was beyond my concern let alone my comprehension. I would certainly never think of going into one. Here, however, they were part of the bedrock of mainstream society, and if you wanted to learn anything about that society, you had to put some time in. Yet I felt physically incapable of looking into the main body of the room - as though some forcefield were preventing my eyes from fixing on any person or object in it. There was just a blur of jeans and T-shirts and muscle and a great wreathing of cigarette smoke, through which I felt as though I was wading, as absurdly overdressed in my denim jacket and oilskin coat as if I had been wearing a full-length mink.

Alec Thompson returned and led me to a table on the far side of the room where Denis and a group of other men of the same age were playing dominoes. They seemed to be engaged in a kind of tournament, everyone moving in rotation along the tables by the banquette.Denis, though he was friendly enough, seemed slightly embarrassed by my presence, as though I were something of an encumbrance. And I could understand why. Men, traditionally, like to carry only what is necessary. Men, the hunters of the world, need to be light on their feet. Denis was a kind man, but in that context I was a burden to him.

Alec Thompson moved proprietorially round the room, a cigarette poised between his fingers. He took his turn at the domino tables, but he seemed less involved in the game than the others. Not that he was not giving it his full concentration, but there was an element of performance - as there was in the wearing of his suit - even about that concentration. Games of dominoes were what happened in clubs, and it was necessary for him to participate to his fullest ability, in the same way that it was necessary for him to wear his suit to maintain the standards of he club.If he didn't do these things, the world would fall apart. I began to warm to him.

When not playing, he was constantly going in and out of the room, to see if the old man had arrived yet. Finally he gestured me through. The lounge was smaller and quieter. There was even a woman present. At one of the tables sat a very small old man, in thick glasses, smartly dressed in a black jacket, with a collar and tie, and a pair of neatly pressed grey flannel trousers. Alec said he would leave us to talk, and went back to the dominoes.

The old man had been a blacksmith at the colliery and had done some work at the coke ovens. He said he could remember my grandfather. I wondered what he could tell me about him. "Nothing. I can just remember that he was there, and that his name was Percy Hudson. But I couldn't tell you anything else about him." He really was tiny, and with his dark hair slicked back, he looked like a little shrew. "I'm happy to tell you anything I know. But you'll have to ask questions. Otherwise, I won't know what it is you want to know, like."

The Thirties. What was it like in the Thirties? How bad was it?

"Why ... Now let's see. The Thirties ... You're talking about before the war now, mind. Well ... they had the buzzer. At the pit. If it sounded once, the Low Main was off. If it sounded twice, the Main Coal was off. These are the different seams at the pit I'm talking about now. If it went three times, the Hutton Seam was off. If it went four times, the Low Main and the Hutton Seam was off. If it went five times, the Hutton Seam and the Main Coal was off. And if it gave one long blast, the whole lot was off. Now is there anything else you wanted to know?"

My head was whirling with all these permutations. How on earth was I going to remember all of this? Meanwhile, I had to keep him talking. "The buzzer ... when did it go off? Was it every day, or every week or what?"

"Every day, at six o'clock."

He had enjoyed telling me about the buzzer, putting the information forward with a purposeful, emphatic exactness. Now, however, we were back on the uncertain, shifting sands of him not knowing what I wanted to know. I was putting him on the spot, and no one liked that. He returned to his tight-lipped former self. He stared straight ahead, hoping this excruciating audience would soon be at an end. Like a crab which had retreated into its crevice I would have to prise him out again with my questions. But I could not think of any that were not feebly vague and general. Another man joined us, a slightly younger, mild-mannered man, with bushy grey hair, and the old man seemed to relax slightly.

"How bad was it in the Thirties?" I asked. "I mean the conditions and that?"

"Turrible." He spoke to the world in general. "I'm not joking, man, when I say that a man aged 50 today doesn't know what hard times are."

"He wouldn't," said his friend contentedly.

This was more like it - what I had expected to hear, and therefore what I wanted to hear. The rhetorical rehearsing of the wrongs of the past. The use of the word "man" for forceful emphasis. The way the cadence of the sentence kept on rising towards that final "are". And yet ... I listened as they continued talking among themselves about how things had got better for the miners during the war with the drive for increased production - and then there had been the Labour government - before they went on to talk about other things. And yet it was all too piecemeal, and at the same time there was not enough detail. I was weary of having to drag things out of people. I wanted the Big Picture and the detail all put in place for me. I wanted to be taken in hand and put in the picture. I wanted someone to tell me what was what. That, I had imagined, was what Horden was all about. I tried to imagine how Percy would have reacted, if I'd come to him in this way. Would he have sat me down in a chair opposite him in his rather bare living room, and lectured me commandingly for a couple of hours, without me being able, without me needing, to get a word in edgeways? Or would he have been as diffident and uncertain as this man?

Extracted from 'Coming Back Brockens - A Year in a Mining Village' (Jonathan Cape, £16.99).

The story that sparked a furore

The book: Coming Back Brockens: A Year in a Mining Village is the story of Mark Hudson's quest to explore and understand the lives of his forebears - and of his grandfather, in particular - who settled in the Durham mining village of Horden, once Britain's largest working colliery. The mine closed in 1986, and the book contrasts the village's past with its present as a community deprived of its reason of existence.

The author: Mark Hudson, 38, wrote his first book, Our Grandmothers' Drums, after a £500 commission to write for Eastenders financed a trip to a Gambian village. The book won the Somerset Maugham award and the Thomas Cook award for travel book of the year. Hudson was brought up in South Wales and Surrey but now lives in London.

The prize: the choice of Alan Clark, the former defence minister and diarist, to chair the judges on the AT&T Non-Fiction Award was the start of the trouble. He was seen by the other four - Val Hennessy, the Daily Mail's chief book reviewer; June Formby, manager of the Pan Bookshop; Ruth Leon, arts correspondent for Radio 5; and Sheridan Morley, the biographer - as arrogant and politically incorrect. The 115 original titles had been whittled down to four: Hudson's book was up against Juliet Barker's scholarly biography of the Bronts, Humphrey Barker's biography of Leonard Bernstein and Nelson Mandela's autobiography. The choice was narrowed to Barker versus Hudson, with Leon and Morley - by now engaged to be married - in favour of the book by the former curator of the Bront parsonage. Clark tipped the balance in Hudson's favour. Leon recalls crossly: "He said it would be 'the most fun'." She says the choice was "probably a mistake".

What the critics said:

"Coming Back Brockens is beautifully written and observed." - Gill Morgan, the Times.

"Hudson has told the story with emotional and stylistic depth, his eye unfilmed by sentimentality but open to sentiment." - Richard Hoggart, the Sunday Times.

"Not many novelists are able to capture and sift such a tonnage of human experience as this, or filter it through the weird Norse dialect of the mine." - Robert Winder, the Independent.

What Horden says: Richard Wild, headteacher, Yohden Primary School, Horden: "I think it's brilliant for Horden, it's put it on the map. I haven't read it but I think I'd better."

Susan Skirving, branch librarian, Horden library: "We've had mixed reactions. Some people thought it was marvellous and that it really depicted people they knew, and others were not very happy with the overall picture."

Mary Tatters, of the village post office: "I was really annoyed about it. He portrayed everybody as being the same, young people wearing tracksuits and walking around with no stockings on their legs and dog muck and crisp packets everywhere. There's a lot of decent people in Horden that he could have mentioned but he didn't. I haven't heard anybody who has read the book say a nice thing about it."

Manageress of the Picture House Prize Bingo, Horden: "I've never heard of it."

Comments