BOOK REVIEW / A voyage around my Durham pit village: 'Coming Back Brockens' - Mark Hudson: Cape, 16.99 pounds

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THE BEST stories are often those closest to home. Mark Hudson's previous book was an award-winning portrait of a village in Africa, and now he has produced a portrait of a village in England. It is a place almost as remote.

He intended, he says, to write a travel book, moving from town to town in search of the national identity, or something. But he never got farther than the Durham mine - Horden - where his parents and grandparents lived and dug and brought up families. He stayed there for a year, and the result is a brilliant work: at once an intimate history of coal mining in the North-east, a spirited and wise personal memoir, and a pained description of an England that has all but exhausted itself.

Horden was once the biggest mine in the land. Now it is closed. The wind whips off the North Sea and blows crisp packets down derelict roads only a few miles from the tranquil arches of Durham Cathedral. Kids steal and try out drugs - 'Acid was better than Ecstasy as it was only pounds 3 as opposed to pounds 15'. Hudson frames it all with a monochrome intensity that makes it seem like an archive newsreel. Even the landscape seems colourless: 'As the bank pitched I could see the North Sea, a great sheet of glittering whiteness, broken only by the black outlines of the ships.' The beach, once golden, is now black with dumped coal. Anyone walking the streets in pale clothes is speckled with ash by the time they turn the corner.

Naturally, the book echoes with political feelings. In his conversations with the long- memoried inhabitants of Horden, we hear of the great days of union endeavour as well as the recent bitter collapses. Hudson does not equivocate. 'The great British public,' he writes, deliberately sounding scornful, 'rallied to the defence of the miners in the autumn of 1992 because the power of organised labour was no longer a threat to them.

Meanwhile the lads were still sitting at the garage in Peterlee, waiting to fulfil their part in the old bargain of unskilled labour, a bargain that no longer existed, in a world that had no use for them.'

This is good, trenchant stuff. But Coming Back Brockens has no scores to settle: it is a book about life, not issues. And life in Horden is, quite literally, the pits. Hudson is careful not to indulge his own - and our - taste for the picturesque. He knows how easy it is to applaud for a moment or two our own sensitivities to the hard lives of others, and is swift to mock his own desire to mythologise. After a long wait, he at last encounters terms he recognises. 'Turrible,' a man says. 'I'm not joking, man, when I say that a man aged 50 today doesn't know what hard times are.' It's all there - the local idioms, the Dickensian echoes - but Hudson shrugs it off: '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.'

Sometimes the wrongs of the past come across almost as black comedy. Here is one miner recollecting the unfortunate fate of another, Blondie Ward. 'He never had any luck, him. One day the canch tipped over and broke his leg.

When the canch - the stone over the coal - had been fired down, the walls and roof were always really rough. Some of the stone fell away from the wall and crushed his leg. The water was pouring through. The only dry place we could find for him was on the conveyor. We lifted him on there, laid him out, then a stone came down from the roof and smashed his cheek. No, he never had any luck, Blondie Ward.' Monty Python could hardly have put it better.

Of course, for the women of the village, life was an endless drudge. It was a drudge for everyone. One miner's wife explains how she was given pounds 2 a week by her husband to run the house and raise the family, and recalls the shock of discovering that her husband earned pounds 7: they were not poor.

The missing fiver went on drink. It seems a classic male plot: indeed it is one. But we can see how for the husband - a mile under the North Sea, lying in a black space 18 inches high - domestic life must have seemed like easy street: varied (washing on Monday, baking on Tuesday, etc) and full of friendly banter about how idle the menfolk were. The men were as trapped as the women. One man tells Hudson about the schoolroom - how the teacher would close the window when the colliery band went past with a cortege, the brassy sound of another death down the mine. 'Then he'd sort of look at us, yi knar? Because he knew that every boy in that room was going down that pit.

There was no way it could be avoided.'

In Horden, the question of class is not theoretical: it is a feeling.

Hudson, himself the son of a Horden man, is treated with defensiveness and hostility as well as bracing warmth. 'When you arrived in East Durham,' he writes, 'you realised immediately where you stood in relation to class. The moment you arrived, you were in it - up to your neck. In East Durham, it often seemed that there was nothing else. And if you found it unattractive, if it made you feel uneasy, if you couldn't wait to get away from it, that meant you were middle class.'

All of these strands are held together by an emotional seam running back through the generations to the early days of coal mining in Durham. Hudson collects reminiscences of his ancestors and pieces together a vibrant family tree packed with unsurpassable details. He inspects the fierce pride and blatant prejudices of his forebears, and fingers the many paradoxes of their lives. On the one hand it is a world of unremitting austerity ('I sometimes wondered how people managed to make love in Horden'), but at other times, in its pageants and displays, it is fiercely hedonistic. Hudson weaves all the voices into something that resembles the grandest sort of novel. But 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 -pitmatic: it is all kirving the jud, kists, coming yehl, stooks, and coming back brockens.

In the end Hudson finds an old piece of film and sees his grandfather tending tomatoes in a greenhouse. The sight shakes him. He has come a long way, earnestly circling a truth he knew, in his heart, all along: 'Percy was just a bloke in a collarless shirt and a cloth cap who liked his garden.' He wasn't, actually: he believed in education, which is what, eventually, allowed his grandson to write this book. Hudson is anything but narrow: he both mourns the demise of coal, and is glad to see the back of it. But it would not have been appropriate if his story, like the mine, hadn't ended with something of a sob.