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When events changed civilisation forever

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett is one grand epic, touching upon the troubled times from 1911, through the First World War, until 1924. At 850 pages, the book rivals Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for sheer size and drama. It also spans across continents, tracing the lives and times of families from Wales, England, the US, Germany and Russia.

It starts with little Billy Williams getting ready to accompany his father into the coal mines in Aberowen in South Wales on his thirteenth birthday. Extracting coal is an exploitative business, and the miners are poverty-stricken souls. Their families live in gloomy hovels not far from their workplace, and the air is filled with coal dust.  

Follett does not spare the reader from going into the dark and dreary bowels of the earth, starting from the pithead and the tower that is ‘topped by two great wheels rotating in opposite directions drawing cables that raised and lowered the cages’ that conveyed the miners into the shafts, to the rail lines and the dust covered machines and debris piled everywhere. Though Billy’s father is something of a union man, Billy is treated to the frightening initiation ceremony of new recruits, being left alone in the pitch dark. Only in this instance, it is not for a little while, but for several hours since the man who takes Billy deep into the mine, has been spurned by Billy’s sister, Ethel. Billy is petrified, but hangs on to his sanity, emerging triumphant as Billy-with-Jesus. The tragic situation of food comprising of dry bread and cold tea constituting a miner’s meal, carried in a tin snap to protect it from rats, is starkly depicted.

This is contrasted with the opulent fare at the palatial home of the man has leased out his lands for mining and earns a substantial share of the proceeds.  He is Earl Fitzherbert, and he is entertaining the king and the queen of England on his large estate. When there is an explosion deep down in the mines, it is the maid and Billy’s sister, Ethel who breaks protocol and advises that the royalty reach out to the victims. Ethel draws the attentions of the earl, even as she herself is besotted with him. Pregnancy and disowning ensues, with Ethel settling for financial compensation with which she relocates to London. Aristocracy!

The earl’s sister, Maud, is a feisty girl, tending to destitute women and their fatherless children at a clinic, where German aristocrat, Walter von Ulrich, and his father, Otto, visit her. Love calls and Maud overcomes all shyness to grab at Walter, and they eventually marry and settle down in Germany. There is the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian in Sarajevo, Bosnia; an act that later gets Germany into war mode. Walter spies for Germany and fights in the war.

A Russian, Grigori Peshkov, has dreams of making it to America, but lets his brother Lev take the trip just to save him from being caught for murder. Lev becomes one hell of a bootlegger, and a wheeler dealer. War, diplomacy, deceit, and also survival.

Fall of Giants  by Ken Follett
Pan Macmillan


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