A little while ago I was sent a review copy of the new edition of Tunes on a Penny Whistle: A Derbyshire Childhood by Doris E Coates. The theme appealed to me because I’ve developed quite a strong interest in the everyday lives of my ancestors though history. Particularly the lives of my grandparents – making the era of focus in this book all the more relevant.
As hoped, the book certainly delivered on this score. It’s a nostalgic reflection, but by no means rose-tinted. Doris recalls the many hardships that she and her family endured during the early 20th century, as a result of poverty, politics, war, discrimination, illness, living and working conditions, and even the weather. But it’s clear that she also looks back on her childhood with a sense of pride and satisfaction for the achievements made and the simple pleasures enjoyed, as well as a great warmth and affection for the family – and, indeed, the rural Peak District village – that raised her.
Filled with photos, line drawings and reproductions of documents, readers can also see exactly what Doris’s home village of Eyam looked like when she was growing up; we can put faces to the names of the relatives, school teachers and acquaintances mentioned in the book; we can make ourselves comfortable in the small stone cottage in which her family resided for several generations. And through her uncomplicated, unsentimental but always engaging words, we can experience her life in vivid detail.
What I wasn’t anticipating, however, was the ending; when Doris proves just how much can be achieved with strong principles and steely determination such as hers, in the face of poverty and gender discrimination.
Of course, I’m not going to spoil it for you – you’ll have to read it to find out what happens! But how apt that I should reach the concluding paragraphs today, on World Book Day and so close to International Women’s Day, when equal rights and access to education are at the forefront of our minds. It makes me feel tear-jerkingly thankful for the progress that has been made since Doris was growing up – and determined to keep up the good work.
Tunes on a Penny Whistle: A Derbyshire Childhood, by Doris E Coates (edited and with additional material by Richard Coates), is published by The Harpsden Press and available to buy from online retailers or to order via all good bookstores. Please support independent shops if you can!