Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

A Slight History

In Reviews, S. Payne on August 9, 2010 at 3:59 pm

A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

The BBC television series, ‘A History of Modern Britain’, was interesting, entertaining, slight on facts, occasionally inaccurate, but essentially fun for the viewer. It basically covered my lifetime, which was an added incentive to watch. As a Father’s Day present, my daughter bought me Andrew Marr’s companion book to the series. It’s a big heavy tome of a book, well over 600 pages.

The book is a bright and breezy trip through the second half of the 20th Century. In it, Governments rise and fall! We see courage, incompetence, determination and folly in high places! There are full-blown dramas in Westminster!

The early chapters, dealing with the period 1945-1951, were particularly good, with pithy character descriptions, fascinating insights and detail. The book shows how narrow-minded and innately conservative British politics really is. For example, the supposedly radical post-war Labour Government is shown as a (motley) collection of puritanical Little Englanders who seemed more keen on the Empire than might have been expected from Socialists!

Marr doggedly takes us through the last five decades until we reach the present time with our obsessions with celebrity and television, materialism, crowded roads and shops, and our apathetic approach towards politics (particularly if it’s Westminster-based).

We have witnessed the steady advance of affluence which Marr seems to deplore Perhaps he is something of a puritan himself? He doesn’t really attempt to analyse trends, preferring to fill the book with facts and reflect briefly on events.

He gives us potted (hackneyed?) biographies of our leaders. Wilson was tricky. Macmillan was a showman, poor Edward Heath was misunderstood and Jim Callaghan was so unlucky. He gives credit to Thatcher and seems to have a sneaking admiration for what she “achieved”.

He generalises about the different decades. The 1940s were austere and grey (ration books). The 1950s were complacent, insular and contented (cricket and weak beer, John Major mused). The 1960s were swinging, sexy and permissive (oh, not again! Groan…). The 1970s were gloomy, argumentative and fractious (the three day week, oil, those awkward unions). In the 1980s we had Thatcherism (the “me” decade, wot, no society?); and in the 1990s there was the pursuit of pleasure and money, with Labour stealing many of the Tory Party’s policies (what’s new?).

The book, like the television series that it closely resembles, is dominated by London – specifically Westminster and Whitehall. We hear so much about the politicians but so little about the experiences of millions of “ordinary people”. He hardly mentions current Britain with its cult of celebrity, obsession with sport, consumer spending as if there is no tomorrow, the transformation of pop music by i-pods, jetting off to foreign parts for holidays and weekend breaks.

Overall the book is a fascinating lok at the last fifty years, but it is too long and thin on ideas. Essentially it is a starting point for future reading rather than a definitive history.

Non-Fiction review by Stuart Payne
Published by Macmillan, 2007.


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