Monday, 22 February 2010

The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr (Macmillan 2009)

Written, as it were, as a prequel to his book and accompanying television series 'A History of Modern Britain' this book charts, as Andrew Marr puts it, England 'from Queen Victoria to V.E. Day'. The books illustrates the rise and fall of Edwardian Britain, the rise of the working classes, chartists, trade unions, suffragettes (and suffragists) and countless other groups. Britain ceased to be a country ruled from grand country estates and power passed to the people and Britain became a true democracy. In the process she underwent the Boer War as well as two World Wars and had approximately eleven different Prime Ministers, the death of the Liberal Party and the birth of the Labour Party.

Except during the world wars when the history is presented in a more linear order, Andrew Marr presents us with a television handy series of scenes or vignettes charting not just the political or military aspects of the history but the social scenes including some great sections on music hall, the birth of the motor industry and the early days of the BBC. When he does the political history Marr has a knack of cutting through to the heart of complicated sets of facts such as the manoeuvres that led to the passing of the Parliament Act ending the power of the House of Lords and propelling Lloyd George into prominence and the machinations that enabled Churchill to come back into the fold as Neville Chamberlain proved an ineffective war leader.

The book is very readable and Andrew Marr shows himself as a revisionist historian showing sympathy with the tactics of oft criticised generals such as Haig and Kitchener (they after all did not know then what we know now...although I'd like to venture that we don't quite know now what they knew then either), praising Chamberlain's preparations for war and criticising Churchill for all that he didn't accomplish trying to show that he was not the steadfast and power hungry man making every decision from the top. His book is also written from quite a leftist perspective, the heroes of the story are no doubt people like Seebohm Rowntree treading the streets of York chronicling dire cases of poverty, the Welsh railwaymen fighting to unionise, the new radicals as Lloyd George and Churchill were (although Churchill's radicalism came with not so much concern for civil liberties and a rampant thirst for risky military adventure) and growth of the Labour movement is lauded, the growth of right reviled.

I recently criticised Peter Ackroyd for using popular historians as sources in a piece of popular history. Andrew Marr goes one step further and quotes from no sources whatsoever and the few endnotes he uses prove utterly useless because no page numbers are given in the notes section. He claims to have done the research entirely by himself and it shows as there are factual errors, and events are glossed over or generalised. Also if you've studied this period of history in any length (and in British schools the wars are covered many times) he presents no surprises. It is a book written to be televised and that tv series is a whole other kettle of fish (his impressions are excruciating). I wanted to dislike this book but Andrew Marr, despite his popularism and bombastic and journalistic style prose, comes across very amiably and it certainly doesn't hurt to be a leftist to read this book so for the first time I shall reward a book higher than 3/5.

It's a close call but it just makes it to:


Monday, 8 February 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Virago 2009).

Set in 1948, Dr Faraday is the son of working class stock who one evening is called out to the Hundreds Hall, the seat of the Ayres family, the estate where his mother worked when he was young as a nursemaid. This is just the beginning of his entanglement with the house and its family; Mrs Ayres the widowed matriarch and hangover from Edwardian society, her son Roddie, an injured and limping veteran of the war now master of the estate though not coping with the responsibility and Caroline, the intelligent but plain daughter who is often to be found wandering around the estate with her dog.

Things take a sinister turn as Roddie becomes convinced that he is being visited by a phantom with malicious intent who is leaving dark marks around his room and when the Ayres's dog attacks the young daughter of a nouveau riche family only new to area it begins his descent into what Faraday believes to be a severe nervous disorder.

The book is essentially a story of the end of the Edwardian dynasties and the break up of the estates of the landed gentry that followed the second world war and the election of Clement Atlee's Labour government. It is also a gothic-esque ghost story in the traditions of Edgar Allan Poe however I draw that similarity very loosely as it is at best a pastiche of that story telling. The book reminds me of peristalsis with its slow and steady pace building up a tension that releases itself not with a bang but with a wimper as any dramatic tension is dissolved with a disappointing last 100 pages. Dr Faraday proves an extremely boring narrator and as his affairs become increasingly entangled with those of the Ayres' it's hard to muster the requisite sympathy.

I have now read five of the six shortlisted books of the 2009 Booker Prize and I cannot say that I have been overly impressed by the quality. Hilary Mantel's' Wolf Hall' with its nauseating prose and unbelievable revisionist history, Adam Fould's rather insubstantial 'The Quickening Maze', Simon Mawer's screenplay of a novel in 'The Glass Room' and probably the best of the lot in AS Byatt's charming Middlemarch-esque tale of two Edwardian families in 'The Children's Book', none of these are books one can imagine recalling in ten years time, from this roster of historical fiction I do not see anything approaching classic status.

I am now fully aware that I have now reviewed three books and so far they have all been 3/5 and I'm afraid this shows the forgettable nature of them, 2 would seem too harsh and 4 unmerited therefore I'm afraid I shall have to do so again.

Probably better just wait for the movie: