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Never Again: Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy

13 January 2008

Running into a few Internet troubles with my laptop really ought to have made me more productive — less time wasted browsing for books I can’t exactly afford on Amazon.co.uk and from the London Review of Books shop, right?

Never Again: Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy

At the end of World War II, one theme was very much on the minds of the people of Great Britain, from political and military leaders to old age pensioners: never again. Never again should the world have to suffer through another war like the one that had just ended. Never again should dictators-in-the-making be able to take advantage of mass unemployment that left millions of able-bodied men out of work, unable to support themselves or their families. Never again should the sick be unable to obtain medical treatment for lack of money to pay for it, or lack of doctors available to treat them. Never again should children go seriously malnourished or ill-educated, never again should working men and women have to live in shacks patched together from the rubble of bombed-out buildings. Even though food and other consumer goods were still being rationed, and the British military was spread out all over the world, Clement Attlee’s Labour Government (elected by a landslide on 5 July 1945) was determined to put Britain back together again and, in the words of William Blake, build a new Jerusalem on the Labour Party’s socialist principles. The British experience, from everyday domestic life to complicated questions of international relations, in the early postwar years is the focus of Peter Hennessy’s Never Again: Britain 1945-51.

I’ve written glowing reviews of several other books by Peter Hennessy, including The Secret State and The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945. He’s certainly one of my favourite historians of any age and period, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading any number of books and articles he’s written over the years. But Never Again, I regret to say, was a very disappointing book. In addition to the often startlingly clunky writing, the narrative had a tendency to feel disorganised and uneven, lurching along as ideas and themes were picked up for brief periods of time and then discarded. Even the sections that contain some noteworthy quotations and little-known bits of intriguing historical information have to contend with sentences such as the following: ‘Since the final end of Empire in the 1960s, the economic historians have discovered a rich seam of retrospection as they mercilessly subject this kaleidoscopic phenomenon to the spartan rigours of cost-benefit analysis.‘ Granted, this book was first written and published back in the early 1990s, but surely another readthrough would’ve flagged sentences like that one for deletion, or possibly even revision.

Authorial voice is a difficult thing to find when writing history, especially when writing for an audience that is not necessarily a specialist audience already acquainted with most of the material. When done well, it produces the kind of history book that simply immerses the reader in the time period and subject to hand. When done less than well, it makes reading a struggle and finishing a chore. As I see it, Never Again mainly has its problems in the authorial voice — the unevenness of the narrative, leaping from topic to topic and from casual conversational or anecdotal style to professorial lecturing tone without a lot of apparent thought put into smoothing the transition, makes it jarring and occasionally difficult to follow. I suppose I keep stressing my disappointment because I know that Hennessy is more than capable of drafting a truly well-written history book. I already own the next volume in this series; I’ll have to see if that one has more of the Hennessy style that I’ve grown to enjoy.

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