Archive for the ‘social history’ Category

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Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

19 January 2010

I can’t entirely remember what prompted me to pick up this book. I actually haven’t read much of Forster’s fiction, and only vaguely recall reading some of his essays on art and culture during research for something else. But the title interested me, and though it took a little while to track down a copy it was worth the initial hunt.

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

To many readers, English writer E.M. Forster’s literary output might as well be synonymous with the Merchant-Ivory film studios. In a little less than a decade, Merchant-Ivory brought no fewer than three of Forster’s novels (Howards End, Room with a View, and Maurice) to the screen, and their Edwardian drawing-room settings and mostly upper-middle-class characters tend to reinforce the stereotype of Forster as a writer of quaint period pieces set in the early 20th century. Yet Forster’s writings also included a wide range of other works, including travel writing, biography, and literary criticism, and many of his essays and journalistic output have been collected into two volumes. The first, Abinger Harvest, consists of Forster’s shorter pieces from the turn of the century to the early 1930s. Two Cheers for Democracy — the subject of this Tuesday Book Review — picks up where the first left off and collects Forster’s writings from the mid-1930s through the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s.

Two Cheers for Democracy was published in 1951, and many of the pieces in this collection contain Forster’s reflections on the experiences of wartime and the profound psychological shock that two world wars in a generation had on people of his age and social class. Unsurprisingly, the opening section is titled ‘The Second Darkness’, and his writings are a strong reaction to pre-war anti-Semitism, wartime censorship, and the increasing brutality and mechanisation of warfare. Even his essay ‘What I Believe’, which contains the phrase that gives the volume its name, is ambivalent at best about current political thought: ‘So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give it three.‘ Forster dislikes democracy mainly because it tends to promote mediocrity, but because it is ‘less hateful’ than other contemporary forms of government, it deserves some amount of endorsement. Above all, the tone of the writings collected in Two Cheers for Democracy reflects Forster’s beliefs in humanism and the power of the individual spirit, best summarised by his statement that ‘…the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

Although the first half of Two Cheers for Democracy reflects on current events and political musings, Forster’s literary and cultural criticism dominates the second half of the book. It includes a reprint of his 1941 Rede Lecture on Virginia Woolf; biographical sketches of individuals as diverse as fifteenth-century poet John Skelton, Indian poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and short notes on visits to the United States and other exotic locations. His melancholy lecture on English prose between the wars blends his political and literary thought as he attempts to assess the mindset of literature published between 1918 and 1939. Yet whether he is writing about the works of a once-popular but now mostly-forgotten author like French Nobel Prize laureate Romain Rolland, or musing on his experiences travelling in an India on the verge of independence from Britain, Forster’s light-hearted but thoughtful prose reveals more than it initially lets on. He had lived long enough to remember life before the Great War shattered aristocratic British complacency, and was a keen observer of the myriad ways in which two wars and an uncertain peace affected social, political, and literary culture. Two Cheers for Democracy records these observations, and gives contemporary readers a clear-eyed perspective on the changes wrought by the passing years both at home and abroad.

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A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.

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Never Had It So Good and White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook

27 October 2009

I’ve had these books for quite a while now, and finally have had a chance to pull my thoughts on them together into a single combined review. For those who might be interested in another set of opinions, David Edgar also reviewed these two books in the 7 June 2007 issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required to view the full article).

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook

When Historian Dominic Sandbrook wanted to write a history of Britain in the 1960s, he soon realised that merely covering the years 1960-1969 wouldn’t do justice to a period that refused to be confined by something as arbitrary as a set of dates. As a result, he split his work into two parts: the first volume covering 1956 to 1963 (from the Suez Crisis to Harold Macmillan’s resignation), and the second volume covering 1964 to 1970 (the span of Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government). The title of the first volume comes from a comment made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — not the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as it is often misquoted. The actual comment comes from a speech made in mid-1957, in which Macmillan attempted to reassure the public on the state of Britain under his new Conservative Government:

Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime — nor indeed ever in the history of this country. What is worrying some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true?’ or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last?’

Macmillan’s assessment did indeed reflect the real improvement in the general standard of living. By 1956, the last official remnants of the years of austerity following World War II were finally fading. Rationing had ended, National Service was on the way out, and with unemployment figures at markedly low levels a new sense of consumer confidence translated into increased spending. And yet as Never Had It So Good presents it, Macmillan’s statement reflected the very real concerns that many people had about the changes taking place in British society in the late 1950s, in a world where many of the old political, social, and economic standards no longer seemed to apply.

For the political highlights, Sandbrook’s chapter on the events of Suez crisis is fascinating and tightly written, illustrating Anthony Eden’s sudden and steep decline from one of the more capable and experienced British politicians of his time to an ‘enraged elephant’ utterly obsessed with engineering Nasser’s downfall. Sandbrook also provides concise assessments of the 1962 Cabinet reshuffle known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the various upheavals within the long-suffering Labour Party. Never Had It So Good‘s chapters on social history cover the big developments very well, examining broad trends in drama and art and literature, the growth of teenage culture — and, of course, the rise of the Beatles and other popular music groups that profited from the new affluence. Throughout the book, though, Sandbrook constantly emphasises that the trend-setting youngsters flocking to London and Liverpool around this time were by no means the majority of the population. If anything, he attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction, suggesting that most people were far likely to go home and listen to the cozy dramas of The Archers than to any of the more esoteric productions aired by the Third Programme. Though it’s an admirable attempt at balancing out the narrative, Sandbrook seems so determined to protect his silent majority that he seems to dismiss off-hand many of the real changes that were affecting the United Kingdom at the time. The shifts in public attitudes on immigration, women’s rights, abortion and divorce, and other social issues would receive greater prominence in 1960s, but the groundwork for their changes was laid in the Macmillan years.

Never Had It So Good concludes with the various scandals that plagued the end of Harold Macmillan’s time in office, followed soon after by his resignation due to ill health and the Conservative Party’s leadership fracas from which Lord Home (shortly to renounce his hereditary peerage and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerged as Prime Minister. Yet Sandbrook does not end on the sour note of the resignation — he is already looking ahead to 1964, with the Beatles at the top of the charts and the new television programme Doctor Who sending thousands of children racing to hide behind the sofa as the terrifying Daleks advanced across the screen. After almost 13 years of Tory rule, a country whose people had never had it so good were looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting, and were preparing to vote in (by a very narrow margin) a Government whose leader promised all of those things and more, with a buoyant optimism that he hoped would be contagious. Never Had It So Good does not invite the reader to linger on the Macmillan years. Everyone, including Sandbrook, seems to be on the way to somewhere else — in this case, on to the next book.

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

White Heat takes its title from a quotation from the Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson, given during a speech at the 1963 Labour Party Conference. Wilson urged his fellow party members to equate Labour’s socialism with the seemingly boundless capacity of scientific progress, ready to revolutionise how Britain saw itself at home and abroad:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry….In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike, those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age.

Wilson’s words reflected the themes of science, progress, and revolution that were a constant background of the early 1960s. The pressure to be ‘new’ and ‘modern’ produced visible changes, as glass-and-concrete tower blocks replaced Victorian terraced housing and designers embraced synthetic materials and sleekly futuristic lines in fashion and furniture. The Labour Government, despite the slim majority with which it entered power in 1964, intended to push Britain forward to meet the challenges of the Space Age, and the public seemed quite happy to go along — for a time, at least.

Sandbrook writes a crisp political history of the 1960s, drawing heavily on published diaries and memoirs of politicians and other celebrities for good gossip and anecdotes. But when it comes to social history, Sandbrook warns readers against taking a romantic view of the period. He is of the opinion that most of the fashionable movements and trendy ideas of the 1960s lacked real permanence: the protesting students go home at the end of term, the daringly avant-garde play closes within a month, the popular new boutique shuts its doors when the losses from shoplifting and poor business management become too great. To remain popular in the music world, he suggests, even the Beatles had to move away from their cheerful clean-cut image and experiment with mysticism and drugs. Meanwhile, many people distrusted the changes taking place, fearing that immigration and the always-scare-quoted ‘permissive society’ were eroding traditional values and doing irreparable damage to the British way of life. Sandbrook chips away at the myths of a carefree Swinging Britain, focusing more on the fracture points (such as Northern Ireland and growing labour unrest) that would lead to the greater trouble and strife of the 1970s.

Though the concluding chapter of Never Had It So Good looks ahead with interest to the Wilson years, White Heat closes with a wistful look at the popularity of the World War II sitcom Dad’s Army, a symbol of the growing cult of nostalgia that Sandbrook claims is the real legacy of the 1960s. Poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman wrote paens to a simpler Britain of sleepy country churches and soot-covered northern towns, and the Kinks and the Beatles popularised openly nostalgic songs like ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Even miniskirts, one of the most iconic symbols of the Swinging Sixties, warred with ankle-length Victorian-inspired dresses in fashionable circles towards the end of the decade. Sandbrook’s melancholy message is really that Britain in the 1960s was not all that keen on change; at least, not at the speed with which it seemed to be happening. And in spite of the real advancements that was made during the decade in the women’s movement and in other broader campaigns for social progress, White Heat suggests that the decade burned itself out long before it actually came to an end.

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Commentary: Hansard, the Abridged Edition?

12 October 2009

Lord Solely’s recent Lords of the Blog post on potential reforms included a suggestion of creating a specially edited version of Hansard that might have a broader public appeal: ‘With good editing and with pictures it might sell in the shops and provide people with an alternative to the gossipy and trivial news coverage of Parliament in some of the newspapers.

Without reproducing my own comment verbatim, I can safely say that even though I’m about as close to a target demographic as any publisher might wish for this sort of edited version of Hansard, I doubt that I would buy it. Much as I love Hansard as an institution (and would gladly work as a Hansard reporter or editor, if given the chance), I can’t see much of a market for this kind of publication.

What I would love to see, however, is a series of professionally edited Hansard debates on key pieces of historic legislation. The editions would contain the texts of the debates in both the Commons and the Lords, with an editor’s introduction and conclusion, appropriate scholarly footnotes and references for further reading, a dramatis personae of the key figures in the debate, and perhaps the odd photograph or illustration (such as topical political cartoons). Pick six fairly well-known or noteworthy acts to start with — say, the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts (a two-part set), the 1944 Education Act, the 1958 Life Peerages Act, the 1967 Abortion Act, and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act — and have that be the first series. All of these acts fall well within the 30-Year Rule, so most of the relevant papers would be available at Kew and in various other archives for consultation. Ideally, the volumes would be edited and written to be well suited for A Level and undergraduate study, or just for the general reading public interested in contemporary history.

I haven’t seen anything of this nature available for sale, but I would absolutely be interested in buying it (or contributing to it, for that matter!) if some enterprising publisher wanted to take a chance on it.

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Commentary: Bagehot on the ‘history wars’

5 October 2009

A recent article from the Economist‘s Bagehot on the history wars among British politicians prompted me to ponder the use of history as a stick with which to beat one’s political opponents.

It’s hard to disagree that hearkening back to past failures is, as Bagehot puts it, ‘a comforting kind of displacement activity….less a way of understanding the future than avoiding it‘. Watching Prime Minister’s Question Time during the Blair years was rather like playing a drinking game, preparing a shot glass in anticipation of the first mention of ‘the shambles we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government’ or some iteration on that phrase. At some point around 1999 (possibly even earlier), the phrase lost whatever meaning it might have had, and became an almost expected part of Question Time regardless of who was facing the Prime Minister on the Opposition benches. Good for at least one shot in the PMQs drinking game, if nothing else.

I suspect that much of the impetus for the ‘history wars’ comes from New Labour’s own attempts to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays suggests. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour without much to stand on except its current record, and the Tories aren’t much better when it comes to facing down the demons of the Thatcher and Major years, especially on questions related to Europe. History does make a very good stick for beating one’s opponents, but more often than not it ends up being like the magic cudgel in the Brothers Grimm fairytale that will spring out of its sack and start hitting anyone in sight, indiscriminately, until the right command is found to stop it. At the moment, it seems, no one’s figured out how to make it stop.

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Publications: Scope Book Review

26 June 2009

The June 2009 issue of the online film studies journal Scope contains my review of What Have They Built You to Do: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González. It’s a bit longer than my usual reviews, but I do tend to go on a bit when it comes to Cold War film studies.