Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Book Review: The Making of Modern Britain

Another Kindle special offer; another book I really enjoyed reading. Having completely missed the first book on Modern Britain, and the accompanying TV series for both books, it appears I'm a latecomer to Andrew Marr's modern Britain history series. But it's definitely better late than never, if the other book is as good as this one.

In The Making of Modern Britain, BBC journalist Andrew Marr takes us from the death of Queen Victoria through to VE Day, surveying the scope of British history in the war years. The question being asked is this: How did Britain change from being an empire to the modern democracy we reside in today? As you would imagine, there's a cast of thousands, each playing their own part, and Marr marshals the facts superbly as he presents this popular history of Britain.

As well as presenting the facts, and introducing the characters (in every sense of that word), Marr also has an eye on what we can learn from our forebears: 'Looking back, we learn to see ourselves more sharply. Our forebears were living on the lip of the future, just as we are. Their illusions about what was to come should make us, right now, a little humble.' Or as he concludes much later in the book: 'If there is one thing we can learn from history it is that we rarely learn from history.'

I enjoyed Marr's writing style, as he began each chapter or section with a little cameo - describing a situation or a person, leading the reader on to discover who was being described, and how it related to the grand picture. His eye for detail and storytelling talent makes him an enjoyable tour guide on this journey through the past. This isn't just the broad sweep of things we probably already knew, but also a poke into the background, the minor characters, the life of the 'ordinary people', which makes it a rounder history than one just focusing on the 'greats'.

Life in Edwardian Britain, with its misery and terrible living and working conditions, is powerfully portrayed, while the build up to the Great War (what we now know as World War One) is dramatic in its inevitability. Similarly the aftermath: 'The consequences of the First World War amount to more than paper poppies once a year; they are all around us still.'

I was impressed with his section on the Ulster Crisis, with a significant amount of material on the Unionist cause and the nationalist push for Home Rule and independence. The Curragh Mutiny has much made of it, perhaps unthinkable these days, so Ireland has not been forgotten. That said, once the Home Rule crisis has been 'solved', Northern Ireland appears to be forgotten, apart from a mention during the Blitz, and also because it was the landing pad for the American troops joining the struggle in World War Two.

There are some lovely turns of phrase which will continue in the memory. One such example is in speaking of the Second World War, and the preparations for the German invasion: 'We were never invaded. Actually, we were. But we were invaded by our friends, the Americans. And that invasion has never quite ended.'

Also on the second World War, there was an important reminder to fight the battles that really matter: 'The country is beginning to say that he fights debates like a war and the war like a debate.'

While there is a lot of reading in the book, it's very enjoyable, and certainly readable. I learnt a lot from the stories highlighted, and also was able to better piece together the chunks of modern history I thought I knew. While I bought this from the Kindle store during the Jubilee special offers sale, it's available for £3.99 in the cheap bookshop opposite Easons in Enniskillen, and well worth the price.

No comments:

Post a Comment