Ah, popular history.
Free from the constraints of academia, such as Richard Evans’ books on Nazi Germany, Dominic Sandbrook, in his four-volume history of post-war Britain, is able to select the facts he needs to support the argument he had clearly decided on before he even sat down.
Then he is allowed to interpret those facts however he wishes as long as it looks good, and if the facts don’t quite back up his argument, well, he can choose some others. That’s what makes him a journalist rather than a historian.
Sandbrook claims to have at least tried to be even-handed. Really? Just read the chapter on the Polytechnic of North London.
I’ve read the last two books in the series, State of Emergency and Seasons in the Sun, and both, especially the latter, form what is not far short of a Thatcherism cookbook.
You put in the following ingredients – inflation, out-of-control unions, IRA bombing campaigns, growing extremism on the left, add a pinch of punk rock. Allow to simmer through the Winter of Discontent by limiting the money supply, and by May 1979 you’ll have a fully formed Iron Lady.
Sandbrook may even be right. He argues his case well, and plenty of people will agree with him.
He may also be wrong, which is where you have to look at his sources and see whether his conclusions are justifiable.
This is where it gets a bit muddy. Apparently it took him just 18 months to write Seasons in the Sun, which is quite some feat for a book of this length, especially bearing in mind he makes TV series and writes hysterical (not in the funny sense of the word) articles for the Daily Mail.
It took me nearly a month to read it, and I was going quite quickly.
That leads you to question whether he was quite as rigorous a historian as he may have been.
The same sources pop up again and again: Bernard Donoughue, the adviser to both Harold Wilson and James Callaghan; Tony Benn, Peter Hall.
Every historian would use contemporary diaries as principal sources, but Sandbrook goes back to the same ones again and again, and the book seems to go beyond mere use and into rehash.
I started to think he was giving the impression of being authoritative, without necessarily being so. Again, the art of journalism. I’m not the only one to think so. There is even a website dedicated to pointing out the errors in his work. Here’s one I spotted this morning: he writes of education being a common topic on Question Time in the 1970s – but the BBC TV programme did not start until September 14, 1979.
That all said, it is well-written and easy to read. But good writing, certainly in non-fiction, can be a danger. Just because he has a good turn of phrase and can write in a way that makes you want to read on doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not lying through his teeth. (Although, it has to be said, it’s not a bad test. Not that I’ve ever looked at it, but Mein Kampf is supposed to be almost unreadable.)
One of the things that tires me greatly is that people on the right will read this book because they agree with it, but people on the left will not, as they don’t. This strikes me as ignorant. You shouldn’t just read books that back up what you already think. Everyone should read books that challenge their preconceptions. Once you have a few facts at your disposal, you may have to change your mind (that is called growing up), and even if you don’t, you’ve informed your own argument and made it much broader by examining the alternatives.
That’s the political side of the book. Definitely worth looking at. It’s far better than the cultural chapters, which is where his lack of firsthand experience of the 1970s is exposed. Sandbrook was born in 1974, so he’s brave to tell us who were around at the time what we were listening to, watching, and most of all thinking.
He seems to think that a quick look at what was the most popular song, film, book or TV programme will tell us all we need to know.
For example, many reviewers have taken umbrage of his dismissal of punk rock: he points out that for all the fuss, the Bay City Rollers and Abba sold far more records than the Sex Pistols.
A fact, maybe. But let me put it this way. Can you name the biggest selling singles of 1972? They were Mouldy Old Dough by Lieutenant Pigeon, and in top place, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards with Amazing Grace. If you don’t remember them, their true awfulness is available on Youtube. And their influence? Nil. Punk rock was a reaction to the rubbish in the charts. That was the whole point. And when those of us who lived through it as teenagers grew up and the world became ours, we remembered.
So, in conclusion, probably not worth reading if you yearn for the days of Thatcher, because a piece of journalism like this, as opposed to history, will just confirm your prejudices. For everyone else, worth a look for the politics, if only to find out what you are up against. But if it’s a cultural and social history you are after, look elsewhere.
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