Friday, March 12, 2010

British History book review

Hey again. I haven't posted in a while but I've been meaning to put up this book review I did for my Modern British Politics class on an interesting history book by a novelist. I'm off to Texas in an hour or so, for a week, so hopefully this will hold you over and then I'll come up with something else interesting. The book is Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II by A.N. Wilson, and it was published in 2008.

This is the third volume of a history trilogy, covering everything about Britain since Queen Elizabeth II took the throne. A.N. Wilson’s thesis is “the Britain of 6 February 1952 is not merely different from the Britain of today – it has ceased to exist.” Why? There are a multitude of reasons, but going through the book, the chief ones appear to be Roman Catholics, homosexuals (more specifically, the leaders of the nation who fell into these categories) and immigrants. This is slightly unfair to the author, but Wilson’s bugbears are clear, and I’m being no more unfair to the author than he to the subjects of his survey.

Our Times can be viewed a history as a polemic, or a bad history book written by a novelist, which it indeed is. The book is clearly meant to be entertaining, full of amusing vignettes and risible prose, but it is most often risible because it is ridiculous. The decline of the Church of England and the Empire and the supposed imminence of Scottish independence (Scottish nationalism is dubbed “wandering drunk into a rootless future” on page336) are Wilson’s favored reasons for the “disappearance” of Britain, perhaps fairly obvious and well-documented. The reductions of the national rail network and changing British landscape are more interesting explanations which Wilson cites. And then there’s Europe. Wilson is one of those Brits who thinks the European Union and submission before Brussels is a terrible idea and overreliance on America is also bad. Does he have a realistic alternative to these two options? Not really.

While Wilson is clearly a Conservative politically, but turns a sharp pen on all and sundry, attacking them for age (Churchill), looks (pretty Eden and ugly Thatcher), being cheated on by their spouses (Macmillan), and other such personal grounds as well as a few political ones. If a few Tories stand out as decent leaders – Wilson is actually quite a fan of John Major and worships Alec Douglas-Home – Macmillan and Heath (the latter for the unforgivable sin of signing up Britain to the European Economic Community) were terrible people who destroyed Britain. Labour is to be mocked, of course, although Gordon Brown’s spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer is praised (he did preside over a healthy economy and keep Britain out of the eurozone)… his premiership not so much.

Throughout the book, psychoanalysis of notables based on anecdotes and rumours is given greater weight than more serious analysis of policy. In one passage Wilson surveys the sexuality of Britain’s 20th Century leaders and concludes that John Major, whose adultery was revealed by his mistress, was the first British prime minister to have a sexual nature since David Lloyd George, although throughout the book he pushes rumors that his biggest targets of derision – Macmillan, Heath, Blair – were secretly homosexual. Wilson actually writes that greater ease for gays to live openly as who they are is one of the improvements from old Britain to the country-but-not-society which has replaced it, but the weight of the innuendos make Our Times fall on the gay-bashing side of the scale.

Wilson particularly hates Catholicism, which to me was the most striking part of the book. A typical example, on the comically presented figure of George Brown, foreign secretary under “Hawold” Wilson: “He died in 1985 of cirrhosis of the liver, having become a Roman Catholic.” Funnily enough, according to Wikipedia, Wilson once converted to Catholicism, also going through an atheist phase before returning to his present devotion to the Church of England. There is nothing particularly extraordinary in his treatment of immigration and multiculturalism, which is less extreme than a lot that is out there. However, he is sometimes creative with it – New Labour’s legislation banning foxhunting and smoking in the workplace and pubs is compared to the Koran, which “should perhaps have made the British more capable of understanding the Muslims, who follow a scripture which is almost devoid of the narrative interests of the Hebrew Bible, and is largely injunctions and prescriptions” (365).

Thatcher receives one of the more interesting treatments. Wilson compares her rebellion to that of the Sex Pistols, citing that Johnny Rotten said in 1977 “You don’t write a song like ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re sick of seeing them mistreated.’ (264)” And both of them were redheads. He cheers her premiership, but he also gratuitously insults her looks, and goes over the top on her post-premiership: “Now she returned from the dead, having lost what vestiges of political nous or personal niceness she might once have possessed. Like a witch at a christening, she wanted to curse the baby whom she had at first suckled as her natural heir [John Major]. And she who had forced through British membership of the European Union [in Heath’s government] now became the High Priestess of the Eurosceptic Cult, screeching her strange imprecations against each and every manifestation of ‘compromise’ from the government…” (312). Interesting – hardly objective history, but Wilson is no Hunter S. Thompson, either.

There are some better moments in the book. The last several pages on the disappearance of Britannia are well-written and fairly convincing. Prince Charles is portrayed as a very decent and admirable man if somewhat politically tone deaf in a strikingly fair chapter on the most famous marriage of the Second Elizabethan Era.

But when the cover has been shut, one comes away with the impression that Wilson thinks postwar Britain has been a march of mediocrity mitigated only by the exceptions of Douglas-Home, Thatcher, Major and Charles in the realm of politics and Benjamin Britten and the Rolling Stones in the realm of culture (with the rest of the United Kingdom contributing the great man that is Rev. Ian Paisley). I’m sure there are some people who agree with him, but if he meant to be taken seriously, he should have treated his subject more seriously. Then again, this is history by a novelist, which might not have been taken seriously anyways, and salaciousness is a good way to sell books.

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