Dan Sandman

39: The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

In Books, History, Non-Fiction on 23/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-making-of-modern-britain-by-andrew-marrThe start of the twentieth century marks a dramatic turning point in British history. Queen Victoria was reaching the end of her long life, having ruled for sixty-four years over the greatest empire the world has ever seen. In an era before radio and television, music halls entertained the masses in huge urban auditoriums. Gathering in the passageways of overcrowded slum housing, the urban working classes drank from shared water pumps and uncomfortably breathed beneath a thick, polluted fog. Beyond the charity of wealthy philanthropists, there was no support for anyone unlucky enough to fall ill or loose their job. Britain may have been the wealthiest country in the world, but it functioned without the publicly funded hospitals and benefits systems we have in place today. Woman were classed as second class citizens, unable to vote or own property. Beyond the kind of violent revolutions seen elsewhere, something had to be done to address the gulfs between the classes and the sexes. There would be many complaints from the more conservative quarters of the old establishment, but Britain was progressively becoming more liberal and more democratic, with socialism also beginning to play an important role within British politics. Meanwhile, as his aunt lay on her deathbed, the queen’s nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II was beginning to strut up and down the deck of his newly built navy’s flagship.

This book grabs readers by the scruff of the neck, dragging them from Victoria’s death to the end of the Second World War. The pace is fast, with each of the four parts of history covered (e.g. 1919-1939) being given a title and around one hundred pages of text. Writing for the BBC viewing British public, Andrew Marr does not write overly academic essays; instead Marr adopts an anecdotal style but is nonetheless authoritative, listing many of his sources in the notes section at the back of the book. His approach to history is to focus on a particular event or character, bridging out to broader issues from there. This makes the whole work very readable, and is one reason why the book version of the television series has been a bestseller. In a way, Marr is following a long line of journalists who have worked prolifically to feed the British public’s need for news, views and opinion. In order to achieve such a mammoth task, he appears regularly on television as a presenter and political commentator, writes for the national newspapers as often as he can, and composes books of both non-fiction and fiction — when he not busy filling in his journal with the day’s events.

I should imagine that such a prominent journalist has a pretty tight schedule — as well as access to the contact details of every important person in the country and beyond. It is therefore admirable that Mr. Marr still has time to support the community he lives in here in Primrose Hill. Whereas most of us average folk go about our daily business making little impact on the thoughts of NHS workers in Birmingham or Scottish nationalists in Dumfries and Galloway, such esteemed journalists — some of which I happen to occasionally see walking along Chalcot Road on a Friday afternoon — are in the business of forming public opinion on a grand scale. The whole thing must be incredibly tiring and stressful, but some people thrive in such environments.

Personally, I prefer the less significant work of publishing here every Friday afternoon at 12 o’ clock precisely.

38: Byron by Elizabeth Longford

In Biography, Books, Literature, Non-Fiction, Poetry on 16/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

byron-by-elizabeth-longfordIn his own lifetime, Lord Byron was almost as famous as Napoleon, after bursting into the literary limelight in 1812 with an epic poem about a self-outcast romantic hero. The poem in question Childe Harold would cement Byron’s reputation for creating dark, dangerous and devilishly exciting central characters — the original Byronic heroes of the literary world. Byron traveled the world in style, forged many promiscuous relationships with both sexes along the way, and fostered a controversial public image within the newspapers. Poet’s were the pop stars of their day, and Byron was to become one of the first international celebrities of the modern era. It would be right to compare his popularity to Micheal Jackson’s, another controversial figure living within a celebrity bubble. But the fact that Byron’s poetry is still appreciated by English Literature scholars has nothing to do with this fame. The poems themselves are brightly lit with clever rhyming and encompass an expansive range of subjects, precariously balancing between the biographically personal and the satirically political.

Published in 1976, this highly readable biography is well known amongst Byron scholars. Elizabeth Longford does a very good job of gathering together the various letters, corespondents and previous biographies surrounding the Byron myth. In chronological order, Longford occasionally dips into the poetry itself to add to her biography of the famous romantic poet — which will please English students. Over the years, however, Longford has been criticized for inaccuracies concerning the number of books Byron’s publishers actually sold during his lifetime; many unlicensed editions were created and circulated illegally, through pirated copies which breached the relatively recent laws concerning copyright. As this illegal copying highlights, the question of author ownership was being challenged long before the internet came along.

I like Byron’s poetry: it has grown on me over the years. Reading up on Byron for my essay is helping me to place Don Juan within the cultural milieu of late Georgian society. Yes, Byron is bitterly against almost all factions of the establishment, but at least he is consistent with his animosity. It is suggested by Longford that this might have had something to do with his clubbed foot, a disability which perhaps led to an overstatement of his masculinity; the need for sporting magnificence and his desire for many passionate but essentially unfulfilling sexual conquests. This is one argument which seeks to give meaning to the complex identity of this good looking and brilliantly witty poet: combined with an absent aristocratic father who died whilst Byron was still a boy, leaving the young future poet much land, a title, but not much money; an overbearing mother, with many uncomplimentary nicknames, who arguably allowed an incestuous relationship to develop between Byron and his sister; and any number of sexual adventures in foreign lands. The whole tale creates a saucy biographical picture which perhaps augments our reading of the poetry. Whether the more sensational stories surrounding Byron (of which I have not the space to cover) are strictly true or not is debatable, particularly seeing as the poet’s memoirs were burnt soon after he died.

Does it really matter? — if the poetry is good and worth reading.

37: Oxford by Martin Garrett

In Books, History, Literature, Music, Non-Fiction, Travel on 09/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

oxford-by-martin-garrettThis excellent guidebook is presented as a series of essays on the historic city of Oxford. Each chapter focuses on a different cultural aspect of the city: from its long history to its place in literature; and everything in between. Be prepared for a fair amount of literary quotes and humorous anecdotes, as you dip into this fascinating and insightful book. For example, did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien once drove a whole bunch of undergraduates through town in a stolen bus? Well, now you will.

In a style which is equal parts authoritative and amusing, Martin Garrett guides you with erudition and a perfectly light tone. Rather than presenting a series of facts (i.e. punting in oxford lasts until October) or giving you tips on restaurants and sights of interest, Garrett presents a cultural and an historic guide to Oxford in the manner of the good old-fashioned essay. The result is a relatively recent book (published 2014) which is less likely to date as changes are made to bus timetables and hotels readdress their website URLs. A trusted companion for someone new to city, or a welcome reminder for those who wish to reminisce.

And I am certainly in the second category, having lived in Oxford as a Brookes undergraduate, and shortly after as a bookseller. Oh Oxford! Oh poetry! Oh! Well you get the idea. Anyway, this Tuesday I return to my second home; from the metropolis which was named London many moons ago (and what Tolkien might have had in mind when he created Mordor). It also happens to be my birthday, and a beautiful time of the year for falling leaves and pleasantly mild climes.

Can’t wait to revisit places of old.