Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Notes: Hope & Glory (The Days That Made Britain) by Stuart Maconie

Over the last few years, genial BBC Radio host, Stuart Maconie has produced a series of books about Britain. These books, (Pies and Prejudice, Adventures on the High Teas, and now Hope and Glory) don't fall easily into any one particular category, but roam through travel, music, autobiography, history, culture, TV etc etc. In fact they roam like the thoughts of an astute radio host, engaging, provoking, and observing.

The latest of these, Hope and Glory is as good as anything in 'Pies' and far better than 'High Teas'. Maconie might be writing in a slightly odd genre that is all his own - but he does it with such style, and warmth that the result is almost perfect holiday reading - in that it is neither vacuous drivel about nothing like the archetypal airport novel, but neither is it academic research and argument requiring great concentration. Rather, Maconie succeeds in taking the reader on a journey around Britain, and through a century of its history, and does so gently, wittily and on occasion rather movingly.

The premise of 'Hope and Glory' is this: To mark ten critical dates from the 20th Century which have come to define Britain, visit the places concerned, and write a observational reflective travelogue on the experience and the history. The choosing of the dates, as well as the content of each foray is directed entirely by Maconie's personal whims. He does not pretend to be an objective historian but comes across as a well-informed friend taking us on a tour of his neighbourhood. So we encounter the first day of the Somme, the '66 cup final, the miners strike, Live Aid, the invention of TV, the Silver Jubilee, Enoch Powell and the Windrush, The 1997 New-Labour victory, and more.

When Maconie tells the stories of whole families of sons wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he does so with affecting empathy. He, of course was a journalist before a Radio host, and can write with telling pathos when required. He also visits some of the 'thankful villages', places where no memorial was built because every soldier returned from the trenches. Remarkable stuff, well told.

These are no mere history lessons however, when exploring Alexandra Palace and investigating the origins of TV, BBC and Lord Reith, he uses it as a tangent to explore (vent!) his feelings about where TV has taken us:

"Sometimes the togetherness that the TV community engenders can be comforting: a big football match, occasions of state, the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials of the 70s. But more and more, I find this consensus weird, false and deadeningly stupid. I've lost count of the number of times that I've been told 'everyone watches the X-factor', that it's not meant to be deep, it's just entertainment' and that I'm 'a snob' for not liking it. I, for my part, try and convince these people that I have better things to do. Like nail my own hand to a tree trunk."

Likewise, when assessing the impact of Live Aid, both as a musical event, as a part of the national consciousness and as a major factor in the creation of the modern cult of celebrity with all its wretched vacuousness, Maconie is incisive and persuasive. However, when discussing the famine itself and the terrible suffering of the Ethiopian people, his writing is delicate, sensitive and passionate:

He quotes Michael Buerk's famous report from the Ethiopian refugee camps:

"Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plains outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now in the twentieth century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth".

And comments:

"There've been those who've taken issue with Michael Buerk's famous opening words to his landmark piece. They say that the 'biblical' reference implies that what we see is an act of God, unavoidable and accidental. I think that's being deliberately obtuse. What Beurk means, and what we can see for ourselves as the camera pans across a parched landscape of huddled corpses, weeping children and skeletal animals, across a cracked, hellish vista of smoke and dust, is that this is biblical in scale and imagery. This does not look like something from our modern world of cars and computers and skyscrapers. It looks like Golgotha"

The book isn't all sombre however. There are plenty of lighter moments, of entertaining characters, dryly amusing anecdotes and quirky reminiscences en route. Maconie seems to be unusually adept at turning our attention rapidly through all aspects of Britishness from the scars of warfare on the national psyche to the glories and eccentricities of hillwalking or tea-shops.

In all of this, Maconie's personal opinions are writ large. This means that in the course of his travelogue he will upset or infuriate people such as monarchists, Thatcherites, Nick Clegg, and others. He writes with deep affection about the aspects of Britain he finds heroic, which include punk, multiculturalism, the miners, and football! The only sad note for me was the few scattered withering dismissals of Christianity and the church, which while they reflect his own experiences he has documented elsewhere - radically differ from my own. I don't find the community of the church to be 'the life-denying opposite of a library'; but rather life-informing, life-giving and life-enhancing.

This one disappointment aside, Hope and Glory is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative romp through a hundred years of British history as distilled through the mind of Stuart Maconie. His tone is to chat, rather than lecture, and to engage as much as to educate - to provoke as well as to describe; and he does so with disarming wit, and natural eloquence.

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