Thursday, May 8, 2008

White Heat

Readers of this blog would know that I have made the trip from Australia to the United States. That means a 13 hour flight (16 hours of flying if you count the connecting domestic flight), and that means you need a big book.

Last time I did this flight I read Bill Clinton's autobiography. As you might have gathered, that wasn't going to be my book of choice this time. This time I picked Dominic Sandbrook's White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties.

At 800 pages it was the right length, and it was indeed the right book. Sandbrook was born in 1974, so he is writing about a historical period that he didn't live through, but that is the point. It is the second book in a history of post-WWII Britain that are part of what he calls 'narrative history', or a tightly argued, event by event, approach that draws on the full range of secondary sources available.

It has a heady mix of politics, popular culture, and various vignettes from the lives of ordinary Britons during what was a pretty compelling period. It has some great chapter titles ('Introducing the Turds', 'The Day It All Stopped', 'Carry On England', 'I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet!' and 'Why Lucky Jim Turned Right') using titles from newspaper articles books, movies, TV shows, speeches and, indeed, shops from the period ('I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet!' was a fashion shop in London).

Two things caught my eye in particular about the book. The first is the level of detail it goes into about the minutae of Harold Wilson's Labour government and its decision making processes. As the first government to govern over a period of decline in Britain, where the economic situation started badly and got worse, it is intriguing to understand the personalities, the conflict, and the sense of malaise that frequently struck this government, which started with high hopes and ended in disarray.

The other thing is that he debunks a lot of myths about the period that are told by those who lived through it. The idea that Britain in the 60s was all Swinging London, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and political radicalism is pretty effectively skewered through Sandbrook's approach, which reads the newspapers, the magazines, the statistics and the personal testimonies of the era very closely, and which tells history from the bottom up and from through out the country (i.e. from Hull and not just London).

Well worth a read, particularly if you are looking for a long historical work and have some time to settle back with it.

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