Monday, October 26, 2009

The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain

Jack dusts off old things with the fascinated concentration of an archaeologist at a dig. Objects that speaks to his sense of a more wholesome past - bus conductors, British cherries eaten from a paper bag, a model of the Titanic made out of a coal-based resin, or his father's bookcase, which evokes an era of working-class autodidacticism - are the keys that link his experiences and those of his family to wider historical developments.

The big story here is the decline of Britian as an industrial force, and the effects of this on the working class. Digging through his father's old coal shed (left untouched for twenty years by his widow, Jack's mother) a series of scarcely identifiable tools and objects present themselves (dolly tubs: "a wooden appliance with two arms, and legs or feet, used to stir clothes in a tub"). These remnants of the "departed culture of coal" are viewed with ambivalence - they hark back to a simpler time of industrial prosperity, but Jack is not insensible to the hardships of those - like his mother - whose gruelling task it was to operate the dolly tubs.
My review of Ian Jack's book The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain is now up on the New Statesman website. The full text is online here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Where the Other Half Lives

My review of Sarah Glynn's new book is up on the New Statesman's website here.

"In some respects, it's the most important statistic in modern Britain. In 1914, ten per cent of Britain's housing stock was owner-occupied: the figure now is around 72 per cent. During a century in which it fought two world wars, dismantled an empire and built a welfare state, Britain quietly transformed itself from a nation of tenants into a nation where the majority are homeowners. The massive impact that this has had on the social landscape of the country is often neglected, and yet it is key to understanding contemporary politics. Thatcher's sale of council houses under the right-to-buy scheme finally tilted the electoral balance in favour of the homeowner, and the imperative to pander to the interests of an owner-occupying 'middle England' that is inherently conservative has largely defined the policy direction of New Labour. Seamlessly, the property-owning democracy of the Thatcher years segued into Blair's stakeholder society. Homeownership has become a precondition of citizenship, while those without property are increasingly disenfranchised."