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.

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