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Short on sources, long on pages ...
on 27 December 2010
General history is a difficult thing to write. Outstanding exponents like Eric Hobsbawm have a phenomenal knowledge of the period they're writing about. Dominic Sandbrook is a "prolific reviewer and commentator" and a columnist for among other outlets the London `Evening Standard', which isn't the same thing.
Hence his sources for writing about 1970-1974 Britain are somewhat limited - the TV shows `The Good Life' and `Whatever Happened to the Lively Lads' crop up frequently. The book is heavily dependent on secondary sources. This shows up too clearly in some places, eg in the two chapters on Ireland based on just a few books. Mr Sandbrook hasn't for example looked at Hanley and Millar's `The Lost Revolution', which a professional historian surely would have done, and his distinction between Northern Ireland and "the rest of Britain" is a little short on geography (and sits uneasily with his observation that British security were using "colonial methods" in dealing with unrest there).
The columnist's style, suited to 900-word pieces in newspapers, also becomes a little wearing over 645 pages. I counted four uses of the phrase `Needless to say', which the editor should have taken out, but the claim that Iceland (the shop) was a "roaring success, like most things from Shropshire" (the author's birthplace) was a little glib and self-satisfied. The same might be said over his claim that one in five living in poverty was "a small minority". Or that John Lennon was someone who jumped on popular bandwagons.
Another problem is that Mr Sandbrook is often discussing trends that are not specific to the years 1970-74 - noting that the first sandwich bar opened in the City of London in 1979, or that home ownership increased from one in four families in 1950 to one in half of all families in 1970.
All that said, I enjoyed reading most of the book, although it could have been shorter. It brought back many memories and also jolted me a few times as to how long ago it all was: it's hard to believe that the Black and White minstrels were still so popular, or that the first McDonalds didn't open in London until 1974.
Sandbrook's analysis of Ted Heath's relationship with the Unions (which were fairly good) and his general conclusions about the Heath government seem derived from John Campbell's excellent biography.
" ..the crucial point ... is that ... Heath was governing at a time when the old Keynesian consensus, however battered and bruised, was still deeply embedded in the body politic."
Hence, despite the general sense of anarchy or even imminent collapse that pervaded the years 1970-74 - and Mr Sandbrook's sense of this is perhaps the best part of the book - the situation was not as yet ripe for Thatcherism. That would take the years of the Wilson/Callaghan government and the "winter of discontent". And that will no doubt be the theme of Mr Sandbrook's next book.