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4.4 out of 5 stars107
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 7 October 2009
This excellent read by Andrew Marr gives an informative overview of how British scoiety changed dramatically in only 44 years (1901-1945).It shows the effects of two World Wars,grandeur of Edwardian society and Appeasement, to name but a few. For those who enjoyed his first book and new Marr readers, this book is a must!
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on 8 October 2010
The stars are for the entertainment value. It's a fun read, but oh dear, the casual attitude to accuracy. He would go for anyone he was interviewing who was as bad. I suppose I should have expected it given that his last book had to be recalled because of mistakes about living people. I think I was most irritated by his insistance that "The Riddle of the Sands" is set on Germany's Baltic Coast, because he keeps repeating it, insisting that the Friesian Islands are in the Baltic and coming back to it pages after the first mention. A glance at a map of Europe would show that this is wrong, and common sense would tell you that you would never start to invade England from the Baltic if you had a North Sea (or as it was once called "German Ocean") coast available. Perhaps he isn't sure exactly where Gernmany is. But it is entertaining and funny provided you take the "information" with a pinch of salt.
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on 14 February 2011
I think authors read their reviews on here (well I would - wouldn't you?) So Andrew, please quit weakly challenging second rate politicians on a Sunday morning, and produce volumes of history like this - one for every 50 years back to say 1650. That will give us a 7 volume popular history of Britain (or 8 volumes if you look after yourself and squeeze in a 21st century one) that will be treasured for generations to come.

It would easy to be a bit snobby about the lack of depth, or the glossing over of so many key issues, but the fact is Marr pulls off the trick of writing short and fascinating vignettes, which also give you a genuine feel and "smell" for the era. You know what Edwardian Britain was like far more from the chapters here than from dense volumes of detailed analysis. Yes occassionaly the style does appear superficial and uninformative (the Governor of England / gold standard chapter springs to mind) but there are so many wonderful chapters that it is easy to forgive.

David Mitchell's character in the Peep show says something along the lines of "I was trying to read this book to get to sleep but Andrew Marr is just so damn readable" - couldn't put it better.
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on 12 June 2011
Too many history books are badly written, or written by people who live in an academic goldfish bowl. Some are well researched and well written - but not many. This is not a typical history book - it is far better than that! And don't be put off by the size. Each chapter has short sections which can well be read on their own. Easy to pick up and put down and continue later. The author is not pushing any particular line, he just tells many stories, after careful research and thought, and paints a picure of what Britain was like, and how it grew into our Britain. Any historical comments he makes are very short, to the point, and would put most professional historians to shame.
This is good stuff, with a real easy style of writng. You won't find many stories so accurate, so well told. This is how it should be, but very rarely is. And it works for both the serious reader, and the ones looking for something lighter. It's an antidote against so many books and doumentaries which try to preach to us, instead of just telling a balanced story. I thought my knowledge was above average, but I learned a lot from this book. Thank you Mr Marr.
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on 2 January 2010
The book is described as "accompanying the BBC2 series" by the BBC, though as the "book before the series" by the author. It was clearly written with a TV series in mind: the way the chapters are structured into 'vignettes', just the right size for a TV programme piece, is what annoys me.

It is very readable. Andrew Marr is a good communicator. But he is clearly a TV (or radio) communicator. If you like your books to be readily available in tidy chunks, then you will like this (indeed love it and quote from it). However, as a more complete view of "what made Great Britain" it fails for me - see comments on factual errors noted by others, and also rather sparse references, notes, etc.

For me, it's a relaxing read. That's it.
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I really enjoyed this book, more than I expected to. Marr is an excellent writer, very engaging and readable without being condescending, which isn't always the easiest balance to achieve in writing history.

This isn't a comprehensive history of the fifty-odd years between the death of Queen Victoria and the end of the Second World War, nor does it pretend to be. It's more a case of charting just how much Britain changed in such a short span, less than one lifetime, and how much of that change and that process reverberates with us still. Britain went from being an imperial power with an Empire, the most powerful nation on earth, to a nation bankrupted by war, shedding its empire and moving into a new role as a democracy, indebted to and to a large extent subservient to one of its old colonies.

As I said, this isn't a comprehensive history; it's more of a thematic one, looking at issues such as culture, literacy, the attitudes towards class, social mobility, shopping and commercial culture. But it's well-worth reading, if only because it sheds so much light on how we became the country we are today.
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For the book, Andrew Marr has reduced his history of Britain – from 1900 to 1945, what he calls ‘The Age of Churchill’ – down from six episodes of the TV series to four chapters whose subjects cover respectively peace, war, peace, and war. Or rather the four parts of the book became six episodes of the TV series, since (Marr tells us in his preface) “this was written as a book, not as something to accompany something else. My only guiding principle is that I have kept in what is most important, and what interested me most.”

The chapters are very lengthy. The first covers 113 pages and took me three-and-a-half hours to read. Yet I read on and on. Thankfully, each chapter is split into sections, but like the TV series, the book is more disjointed than the previous book and TV series (‘The History of Modern Britain’) which covered the post-1945 era. We jump too far and too often, it seems to me, between subjects; from Tudorbethan housing styles between the wars we hop straight to skiing holidays in the Alps, skip on to the creation of Imperial Airways, and jump then to Wyndham Lewis. There is, therefore, less of a feel of an overarching historical argument developing. Perhaps this is the impression that Marr wishes to convey.

But even within paragraphs, there are sometimes strange juxtapositions. Marr commences one with an insightful comment on how “there was a strange connection between pilots and right-wing politics, too strong to be entirely coincidental.” Rather than develop this psychological theme of solitary individuals looking down on the rest of us like a god, Marr instead jerks into a long passage in the same paragraph about technological developments and the Schneider Trophy.

Marr opens his history with comparisons between the Edwardians and ourselves. He posits many differences, but there is just as many if not more links that bind us. “The past is not a foreign country,” he writes. “Edwardian Britain touches modern Britain repeatedly. They were struggling with small wars abroad. They were convulsed by new technologies … They were deeply engaged in the wider world yet sentimental about family and home, highly patriotic yet also sceptical about politicians, obsessed with criminal stories … yet remarkably law abiding. They were divided by class and income and united by common prejudices and jokes which baffled outsiders … The past is not a foreign country.”

But much of this is waffle: what Marr relates here was ever thus! No, it is the differences that stand out. Those who fought and endured the trenches of the First World War “have been lost in the mud. Our attitudes today, to class, to economic and religious differences, to suffering and death, to patriotism, make the gap virtually unbridgeable.” Marr also takes time out to briefly reflect how British concerns affected, for example, the Middle East, for “the consequences of the First World War amount to more than paper poppies once a year; they are all around us still”: in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan …

Comparisons with states closer to home are also made, but then Marr’s story could not really ignore the rise of fascism and communism in our near neighbours. Nevertheless, he has a good way with words when covering this period: “The twenties and thirties were a time of idealism and sparkling visions of a new future, but they were also when the British were saved by a low centre of gravity … these were the years when, despite every temptation, we kept our balance.” I also liked Marr’s description of the difference of moods between the two decades: the arrival of the thirties was when “the rambling stopped and the marching began.”

The fourth and final chapter covers World War Two, the event that propelled us into ‘Modern Britain’. Marr’s objective here is to ask why and how we changed into modern Britons. To do so, he includes the military history because these details “provide the essential context” and “without them, the changes in British life cannot be understood.” Thus this chapter possesses a more consistent and chronological narrative that is less present in the others. Along the way he pops many balloons filled with the air of lazy legends. He argues that Britain was invaded, but by the Americans – “and that invasion has never quite ended.”

As expected, there are a number of errors, either factual or typographical. On page 101 we are told the ‘British Covenant’ “attracted nearly 2 million signatures”, but two pages later it was “signed by nearly half a million people”; if the fleet was heading for the North Sea, it would slip up the Channel, not down it; Marr writes that “Britain had not fought a war on the continent of Europe since the Battle of Waterloo”, but last time I looked the Crimea is west of the Urals; and I chuckled to read how Churchill was born at Blenheim Place. And Marr is just plain wrong to assert that Britain and France were the only democracies in 1914. (One benefit of Germany going to war was to stifle electoral support for the socialists.)

After all the effort, all the reading, writing, and artistry of metaphor and simile, it comes as a bit of a shock to find Marr’s summing up occupying a mere two paragraphs. But here again he manages to instil a vivid mind-picture at the end of what he calls ‘The Age of Churchill’. He writes how at VE-Day, “The crowds cheered ‘Our Winnie’ and gave him his V-for-victory sign but they were saying goodbye.” It was not quite the end, of course – Churchill would return to power in a mute and dignified coda in the fifties – but it was certainly the beginning of the end – and the end of the beginning for a new era in British history.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 August 2011
Stemming from his book and television series of the same name, it is a very enjoyable way to reach both; I had seen the programme but had not had time to read the book. Going on a lengthy journey, I bought the CDs and put them on my iPod.
It was a very enjoyable, interesting and informative way to while away hours behind the wheel. I always enjoy Andrew Marr and have a few of his works. This is an excellent addition to the collection and for anyone who wants an interesting companion in the car, jogging or just sitting, Marr's as good as they come.
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on 17 January 2010
If you are looking for a complete history of life from Queen Victoria up till the end of the second world war this isn't it. Andrew Marr (TV journalist, presenter of the Andrew Marr show and political commentator) in this book pieces together how modern Britiain was created using well known characters and plots (the abdication, war poets, rationing) as well as less known or spoken about influences.

Although a political commentator Marr thankfully does not just focus on the politics of the House of Lords and Commons in this book, he also writes about the importance of film, art, literature and many more things beside. It took me a while to read this book I'll be honest as whilst I was reading it I had to change some of my preconceptions of the pre, post and between war years and I also found myself going off an angle on an area I found particularly interesting and looking into it in more detail on the internet. The sub chapters in this book only last a few pages so the book never goes into too much depth.

Overall I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to those who would like another perspective on this period and maybe just a little more information on how the Britain we live in today was formed.
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on 29 December 2013
That Andrew Marr is a journalist, as opposed to an academic historian, makes this book really work for me. Marr recalls Britain during the period from 1900 to 1945 in a series of vignettes - bite-sized chunks which are both informative and digestible. The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive historical account - just right for those who find such accounts generally indigestible. In particular, Marr does not claim to do justice to the complexities of the two world wars. But he does tell you enough to keep you interested and to enable you to grasp the main threads.

The parts of the book I liked best were those which were permeated by personalised anecdotes - they brought history very much to life for me. The parts I found less endearing were where he was drawn into complex arguments - which may have done them justice, but which were less readable. I especially liked Marr's line on the role of Churchill before and during the 2WW. For the first time I really got to understand his many shortcomings, as well as his undoubted greatness.

All in all, this book was a very pleasant and informative read. Probably not for the serious historian, But great for the armchair observer.
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