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A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s Hardcover – 5 Sep 2013
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***** “The field of instant history now attracts some of this country’s liveliest and most intelligent writers ... Alwyn W. Turner ranks high among them: ravenously inquisitive, darkly comical and coolly undeceived... Turner is a master of the telling detail... His research is phenomenal. There seems to be no haystack through which he has not rummaged in search of every needle... Turner has a talent for zooming in and out from the general to the particular and back again. This means he is able at one and the same time to see both the wood and the trees... A Year In Provence, Squidgygate, the Chippendales, Cool Britannia, Black Wednesday, Swampy, Robert Maxwell, ‘Something of the Night’; Alwyn W. Turner conjures them all up, as vivid and eerie as a dream.”(Craig Brown Mail on Sunday - 'Book of the Week')
“Like his previous histories of the Seventies and Eighties, A Classless Society is an extraordinarily comprehensive work. Turner writes brilliantly, creating a compelling narrative of the decade, weaving contrasting elements together with a natural storyteller’s aplomb… engaging and unique.”(Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting and Skagboys Daily Telegraph)
“Superb. I was a journalist throughout the 1990s, but did not notice a tenth of what Turner has seen or write about it half as well.”(Nick Cohen, author of What's Left?)
“John Major may have struggled to create a country at ease with itself, but Alwyn Turner’s seductive blend of political analysis, social reportage and cultural immersion puts him wonderfully at ease with his readers.”(David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain)
“Alwyn Turner comprehensively explodes the notion that knowing so much about the 20th century makes a coherent historical account impossible. A Classless Society is an illuminating, admirably inclusive and perhaps essential guide to understanding what just happened. An invaluable English document.”(Alan Moore, author of Watchmen and From Hell)
"[Turner has] immense gifts as a chronicler and historian - as a first take on a decade whose wounds remain partially open, this is essential reading."(Daily Telegraph - 'Books of the Year')
"Tremendously entertaining... As a historian Turner is probably his own worst enemy — which I mean as a compliment. His book has plenty of acute insights, as well as a sensible thesis that the 1990s saw the establishment of a new post-Thatcher settlement, based on economic and social liberalism. But the stories are just so good, and often so funny, that you keep forgetting about the argument... How often, after all, do you read a book that has equally interesting things to say about Britain's exit from the ERM, the advent of Loaded magazine and the rise of Alan Partridge?"(Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times)
"Lively and illuminating ... To read Turner's book is like looking back over the recent past through a new set of eyes."(John Preston Daily Mail - 'History Books of the Year')
"This was the decade dominated by Sir John Major and his Tory government's slow walk to electoral annihilation: a time of rows over Europe and over traffic cones, of a political promise to restore Victorian values and then a rash of Westminster sex scandals. It was the decade of New Labour's gilded rise... Yet these developments, Alwyn Turner argues compellingly, were not the point of Britain's fin de siècle. What mattered was happening elsewhere... meticulously and magnificently described."(The Economist)
"His many-tentacled frame of reference is staggering... Scarcely a paragraph goes by without a killer detail or illuminating anecdote... the value of this book lies, above all, in the extraordinary amount of material it synthesises. It’s easy to see it becoming still more essential as time goes on."(Metro)
About the Author
ALWYN W. TURNER is the author of Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s and Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, both published by Aurum Press. An acclaimed writer on post-war British culture, his other books include The Biba Experience, Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock and My Generation: The Glory Years of British Rock.
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Like Turner’s other two books, his turn of phrase is pithy, but these two predecessors did a better job in finding out what made us tick.
Maybe it’s too soon to make judgements. Maybe recent history needs more distance. Maybe the nineties were much like the sixties in that it wasn’t a serious decade yet serious things did happen.
For example, there were seismic shifts in the way power was exercised and in the way people thought: we became more tolerant, confident and cosmopolitan at the same time as we yielded to blandness, apathy and materialism.
A more subtle interpretation in the Cool Britannia chapter would have picked up on the complete reversal of social attitudes such as Labour ministers sending their kids to private schools or the children of aristocrats organizing druggy raves in fields.
‘Charters’ touches upon (but doesn’t develop) the creeping reliance on consultants and focus groups which were meant to revitalise public services but unintentionally ended up strangling them.
For example, NHS targets simply led to managers fiddling the waiting list figures and teachers taught to the test so as to inflate grades in the league tables. This in turn led to soaring house prices as middle class parents bought into the areas where the best schools were thus pricing the poor out of decent education.
Instead, Turner concentrates on the dry cut-and-thrust of political events while chronicling the inane going-on on the superficial nineties celebrity circuit at the expense of real analysis. Just like the nineties, it’s all a bit disappointing.
This is social history at its best - the key political figures and events in a decade dominated by John Major, which forms the first part of the book, and then from 1997 by Tony Blair, which forms the second part, are covered in entertaining and enjoyable chapters. There is lots here too about how our lives changed in the 1990s - the rising popularity of reality TV, the vast sums of money coming into the football premier league, and the arrival of players from all over the word, society's changing attitudes to homosexuality, the reactions across the country to the death of Princess Diana, along with much more, are covered in this fascinating book,which manages to hit, for me, just the right balance between readability and weightiness.
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