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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)
"Ingenious... valuable and entertaining... Turner’s compellingly readable account of a decade that we ought to remember as if it was yesterday reminded me of plenty I had forgotten. There are details here that will bring a warm rush of nostalgia or make you groan with embarrassment. And beneath this teeming surface of telling details there is a profound analysis of the broader themes of the decade before the one before this. This 600-page history of the 1990s manages to be a page-turner. It also weighs less than a 1990s mobile phone."(David Stenhouse Scotland on Sunday)
“Tremendous! His judgements on Blair and Major are brilliant. The conclusion, on the gap between the meritocratic instinct of both compared with the anti-establishment tone of the decade, is masterly. The book deserves to become a classic”(Edwina Currie)
"Rich and encyclopaedic... A particular pleasure of this wonderful, hilarious book is Turner’s contempt for politicians, who are ‘perverts, liars and conmen’, on the whole."(Roger Lewis Daily Mail - 'Book of the Week')
"Excellent"(D. J. Taylor Independent)
"Describes, with sanity and a light touch, more or less everything that took place between Thatcher leaving Downing Street and Nick Bateman's departure from the Big Brother house."(Leo Robson Evening Standard - 'Books of the Year')
"A tremendous book ... takes you there, and reminds you of the taste and feel of those times ... proves beyond doubt that the Nineties were a very important decade. One day, there will be lots of books about this period. I suspect that the first may well be the best."(Dan Atkinson, co-author of The Gods That Failed Mail Online)
"Detailed and expansive... readable and accessible to a degree that may make the sniffier critics suspicious... this is a diverting book that induces a kind of nostalgia for those times without a jot of desire to relive them. On almost every page, you encounter a name from the past with the evocative twang of an old pop song or TV theme, be it Nigel de Gruchy, Swampy or the Maastricht Treaty."(Stuart Maconie New Statesman)
"One of the great strengths of this ... very readable and enjoyable book is Turner’s use of the telling vignette. An early one is the story of how Major, a few weeks after becoming PM, crossed the floor of the Commons to kneel beside the old leftie Eric Heffer, who was obviously dying but had left his sickbed to vote against Britain’s involvement in the first war against Saddam Hussein. This sweet and most un-Thatcherite gesture provoked applause in the House, a bipartisan and possibly unprecedented breach of protocol... Reading A Classless Society is like a safari through vaguely familiar country, illuminated by a shrewd, fair-minded guide with an elephantine memory."(Matthew Engel Financial Times)
"Isn’t it too soon for a history of the Nineties - their recentness carrying an inherent danger of not seeing the wood for the trees? Turner’s solution is to anchor his narrative firmly in the era’s politics, splitting the decade into the Major and Blair years — resulting in a very credible first draft… Turner has a good ear too for political gossip — Major’s flirtatiousness (to Margaret Beckett: 'Would you like a nibble of my mace?') and Blair’s impatience (on Roy Hattersley: a 'fat, pompous bugger')."(Andrew Neather London Evening Standard)
"It was refreshing to dip into A Classless Society, the third volume of Alwyn Turner’s history of Britain since the 1970s… I enjoyed it a great deal."(Toby Young Spectator)
"Excellent ... this trilogy is about the most authoritative account of the late 20th century as you are likely to get."(Choice Magazine)
"I was captivated, almost smothered, by the incessant flow of facts, opinion and conclusion. Turner, as he proved in the other two books, can sew events together seamlessly... This is a wonderful panorama of the 1990s, as fluid as a mountain stream with encyclopedic ripples, a strict adherence to the facts, and all 600 pages as readable as a letter from your mother."(Illtyd Harrington Camden New Journal)
"He is amusing, perceptive and reminds the reader of the TV programmes and musical artists they have loved and then forgotten."(David Aaronovitch The Times - ‘Critics Choice’)
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.
Top customer reviews
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.
Turner's explorations into the nineties have produced a stimulating, eye-opening and entertaining read. He divides it into two main sections, the first of which moves from the fag-end of Thatcher's premiership to the end of Tory rule in 1997, where he begins the second.
Each section is sub-divided into chapters all of which begin with a selection of quotations, such as Peter Baynham on New Labour, “A media-friendly, highly electable platoon of smiling, capitalist thugs.” This structure, coupled with his stated intention above, allows Turner to paint a vivid picture of nineties life.
The breadth of his research is impressive. It encompasses quotations from Bernard Manning, a reference to “the Mull of Kintyre test” that was used for female soft porn magazines and he reminds us that at the introduction of the National Lottery a Tory MP thought “Flogging criminals live on television before [it] will create a great impact.”
Turner devotes an appropriate amount of words to the two major politicians of the nineties, John Major and Tony Blair. He is kind to the former, presenting a revisionist stance on the man that inspired Andy Hamilton's John Major-ogram: “They send round a bloke in a suit. He stands here for ten minutes, no one notices him and he goes away again.”
Tony Blair, however, receives a dressing-down to such an extent that, although the writer does allow the ex-PM a share of the back-slapping for the Good Friday Agreement, he reminds us that the “I feel the hand of history on our shoulders” comment began with “This is no time for sound bites.”
Irvine Welsh comments in his review of the book for The Daily Telegraph that the only thing it lacks is a section on the impact of rave culture. It is a good point but, as Welsh writes, the book is “an otherwise uniformly brilliant work.”
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