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What's it all about? (The book, not the decade...)
on 9 November 2009
If you're in need of a refresher of how the world spun between 1999 and 2010, Footman's The Noughties is as good a place as any to swat up. Well written and smart enough, this book will no doubt fuel, and be the secret weapon in numerous pub debates come the Christmas week; but won't tax too greatly along the way.
Overshadowed, inevitably, by September 11th, 2001, Footman kicks off brave enough, magnifying the minutes pre- and post- the first plane to hit the Twin Towers; reflecting on how just a few minutes can arrive to change so much. However, he fails to capitalise on this heady thought, plunging straight into the water-tight, if somewhat platitudinous suggestion that this was the moment above all other moments that rendered this decade as one that irrevocably changed the world. Which does beg the question of what other decades delivered if not developments in history. What the author is really doing is setting up his next riff - when do decades really begin? Does history neatly adhere to the rules of base ten, or is this just wishful thinking from lazy media types? But no conclusion is ever reached, because from this hanging moment... he simply drops in to gear and bolts; tearing away through less an analysis, and more a well-presented, subjects-by-chapter breakdown of the past decade.
Which is all very well, you might think; but given that the book trumpets itself as an instant slice of social history, delivered hot off the back of this decade that was, the reader could be forgiven for expecting some kind of polemic. Having supplemented the benefits of distance for the commercial preference of being the first to tackle the subject, Footman doesn't really have one to offer, instead focusing on skipping dot-to-dot down the years in question.
In truth, this colourful but questionably necessary book is little more than a generous over-view; an almanac for mass media surfers. Because, in terms of depth, Noughties is essentially a denser version of a respectable Saturday supplement recap article (the kind of which used to surface during the last weekend of the year, but now, bizarrely, bolts from the trap mid-October) represented as that loftier of articles, a book. Which is not to question it as an enjoyable read; on the contrary, Footman's style is sharp and engaging; but ultimately, his style is what this book survives on, as there isn't really enough substance to warrant its continued presence on the social history shelf come 2010. iPods, Simon Cowell, Harry Potter and (yes) Paris Hilton all get a bow, like pantomime players racing against that final curtain, but the author has nothing to say about them except that they were all extensions, developments (or devolutions) based on what or who came before them.
Arguably, this is a book that fits neatly, if in a somewhat inverted fashion, into the exhaustive trend for handy nostalgia rundowns. Rather than present a list, though, the author has simply pushed his prose together into something that gives the impression of being an essay; but really isn't. Quite to the contrary; this is instant nostalgia masquerading as something more fulfilling. One giveaway to his intent is the double-spacing of paragraphs, which reduces the challenge of engaging with any kind of lengthy flow, in favour of what Alan Bennett decried in History Boys as unchallenging "gobbets". Yes, this does render the book an easier read, but it does beg the question of who this book is aimed at, and what kind of lifestyle the author is expecting this read to fit into. Tellingly, the reference key at the back is the least complicated I've ever seen; less a cross-reference tool, than some kind of small-print admission that this book has little context; something which, if you require it, you need to go find elsewhere.
So, to recap... The Noughties is all well and good, well written from a prose perspective, but its lack of depth does eventually wear (for want of a better word) thin.