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VINE VOICEon 18 December 2005
By way of precis, the book deals with the British (far more than with Britain herself) from 1901 until 1953, and is a sequel to his previous work, "The Victorians".
Don't buy this for an overview of the period. It is history - and popular history at that - but unlike other popular historians like Woods or Beevor, Wilson makes no real attempt to tell the greater story of the times, instead telling a multitude of smaller tales. At times "After The Victorians" reads more like a collection of sources than any sort of narrative. Much of the book is made up of telling quotes, poignant vignettes and diverting references to little-known characters. This lends the book some of its charm, as well as a generous serving of annoyance.
On the positive side, what it does is make the book incredibly atmospheric. But sometimes the method is teasing, infuriating or downright confusing. A paragraph may be - and very often is - a decade out-of order compared to those on either side of it, but there are very, very few of those unfashionable date things to let the reader know. Relying on the book as an account of these fifty years would lead to a very odd perception of the period. And Wilson is also surprisingly sympathetic to rather unlikely cases, such as Dr.Crippen (who we learn was no doctor), or the Rector of Stiffkey (clearly a little mad and a touch bad).
On balance, I enjoyed the approach. It harked back to the sort of anecdotal history that existed in the older books we used at primary school, and was full of re-tellable stories and snippets about some of the major players. Wilson has taken the trouble to produce quotations - usually without comment or gloss - that speak directly to an early 21st century reader. We see that the British press and government have almost always worried about terrorists and immigrants, usually identifyingone with the other. Thus, we see Josiah Wedgwood writing to Churchill in 1922 to criticise stringent anti-immigrant and anti-terrorism legislation.
Churchill dominates much of the book, and receives much attention even in his less active periods. He shares the limelight, surprisingly, with nobody so much as kings and queens, Kaisers and Tsars. Wilson emphasises their roles greatly. But this does not save them from the bitchy scandal in which he seems to delight. He revels in scandal, particularly anything of an oedipal nature, be it about Kaiser Wilhelm or D.H.Lawrence. He repeats as fact (presumably with justification) fairly shocking rumours even about living people - the current Queen being an example.
Despite the title, the author cannot tear himself away from focussing on Victorians (his own specialisation), rather than men and women of the subsequent age. Thus, Churchill shares the stage less with Attlee and Eden than with Curzon and Kipling, Nicolson and Wells. The impression one cannot help but receive is that, as the age of giants ends, that of very little men indeed is bound to follow.
In a period dominated by two immense world conflicts, Wilson seems to have taken a deliberate decision not to be "just another war-century history". Those areas directly involving the book's hero, Churchill, get a bit of coverage, but otherwise the wars are mentioned fairly en passant, as they relate either to art, to the labour movement, or to Anglo-American relations and the linked topic of Empire. The latter subjects are seen through the lens of what he sees as the betrayal of Britain by the Americans, and the deliberate bringing-about of the older power's downfall. His arguments here are well-rehearsed but controversial. Take with plenty of pinches of salt.
While understandable, the apparently deliberate avoidance of focus on the great wars can seem a little obtuse, particularly with regard to the first, which defines the shape of much of the last two-thirds of the period and yet is treated surprisingly cursorily. Also neglected is any real discussion of the role of Britain in Africa in the first half of the century. While India is discussed at length, references to the African continent are both rare and fleeting: a mention of South Africa here, a Mau Mau there. Even South Africa is almost invariably mentioned in relation to Asian themes, be they Ghandi or the Chinese mine-workers.
Finally, I'd have to say that I've never seen an author so often and oddly repeat himself. Whole paragraphs - for example an account of the American losses at Pearl Harbour - are repeated with only a few changes to wording, and without the addition of some summation or analysis to justify such repetition. Given the anecdotal nature of much of the book, many of these repeated stories left me feeling I was listening to the stories of a brilliant, delightfully catty, but slightly aged and forgetful uncle.
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History, hardly - but lively? Crikey! Is this, though, a lesser Wilson? Only, I would suggest, because the title does not have quite the impact or gravitas of a God's Funeral - or even, let's say, The Victorians - but this deft intermeshing of history and culture is equally evidently the fruit of deep learning and much thought, and, like God's Funeral, consistently entertaining. We're lucky in this day and age to have an AN Wilson. He researches like a scholar - if, as it were, a gentleman scholar - and writes with the relish of a literary man. A thinker like Chesterton he can snare in a page-length paragraph. Inevitably it's a bit of an aerial view, or flying visit. Nothing else quite matches the second chapter, on Empire (minds younger than mine may well disagree) and #7, Nationalisms, is also central*, but it's hard to see quite what Augustus John's doing here, for one, though Eric Gill's absence is gratefully noted

Fifty years since the Coronation** is just enough critical distance. Wilson is adept at capturing, by selective quotation, the prevailing world-view of vanished times - in Peter Anson (Fashions in Church Furnishings, Faith Press, 1960) he clearly found a writer after his own heart - and isn't that what, in essence, history's all about? Facts and events will only get you so far - the question is which facts, in what order. He manages to breathe new life into the Abdication, something I would not have thought possible. The paperback gets a more generally favourable response from the Amazonian horde. Americans, somewhat to my surprise, approve even more. Parochial? Not they. The dust jacket of my first edition is not plastered with the bathetic blazon The World Our Parents Knew but the altogether more dignified and helpful 1901-1953. (I suppose you youngsters won't understand the significance of those years.) A couple of typos creep in on pages 336 ('not' for 'he') and 337 but in such a dense book can surely be forgiven

* Wilson understands the idea of Israel as the last colony. 'In seeking to 'recreate' the ancient homeland of the Jews, it was no accident that.. England understood the idea 'better than anyone else.' (There is mayhem in Gaza as we speak.)

** which we will soon have to call 'the accession of Queen Elizabeth II', as The Great War evolved into WW1 and Son My - does anyone remember? - swiftly became My Lai - "my son" being just too close to the bone(s)
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on 27 January 2006
This book begins brilliantly: we learn that in 1900 Sigmund Freud published his 'The Interpretation of Dreams'; and from there we go straight into the reactions of both Edward VII and Kaiser Bill to the death of Queen Victoria; Edward VII strolling around Windsor, puffing a cigar, and dismantling the carefully-preserved shrines to Prince Albert; Kaiser Bill, with his strange, sinister, schizophrenia towards his late grandmother and her empire. As a scene setter, it is a tour de force, and the following chapters, which narrow the focus - discontent in the empire; bicycling and music; the Webbs, Lloyd George, suffragettes; and so on - demonstrate (by and large) a profound learning but also succeed in building up a comprehensive picture of life during the period.
This history is, however, viewed through the prism of Mr. Wilson's own views. With some of these judgments, one can raise an eyebrow; in others, the force of the argument is sufficient to carry the reader; and in some cases, the author is just plain wrong. As an example firstly, Asquith is described (p.183) as 'clever in a second-rate sort of way'. Really? He won a classical scholarship to Balliol, was awarded a first in Greats, and became President of the Union. A recent essay (Ellis and Treasure in 'Britain's Prime Ministers') describes him as having a 'Rolls-Royce mind'. Personally, it seems more likely that, towards the end of his career (he was in his 60s), he began to rest on his laurels; and this leads on to an example of Wilson's carrying an argument: namely that Asquith should have avoided entering the First World War; and that he chose not to, largely in order to put the issue of Irish Home Rule on the back-burner. Provocative, but strangely persuasive.
But then we come, later in the book, to perhaps the grossest mistake, which is - not so much a discussion as a hatchet-job - on 'Bomber' Harris. It is unfortunate that Wilson had not read Frederick Taylor's 'Dresden' before his comments: the casualty figures for the Dresden raid are given as between 25,000 - 40,000 (Taylor) and 30,000 - 100,000 (unreferenced, by Wilson). 'How could such a lunatic idea [area bombing] been allowed to prevail?' The answer is that the idea was presented to the British Cabinet in a paper by Professor Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) in 1942; and that Harris was merely its instrument. Wilson's preferred strategy would have been precision bombing, such as the famous 'dambusters' raid (1943), which 'had not quite succeeded in wiping out the bulk of the German mining and manufacturing strength in one audacious raid'. Really? How then was Germany able to continue the war for another two years? No-one else has made such grandiose claims for a raid which came at a huge cost in both aircrew (53 out of 133 - 40% killed) and aircraft (8 out of 19 - 42% lost), and the results of which were rapidly patched up by Speer's slave labourers.
As Corelli Barnett has previously written ('Engage the Enemy More Closely'), Britain fought the war not on the ground that it wished but in any way that it could: thus the sideshow promoted to centre-stage, Egypt, and thus, also, the bombing war. In strategic terms, the Russians provided the brute manpower, while the British and Americans progressively destroyed Germany's industrial base and rolled up the outer fringes of the Nazi empire.
But then Wilson triumphantly comes back on form, with a depressing - to any British reader - description of how Roosevelt and the Americans played their game: accepting British technical expertise - such as the initial atom bomb and radar research - and forcing their own agenda - the dismantling of Imperial preference and the opening of British markets to American goods - as their profiteering price. There are areas left out of Wilson's narrative: Jan Morris ('Farewell the Trumpets') reveals that the OSS was preparing papers on post-war business opportunities in India in 1942; the (American) Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which denied British access to atom bomb technology part-developed by British scientists (in breach of the 1943 Quebec Agreement); and, of course, the technological looting of German science at the end of the war - Operations Paperclip and Alsos. The fire sale of British assets also included two spectacular own-goals: Churchill's order to dismantle and not exploit the 'Colossus' computer and Atlee's license of the Whittle jet-engine patents. The King is dead: long live the King.
There are other prejudices of Wilson's dropped into the text: is it really fair to describe Britain as 'a land without music' (p.34)? It has always seemed to me that English/ British music in this period was more focussed on, respectively, military music, hymns and the music hall rather than the concert hall and opera house (although it existed there as well: eg. Joseph Holbrooke - 'the cockney Wagner' - and the splendidly-named Havergal Brian). What about all those colliery and Salvation Army brass bands; and doesn't 'Oh What a Lovely War' demonstrate a democratic musical culture in rude health? Admirers of E.M. Forster will find him dismissed as 'unsympathetic' - I don't disagree - in relation to Kipling. Perhaps the strangest prejudice is to label the 1944 Education Act as a failure for not closing down the public schools. One dreads to think of the logical consequence of following through that train of thought: a nation of John Prescotts, chippy and uneducated. A previous reviewer has already drawn attention to the description of Austrians as idolising Hitler `then, just as most of them still do' [p.361]: whilst there might be a portion of hyperbole in this, no country which has rewarded both Kurt Waldheim and Jorg Haider with political office be considered a mature democracy. Incidentally, the last time that I was in Poland, the chief of the Austrian customs service appeared on national television to apologise for the racialist harassment meted out on Polish tourists by his officers.
Both wars are largely skated over, as is the Third Afghan War (1919) - in fact, it is rather sobering to realise that whilst the present excitement is America's First Afghan War, it is Britain's Fourth. (Similarly, we are ahead of the Americans in Iraq by at least two wars and one revolt; that revolt - 1920 to 1922 - being put down by 'Bomber' Harris.) The dismissal of the war leaves out some colourful characters, eg. Commander Spicer-Simpson (see 'Mimi and Toutou go Forth') and episodes which could have been included. One consequence of the Great War, for example, was a vast improvement in the reliability of motor engines; another conclusion, at least in the Second World War, might be the strange British gift for improvised (amateur?) warfare. On the other hand, of course, the facts of the Wars are generally well-known, and to include them in appropriate detail would bog the book down.
Overall, though, this is a refreshing and very well written book; it is unfair to draw attention to areas which any individual reviewer feels could have been fleshed out or particularly disagrees with, because this is a tendentious history, designed to provoke argument: just be prepared to argue back.
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on 28 May 2014
good informative read should be read by all school kids and adults who are interested in history of this period in time
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on 16 April 2013
This book goes underneath and above the usual party line of history of this time, giving us insight into things usually skated over or ignored. He's an insightful and clear writer who presents history in an easy to digest and entertaining humourous manner, if you like wry humour that is.
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on 8 January 2006
I was given this book as a Christmas present, having requested it on the strength of the reviews given to it. I was very disappointed.
The book itself is presented in a highly disorganised fashion. Whole chapters are pieced together in a series of seemingly random, and completely unrelated paragraphs. Many of these paragraphs are then subsequently repeated word for word at later dates, which, to me, seems incredibly amateurish! There is a continual referencing to minor figures - Belloc especially - at the expense of far more important and influential figures such as Douglas Haig, William Beveridge and Emmeline Pankhurst, which proves detrimental to the whole. The author also seems compelled to inform us of the sexual antics and orientation of many of the main characters, often with there being no need for it. At the risk of sounding prudish, this adds little to the narrative, and seems to have been added purely for the desire to whip up some cheap sensationalism.
Lastly, there are some highly provocative statements which simply aren't true.
I would like to hear Wilson arguing his reasons for why he feels the majority of Austrians still idolise Hitler today in Vienna.
While there are some interested snippets, this book for me was a huge disappointment, and highly overrated in my opinion. You have been warned.
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on 4 December 2012
'After the Victorians' is a fascinating and informative account of the first half of the 20th century ending a few years after the second world war
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on 8 July 2016
Unique and expressive view of the post Victorian world. Well researched but not just a scholarly tome. He tells the story with fact and opinion in good balance.
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on 5 June 2016
well ,anything written by A N Wilson is never less than 4 stars, this one is 5 stars. The erudation and range of Wilson is just amazing
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on 5 October 2007
One of the most enjoyable history books I've read. The author displays an amazingly wide knowledge of the arts and politics and, entertainly I think, throws plenty of his own slants and favourites into the mix.
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