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Atmospheric but erratic
on 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.