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on 22 December 2006
Peter Hennessy's second volume (of an intended five) depicting Britain since the war is vivid mixture of social history and his trademark archival excavations. Despite its reputation as a grey decade, the 50s have been well documented. Much of its subject matter - the last throes of Attlee's post war government; Churchill's last, Eden; Suez and Macmillan as he wrestled with the bomb, Europe, a decaying Empire and the Commonwealth - have been covered by numerous works- not least by Hennessy himself (Secret State, The Prime Minister, The Hidden Wiring). On Suez, he draws extensively on Percy Craddock's exposition of the Joint Intelligence Committee's deliberations in Know Your Enemy, while the extent to which the resignation of Macmillan's Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, in 1958 was a cause celebre of monetarists later in the vanguard of Thatcherism was covered by Peter Jenkins in Mrs Thatcher's Revolution as early as 1989.

All of this Hennessy readily acknowledges and his considerable skill is to bring together this vast literature in a gloriously coherent narrative, from the Korean War to the collapse of the Paris summit, illuminated by flashes of recently unearthed treasure from the National Archives in Kew. The early chapters, from Attlee to Suez, are the strongest. Churchill's broodings on the bomb and his anxiety over Eden as his successor are laced with the author's childhood memories of steam engines, Coronation street parties, Ashes cricket and trips to the seaside. The relative absence of such interludes in the later chapters makes them feel dry, and perhaps less original, by comparison. Instead, the focus is on Macmillan, the main counterpoint to the official archives being provided by his diaries, the seductiveness of which Hennessy himself feels compelled, helplessly, to warn against.

Despite this imbalance, the sheer breadth of both the primary and secondary sources on which it draws, combined with Hennessy's ready wit, and personal insight, means that Having It So Good offers both an evocative depiction of 1950s Britain for the general reader, as well as some important new material for the academic.
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on 9 December 2011
Any review of this book must surely begin by noting the comprehensive research on which it is based and the acuteness and objectivity of the author. The author focuses heavily on the government of the day, as he did in the earlier volume covering Atlee's time in office. His detailed study of Cabinet papers and other published sources is complemented by information gathered in interviews with leading civil servants and other key figures of the period. And while his empathy for certain public figures seems evident, Prof. Hennessy writes even-handedly, with detailed references to validate key facts and descriptions of events. He avoids the temptation to analyse with the benefit of hindsight and provides enough background to keep the reader aware of the sense of the mood and attitudes of the time. Dare I suggest that Prof. Hennessy has written what might equally be described as an academic history of the 1950s, accessible to laymen or a popular history that will satisfy academics.

However in spite of its length and thoroughness, I was disappointed by the overall balance of the book. There was undue emphasis on the events surrounding the development of nuclear weapons, approximately 100 pages out of the total of just over 600 pages. The impact of Butler's 1944 Education Act was discussed at some length but there was no reference to the development of education beyond England. There were repeated comments on the disproportionate spending on "defence" but no meaningful description of what this entailed, other than on nuclear weaponry, nor any discussion of structural changes in UK industry at large. There was little more than a passing mention of the changes in the trades union movement or Labour party.

I also agree with earlier comments on legibility.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable and very informative book. I would have valued it even more had there been a fuller description of developments in society, beyond what was happening in government.
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VINE VOICEon 9 February 2007
This is a good book but don't be misled by the dust wrapper - it is not a history of everyday life in Britain in the 1950s. It is basically a political history from 1951 to 1960. If you are looking for descriptions of riding round in Humber Super Snipes or Standard Vanguards, attending the Festival of Britain, reading Eagle comic, buying Spangles "off-ration" in the corner sweet shop or playing with your Hornby Dublo train set you must look elsewhere.

The author never seems to quite know if he is writing a "popular" or an "academic" history. When he is in "academic" mode he really does go on a bit - to plough through these sections is akin to reading a 19th century novel of the Bleak House ilk. I'll reproduce one example sentence (which did not require much finding) from page 199 to give an idea:

"So were British ministers, who never failed to be irritated by lectures from successive administrations in Washington about the evils of colonialism - though this abated a little with the death of the greatest of the presidential preachers against European imperialisms, Franklin Roosevelt, and the developing Cold War, which usually, though not invariably, trumped strictures against British imperialism for reasons of solidarity against the consequences of the infinitely nastier Russian one."

At other times the author remembers his time as a journalist and writes in a much snappier style. He is however somewhat too inclined to intrude his own childhood reminiscences or to name drop - "when I interviewed Sir Hugely Important about this he confided to me..." and so on.

Perhaps it has done Peter Hennessy no good to be described as "a national treasure". His publishers may think it sacrilegious to cut out the circumlocutions and I-isms but this reader for one thinks they have done him no favours with their kid-glove treatment. This reviewer's standard for popular history is A J P Taylor's magisterial English History 1914-1945 (Oxford 1965, still in print, I believe). That is a model for beautifully written, direct prose, which the author could re-read to advantage.

However, excess verbiage aside, the author does give a very balanced and well-researched view about British political developments in the 1950s. The politician who seems to rise most in the author's - and hence the reader's - esteem is Harold Macmillan. Today Macmillan, with his "last of the Edwardians" air, may seem a faintly ridiculous figure. Here he comes over as an extremely astute man who came to office following the Suez debacle (well covered in the book) and overcame most if not all of the problems he inherited. In this respect he joins Attlee and Thatcher as the most successful post-war prime ministers (it is this country's profound misfortune to have experienced currently two of the least successful post-war prime ministers in succession).

One facet of the 1950s that perhaps the author could have brought out more is the things that Britain could achieve then but not now. A few examples will suffice:

a) build 300,000 houses per year;

b) develop its own independent nuclear deterrent and three weapons systems (Valiant, Victor, Vulcan) to deliver it;

c) hold the world speed records on land, water and in the air simultaneously;

d) fight and win a major war without allies against a well-armed and foreign-backed insurgency and bring democracy to a major country (Malaya).

These, and many other, achievements were pretty remarkable for a small cluster of islands off the north-west coast of Europe which had gone bust fighting and winning two world wars, one just a few years before.

Anyone interested in Britain in the 1950s could profit from reading this book. It is very well researched and caused at least this reviewer to see many events in a new light. The author's mannerisms may not be to everyone's taste but it must be at least one of the best histories of this period.
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on 21 September 2007
This is, quite simply, an excellent book. It is extremely well-written, handles its copious source material with panache and is a riveting read. Both 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' perspectives are provided, with lengthy and authoritative chapters dealing with politics and statecraft, consumerism and culture, and wider social issues as well. Britain's wider place in the world - its relations with Europe, the Commonwealth and the USA as well as the developing Cold War backdrop - is examined in detail and the author is invariably fair-minded in his appraisals of the conduct of political leaders, military commanders, civil servants and diplomats. The author usefully includes a liberal sprinkling of his own recollections, which help provide a vivid insight into 1950s Britain. A rewarding read for any fans of modern British history. It makes one look forward to the third volume, which will focus on the 1960s.
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on 21 June 2010
I bought this in a charity shop, mistakenly thinking it was one of the David Kynaston series (Austerity Britain; Family Britain.) What a contrast! Unlike Kynaston's tightly written page-turners, this is heavy-duty political history for the deeply interested - by no means a good read for the casual historian.

It is not helped by the fact it is printed in a small typeface, larded with quotations in an even smaller size and with footnotes that approach invisibility in dim light.
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on 6 April 2015
Well written, engaging, but with excellent historical research. Draws clear parallels and themes from complex material/time period.
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on 4 February 2011
In the first sentence of his book Peter Hennessy thanks the Penguin editorial team thät worked on his text.

He must be thanking them indirectly for leaving it largely untouched because what has made it into print is some of the most execrable prose to turn up in a history book for years.

Here's a typical sentence from page 22: The existing concept that comes nearest to describing this extraordinary phenomenon(which, as I pointed out at the end of Never Again, had already made the Britain of 1951 so different and a far better 'place in which to be born,to grow up, to live, love, work and even to die'compared to 'the UK of 1931 or any previous decade') has been developed by the historians of welfare and by two in particular: Anne Digby, who coined the phräse çlassic welfare state'in her 1989 study of British Welfare Policy and Rodney Lowe, whose masterly The Welfare State in Britain since 1945 was first published in 1993 and updated in 1999.

I have no idea what this 113-word sentence is trying to say and I doubt whether Hennessy does either. The 55-word sentence that follows it is even foggier.

What professional book editor would have passed either of these sentences if he'd had the power to order a rewrite? Certainly no newspaper sub-editor - and Hennessy is a former newspaperman - would have tolerated them

After all, the principles of readable writing have been incorporätd into publishing practice since such readability experts as Rudolf Flesch and Robert Gunning published the results of their research back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Every cub reporter and aspiring professsional writer learns them at her editor's knee: Write in short sentences and short paragraphs. Reduce your average sentence length to between 20 and 30 words. Prefer simple words to abstractions and polysyllables as far as possible. Be specific. Don't clutter you sentences with unnecessary asides and parentheses. If you quote, make sure the quote says it better or more succinctly than you could. Otherwise rewrite the original gobbledegook in your own simple, memorable words. Vary the length and structure of your sentences so that you don't become boring. Learn to link your sentences and paragraphs in a variety of ways. Illustrate your points with pertinent examples and anecdotes. And so on...

Hennessy ignores all these principles - on almost every page. And yet at one stage of his writing career he must have earned them. Is it because he thinks he's Gibbon or Macaulay? They wrote before he Age of Readable Writing. Consequently some of their prose makes for difficult reading. But even at their worst - and even in their more infamous longeurs - they often offer the compensation of their mastery of the periodic sentence and the art of rhetoric.

Hennessy offers no such compensations - only turgid verbal sludge peppered with pointless references and asides,tottering from one distracting parenthesis to another and festooned with footnotes that are there simply to draw attention to how widely he has read.

I ploughed through his Never Again when it first came out. After I'd finished it I echoed its title, aloud and emphatically: "Never again!"

But weakling that I am, I bought Having It So Good and ended up, as I expected, having it so bad.It is a truly awful piece of writing from beginning to end. And - can you imagine? - three more awful volumes are scheduled to follow. Let's hope that from now on the Penguin editorial team does its job. Let's hope they remember that it's the reader who matters, not the imagined status of the writer.

As for me, next time I'll keep my vow: Never Again!
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on 11 November 2014
Interesting historical facts. A little bit hard going.
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on 11 August 2010
A great thing about Hennessy's research is that he keeps an open mind while using his first class access to political figures and exhaustively reading cabinet minutes, diaries and essentially collating everything that could be of relevance. The result is a remarkable portrait of the decade.

The book is full of surprises. He shows for example that the fast exit from empire had as much to do with removing financial burdens as accepting independence movements, or the way that successive Conservative governments supported the crushingly expensive "British New Deal" welfare state and Keynesian big government spending, viewing it as a "modern" form of the economics. Almost nowhere do 1950's British government ministers examine the positive aspects or German and European economic success (Eden did slightly but didn't act) and the first stages of the European Community were treated with disdain as successive governments followed the chimera of a Commonwealth economic community.

To greatly generalize, he shows a group of British aristocrats, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan who were formed by an imperial education system (Eton & Oxbridge)and took their places in London's "Great Power" administrative system. Had the pre WW1 British empire still existed then maybe they could have completed the work they wished to do through a bureaucracy that was finely adapted to carry it out, but in the event the withdrawal of American financial and political support in the Suez crisis made the real position plain for the world to see.

Its fascinating to observe how 60 years later, Great Britain is still struggling with its imperial class system and the "Europe" question.

P.S. The miniature typeface is best suited to a magnifying glass.
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on 18 October 2012
I enjoyed the first volume of Peter Hennessy's history of his lifetime, "Never Again" very much and looked forward to "Having It So Good", as the fifties were the decade I grew up in. The second volume is certainly good, but it doesn't quite match Hennessy's history of 1945-1951. In part, this is because the battles for political and social change in Britain had already been fought, and the fifties were a decade of quieter consolidation. However, some features that were minor irritations in the earlier book are more prominent here.

In "Never Again" politics dominated and social history was secondary. This was the period when much of what became the post-war consensus was formed, and the decline in Britain's international position began. "Having It So Good" contains far more social history. It has several themes: the acceptance by Conservative governments of the post-war reforms that led to the welfare state; Britain continuing to imagine itself as a great power, at least up to the Suez crisis; continuing economic decline and failure to integrate with Europe; and the impact of decolonialisation and immigration. Hennessy provides a convincing interpretation of these events and also the social changes typified by Macmillan's slogan, "you've never had it so good". He gives a sympathetic picture of Macmillan as basically a liberal who wished to promote social justice. The second half of the fifties was a time of improving lifestyle and optimism, but the country was in economic trouble. It is difficult to disagree with Hennessy's somber analysis of overall decline and missed opportunities in the fifties.
Against these positives, there are a few negatives. Firstly, it a long book with long chapters. Hennessy deal with his subjects in considerable detail and, as his prose doesn't always flow well, the book can be quite an effort to read. Secondly, Hennessy seems happier and more fluent dealing with political matters than society, and the sections on political and social history so not always link well with each other. Despite these quibbles, this is an important book and worth reading if you are willing to make the effort.
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