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Enjoyable, but far from Impartial
on 15 January 2011
White Heat is an extremely readable, detailed (if occasionally factually inaccurate) history of England in the first Wilson years of government, that draws on an enormous range of source materials. Its central thesis is cast in a highly conservative (capital or small C will do) interpretive mould. Sandbrook finds it hard to say much good about the government (George Brown is treated to a particularly savage behavioural analysis, and not much credit is given his intellect or policy, though much to his inebriation and petulance). Mr Sandbrook is dismissive of any ground-breaking or revolutionary elements in the arts or popular culture of the time. His argument here, though is seductive but fallacious. Effectively it boils down to this: British people didn't really care for or embrace anything new brought to them in the Sixties like the Rolling Stones, recreational drugs or the pill; they preferred to have a nice cup of tea and a sit down in front of the Black and White Minstrel show. Of course, while statistically this can be argued, from an historical point of view it's a highly reactionary position. You can't judge the significance of an event or cultural change by the immediate response to its introduction, but you can by its persistence beyond the "shock of the new". Whilst much of what is depicted here is fleeting or ephemeral, so much of the culture of the sixties set the ground for subsequent attitudinal change that continues to this day. Sandbrook does himself a disservice by eschewing impartiality and inserting judgmental phrases such as "extraordinarily", or "disturbingly" when he wants to trivialise an event, in an effort to influence the reader to his way of thinking. One can't fault the book's readability, though, and at least it avoids the paint-by-numbers generalisations of (the admittedly popular) Andrew Marr's simplistic volumes.