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A book of many voices.
on 7 June 2010
In Search of England seems to contain many voices - but they all come from Roy Hattersley. You can hear the voice of the Labour politician, the dog lover, the Yorkshireman, the hill walker, Sheffield Wednesday fan and the lover of English countryside. At different times each voice comes to the fore - and on many occasions they blend to form a single one.
From the middle 1960's until the present day Hattersley has commented on (and participated in) the changing face of England. As early as 1965 he identified that "something has to be done" about the manufacture of steel in England and he was able to identify the key problem with Liverpool in 1990 - "this city needs more jobs". The 25 years between those two comments must have been difficult for Hattersley, for he could see the issues, but not execute the solutions.
The book is arranged in a number of sections - each of which has a single theme. Churches, sport, animals and heavy industry are all examined. Such themes have defined much English behaviour over the years, and this arrangement seem to work much better than a strictly chronological approach.
I do not believe you can enter politics without a high degree of self confidence, and at times this shows through - as when John Betjeman is dismissed as a "mediocre poet", but what comes though most strongly in these works is a sense of conviction that not only can things be done better, but that many things are also worth protecting. So you have both a sense of desire for change and love of tradition. He still enjoys the now much reduced gatherings of miners in the North East of England, but knows that the economy has turned away from these areas.
There is a small but interesting game you can play while reading this book - guessing where they were published. The tone and content of the articles for the Guardian being (not surprisingly) different from those written for the Daily Mail, Articles for the Listener being longer and so on. The number of Daily Mail articles surprised me, but maybe the author or the newspaper have changed opinions of each other! It is also interesting to see how many times the word "England" is used in the final paragraphs of Daily Mail articles, a feature that does not appear elsewhere.
In some ways this book's title and introduction summon two ghosts from the past. The title summons H.V Morton's "In Search of ........." books, while the introduction makes a clear link to J.B. Priestley's "English Journey". The current book has a similar aim to these; to paint a broad brush-stroke picture of England by looking at the small detail to be found in everyday life. While the two older books are historically very interesting, Hattersley book is clearly the most relevant today, and deserves to be placed alongside these two "classic" works.
Change would seem to be afoot in the UK again, and this excellent book gives a clear picture of the impacts and issues that similar change produced in the recent past.