Top positive review
42 people found this helpful
Evocative and Insightful
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.