The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain by Ian Jack
|The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain by Ian Jack|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Selected pieces from one of our finest writers, all thought-provoking and informative. Definitely recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: September 2009|
|Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd|
I think I've now managed to master the maxim about not judging books by their covers. I still struggle with the one about not judging them by their titles and I very nearly came unstuck and missed 'The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain'. Being just about of an age with the author I worried that it might be a treatise about the fact that 'things weren't like this when I was a lad'. I was even more worried that I might agree with him.
It's not really like that, though. The book's a selection of pieces, most of which were commissioned by various newspapers and magazines since 1989. They're thoughtful and thought-provoking pieces which look at something specific – a person, an event or a place and look not just at the present but what lies behind the story. Perhaps the most telling piece for me was The 12.10 to Leeds, which reports the Hatfield Rail crash. Four people died in the crash and without minimising the loss which their families suffered there have been many worse rail accidents and had it been a road accident it probably wouldn't have made the front pages of a national paper. Yet, the aftermath of the Hatfield crash virtually brought the rail system to a standstill as the public realised the true state of the rail network. Ian Jacks looks back to the eighteenth century as he searches for the people responsible.
The band playing on the Titanic as it sank is an iconic image and in Women and Children First it's a viewing of the film Titanic which takes Jack on a journey into the Lancashire mill towns and the legendary Wallace Henry Hartley, the band leader. It's not just about the sinking, or the extra funnel which the ship sported, but about what the band was playing and even where that came from. In lesser hands this could have been a disjointed meander, but the result is a pulling together of disparate strands to form a vivid picture.
Jack has an obvious sympathy for the Indian subcontinent and the essence of the book was in Serampur and along with other shorter pieces he looks at those parts of the former Empire which still bear the British mark – from William Carey who imported India's first steam engine for use in the paper industry, to places such as McCluskiegunge which was initially envisaged as a homeland for the mixed-race people of the Empire.
Some of the work seems particularly, almost painfully, personal. In Serampur my instinct was to look away, to stop intruding, but the writing is never less than brilliant and the research behind it impeccable. My initial plan was to read the book as one piece, but I soon realised that this reduced the impact of many of the pieces. It's a book to dip into, to mull over what you have read and even to do a little more research of your own if you want to get the best out of it. It's sat at the side of my bed for several weeks now, and I suspect that it will stay there a while longer.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
It was Jack's The 12.10 to Leeds which reminded me of another writer who is knowledgeable about the transport system and if this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy The Broken Compass: How British Politics lost its way by Peter Hitchens – but you should be warned that it's not as good as The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain.
The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain by Ian Jack is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain by Ian Jack at Amazon.com.
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