The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to V.E. Day by Andrew Marr
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|The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to V.E. Day by Andrew Marr|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A lively, largely social and political history of Britain from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 464||Date: October 2009|
This book, and the BBC TV series which complements it, must confirm Andrew Marr's status as one of the most entertaining and compulsive historian-cum-presenters working today. His previous project, on postwar Britain, was hard to fault, and anyone who enjoyed that will certainly relish this.
Marr tells the story of Britain during four tumultuous decades very well, with gentle humour, a marvellous eye for detail, and with entertaining parallels between past and present, showing that some things change very little. Edwardian music hall and the performers who aspired to become the next Marie Lloyd, he tells us, were in a sense the TV talent shows of their day, with managers watching in the wings with a long-hooked pole to pull failures offstage by their necks, instead of a verbally sadistic panel of celebrity judges. A little later on, we read that at the time of the peace conference in 1919 the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, with his white moustache and untidy hair, looked like something between a walrus and an elderly folk musician.
He comes up with a few novel judgments. The Edwardian age, he suggests, did not end with the death of King Edward VII or the declaration of war in 1914, with the formation of what he calls the Lloyd George dictatorship. Ironically, the Welshman later fawned on Hitler to a nauseating extent and became so defeatist after the outbreak of the next war in 1939 that if the Fuhrer had successfully invaded Britain, he might well have become another Pétain.
If we buy organic food, go to nightclubs or gyms, read paperbacks or listen to the BBC, we have been shaped by what happened in the 20s and 30s. And the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, which so divided the country at the time, was an incredible stroke of luck in that it removed a politically naïve, vain and petulant man from the throne. I think few would disagree that the less charismatic but far more dependable King George VI was the right man for the job, particularly during the years in which the nation went through fire.
Even seventy years on, there is also much Marr can tell us about the Second World War and the wartime leaders, notably Churchill, Montgomery and 'Bomber' Harris. The Battle of Britain is called the first real success the country had since hostilities were declared, and turned the RAF from being the least regarded of the armed forces into national heroes. I particularly enjoyed his portrait of the blitz, with people pouring into the London Underground against official advice, and thousands of Londoners literally becoming cave-dwellers for a time. In the same chapters I was interested, if rather horrified, to learn that the destruction of the Lancastria in 1940, in which about 3,500 people are estimated to have died, far exceeded the loss of the Titanic as probably the greatest British maritime disaster ever.
It must be said that the text throws up the occasional but surely avoidable error. Twice, P.G. Wodehouse becomes P.J. Wodehouse (I see the indexer was equally puzzled), and Edward VII was in fact Kaiser Wilhelm's uncle, not his cousin. Nevertheless these are only trifling flaws in a superbly readable account of the age, which will not only be much enjoyed by avid viewers of the series, but also by readers for I suspect many years to come. Is there another prequel on the Victorians to follow?
If you enjoyed this, you must read the sequel, albeit published first, Marr's History of Modern Britain, or for another insight into the period, We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to V.E. Day by Andrew Marr at Amazon.com.
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