Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain series

Last year, I read a hundred books. Well, actually a couple more than a hundred, just to make sure. But it was something I’d really wanted to commit to, and I did it.

Problem was, what was next? I didn’t think that increasing the number for this year would really do much for me; I have a life, of sorts, and I knew I’d end up resenting it. I was also a bit concerned about my behaviour round about this time last year, when I started choosing shorter or ‘easier’ books just to be sure of meeting my target.

So, this year, I decided to Read Less. Fewer books, but longer ones. Classics (of which more later). More non-fiction. It had the added benefit of being unstructured, something I probably needed, and of expanding my horizons. Like a lot of people, I think, I didn’t read much non-fiction when I was younger. It was probably only about 18 months ago, at 28, that I really started to value true stories as much as the made-up ones. I don’t know why. Maybe a growing appreciation for the idea that life is sometimes a bit messy, and any overarching plot isn’t always in evidence. (Much like this post, in fact.)

Anyway, browsing in the history section of Waterstones Piccadilly one day in about March, I picked up ‘Seasons in the Sun’ by Dominic Sandbrook from the buy-one-get-one-half-price table. At the time, I didn’t realise that it was the latest in a four-volume (so far) project to chronicle the history of Britain since 1956 – if I had, being a bit of a stickler for a series, I probably would have started at the beginning. All I knew, as I picked it up and took it to the till, was that I knew almost nothing about the world immediately before I was born.

That feels like it needs an explanation, but I bet it’s more common than I think. I was a youngest-child, and by a number of years. My parents and siblings never really engaged much in politics (as far as I’m aware) or felt the need to talk about the semi-recent past; why would they? They were there. So reading Seasons in the Sun, covering the years 1974-1979, almost every page was like finding out some half-buried scandal about a close-ish relative. Some were shocking (‘I didn’t know that Britain needed an IMF bailout as recently as 1976’), some horrifying (‘I didn’t know how close Enoch Powell came to being the leader of the Tory party’), some just funny stories for parties (‘I didn’t know that the Green Cross Code man was Darth Vader’). In all cases, I was hooked. Over the course of the year, I’ve acquired and read all four volumes – I’m about 200 pages from the last one right now. And. They. Are. Brilliant. Seriously, I can’t recommend them highly enough. I can’t imagine a more comprehensive commentary on the political, financial and social life of the UK during the third quarter of the twentieth century. That’s not to say they’re not sometimes hard going (they are; at 800-odd pages apiece it’s hardly surprising), or that I haven’t had to intersperse them with some lighter reading (I do, and have, a lot). And it’s also not to say that the author isn’t without bias, although I think he tries harder to be fair-minded than some people give him credit for. And, while we’re griping, I could do with him getting a move on as well – the next volume, covering the early eighties, isn’t due to be published until 2017. However, I can genuinely say that I haven’t learned more from anything or anyone this year, than I have from Dominic Sandbrook.

Never Had It So Good: ****

White Heat: *****

State of Emergency: ****

Seasons in the Sun: *****

Overall: *****

 

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