At the beginning of the 1980s, I was poor and footloose, living from one short-term contract to another. At the end, I was well-off: married, a mortgaAt the beginning of the 1980s, I was poor and footloose, living from one short-term contract to another. At the end, I was well-off: married, a mortgage, a nice house in a good area, a well-paid job. I was in the part of the population Thatcherism was designed to help.That doesn't stop it being my least favourite decade. The events that mark it for me are the Falklands War, the miners' strike, the dispute at Wapping, Greenham Common.
When Mrs Thatcher entered Downing Street for the first time, she said "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony." I didn't believe it at the time, and I was quickly proved right. By the end of the decade Britain was two different nations, broadly divided between north and south. In the south, where we lived, many comfortably off people neither knew nor cared what happened to the people in the north who formerly mined coal, bashed metal, built cars and the like, but now sat idle. The only time they saw them was on the TV, in pitched battles with the police, hence clearly in the wrong. Soon the two countries had almost nothing in common. Looking after number one was elevated to a national religion; those who failed only had themselves to blame.
In this book, Alwyn Turner wears his heart even more clearly on his sleeve than in Crisis? What Crisis?. Few people were indifferent to Mrs Thatcher, and he was one of the haters. It doesn't stop him providing a rounded view of the decade though, and just as in the previous volume he reminded me of things I had forgotten. Interesting little snippets: the British Medical Journal reported that the suicide rate doubled in the month that followed each of Thatcher's election victories (I vividly remember the despair of the third -- it seemed as if she was never going to go).
And despite the claims of economic competence, and necessary reform: "'At the beginning of the war,' wrote Ian Gilmour, 'beggars vanished and were not seen for forty years. Then in the 1980s they reappeared on the streets of London' [...] When Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited London in 1988 and toured the sites [where homeless people slept], she was horrified at what she saw: 'I didn't know what to say. There were tears in my eyes.'" And finally, "Unemployment was much higher when she left than when she arrived, inflation never stabilised and was now increasing, and GDP had grown by an average of just 1.8 per cent per annum, little of that in the area of manufacturing (in the dark days of the 1970s, the average rise had been 2.4 per cent). Wealth inequality had increased substantially, with a fall in the income of the poorest 10 per cent of society, and there were 60 per cent more people dependent on the state for their income than in 1979. Even taxation, as a share of GDP, had increased."
So in macroeconomic terms, Thatcherism didn't work, its monetarist claims completely unfounded. But still, "Economics are the method," she insisted. "The object is to change the soul." In that, unfortunately, she appears to have been successful -- Britain felt like a meaner, shallower place at the end of her tenure. ...more
This is a perfect companion to the two books I've recently read about the 1970s, by Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett. Unlike them, Alwyn Turner mereThis is a perfect companion to the two books I've recently read about the 1970s, by Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett. Unlike them, Alwyn Turner merely summarises political events and concentrates on social and cultural history, which he does superbly well. As one reviewer says, he seems to have spent most of the decade watching television and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of soaps, TV series, comedy shows, and popular films. He's good on music too, and manages to unearth both obscure and better-known novels, using them to illustrate the zeitgeist. This book, more than the others, vividly brought back buried memories. Even if some of them would have been better remaining buried, for example Middle of the Road's hit Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. And how distant that moral world seems, where Wimpy burger bars could ban lone women from its premises after midnight since they could only be prostitutes if they were out on their own at that time.
I realised too that what he says about the three-day week in 1973-4 and the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 was true -- the memories had somehow become amalgamated in my mind as one occurrence, confusingly combining Edward Heath trying to face down the miners, and Jim Callaghan (not) saying "Crisis? What crisis?" as he returned from Guadeloupe to strike-bound Britain ... "so that the Labour Party became associated with all the ills of 1970s Britain, as though the pre-Thatcher Tories had never really existed".
While not outrageously one-sided, he does wear his heart on his sleeve more than the other two authors, at one point likening Margaret Thatcher to Big Daddy's domination of wrestling: "what had been a diverse and multicultural tradition was crushed by twenty-five stones of sentimentality, patriotism and predictability."
Like the other two books, Turner does bring home the negative aspects of the 1970s. But at the same time, he quotes Doris Lessing, who rightly wrote:
While everything, all forms of social organization, broke up, we lived on, adjusting our lives, as if nothing fundamental was happening. It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing, were the attempts to lead an ordinary life.
And he's good on the positive changes and their associated legislation: feminism, the wider acceptance of homosexuality, even the effective popular defeat of the National Front by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League -- making it simply uncool to be a fascist.
In summary, while it's by no means a comprehensive history of the 1970s and is not intended to be, there are lots of penetrating insights, and it's an entertaining read too. I'm now moving on to Turner's Rejoice! Rejoice!, about the 1980s. It gets off to a good start with the iconic cover image of a handbagged Mrs T proudly bestriding an industrial wasteland in (I think) Middlesbrough....more
This is an interesting book, but not as good as his Basque History of the World, probably because it's less wide-ranging. It still makes connections bThis is an interesting book, but not as good as his Basque History of the World, probably because it's less wide-ranging. It still makes connections between cod and a lot of other things though. I hadn't known that cod shipped out of Boston was part of the triangular slave trade, or that plantation owners found the cheapest cuts of salt cod a cheap and protein-filled food for slaves on the plantations. The journey of salt cod from the Atlantic can be mapped by the national cuisines around the world that feature salt cod as a basic ingredient on a par with bread or potatoes. Not just Spain, Portugal, Norway and New England, but the West Indies as well. It's a relatively short and easy read....more
Not all expat books about life in a village in France/Spain/Italy are created equal, but I liked this one very much. I think partly it's because his eNot all expat books about life in a village in France/Spain/Italy are created equal, but I liked this one very much. I think partly it's because his experience mirrors mine, albeit in more spectacular form. Like him, I was first charmed by the welcome from people in our village, their willingness to include us in their activities and introduce us to their friends. And as he gets drawn more deeply into the life of the village, he makes true friends but also sees the seamier and less desirable side of life, and doesn't hesitate to draw a warts-and-all portrait. All of this is beautifully conveyed. And gradually he is drawn into a quixotic quest to re-open the village cinema for just one night, with a very well-known guest of honour. This project makes the second half of the book more compelling than the first. A very enjoyable read....more
I hadn't heard of Simon Armitage before I bought this as a present for my husband, a keen mountain walker. Realising he is a respected poet, I was expI hadn't heard of Simon Armitage before I bought this as a present for my husband, a keen mountain walker. Realising he is a respected poet, I was expecting something a bit more, well, poetic -- his prose is decidedly pedestrian (pun intended) most of the time. This review sums up what I might have said in mine. What makes Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux or Jonathan Raban's books so entertaining is their encounters with random strangers, or snatches of overheard conversation. There's little of that here -- Pennine Way walkers turn out to be surprisingly unsociable, and Armitage doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the people he does meet, and in many cases stays the night with. It all seems a bit tame and bland, with lots of descriptions of scenery and the contents of the sock he collects money in at his daily poetry readings. I did like the final self-deprecating twist though.
PS if he's embarking on a similar project in future, I reckon he needs to learn to use a GPS properly and not just get it out when he is lost in the fog on a bleak moor with the light fading....more
An account of a year in the life of the Refuge des Oulettes in the Pyrenees. Not a bad read. Sometimes the author seems a little too disdainful of somAn account of a year in the life of the Refuge des Oulettes in the Pyrenees. Not a bad read. Sometimes the author seems a little too disdainful of some of the people who show up underprepared and unaware of mountain etiquette, treating the refuge like a hotel instead of hat it is -- a refuge....more
I really enjoyed this book -- a light, entertaining read. I'd heard of Clare Balding thanks to the Olympics, but hadn't realised that she was the daugI really enjoyed this book -- a light, entertaining read. I'd heard of Clare Balding thanks to the Olympics, but hadn't realised that she was the daughter of top racehorse trainer Ian Balding, or that she was champion lady jockey when she was 19.
The copy on the jacket and in a number of reviews is quite misleading in my opinion. This review nails it for me. She wasn't disregarded, abused, or treated in a "cold, unemotional" way during her childhood, as some people claim. I suspect her upbringing was pretty typical for a girl in a toffish country home in England. Of course her dad was demanding, you don't get to be a top trainer without a single-minded desire to win. She thrived on her parents' benign neglect, spending her time riding around the countryside on a succession of much-loved ponies without much supervision. It was probably just as well she went off to an all-girls boarding school eventually though, to get away from the drip-drip of "girls can't do that", and "women aren't people". After a bumpy start at the school, it was clearly the making of her -- along with her successful experience of competitive sport.
And despite her dad's belittling of girls and his belief that they weren't fit to be professional jockeys, he did spend a year doing everything he could to help her win the amateur jockey title, spending hours choosing the best combination of horse and race for her, and pushing her to do better, while her mother drove her to races the length and breadth of the country. I liked Clare's honesty and simplicity in describing her family's relationships, as well as the wonderful empathy she has for horses and dogs. She's happy to show herself up as well, especially in the social and racing faux pas with Princess Anne, who probably still isn't speaking to her :)
Don't expect a masterpiece, but it really is a good read....more
This is a well-researched book that does a good job of describing life in the Pyrenees under the Vichy regime, and the variety of people who found theThis is a well-researched book that does a good job of describing life in the Pyrenees under the Vichy regime, and the variety of people who found their way to freedom, or died trying (or helping other people to try). Interesting if you know the area, but it actually covers events more globally in France, putting these dramatic escapes into context.....more
An excellent memoir. It is not a "how to walk the PCT" book. It doesn't have lots of descriptions of wildlife, flowers, majestic views etc. It's aboutAn excellent memoir. It is not a "how to walk the PCT" book. It doesn't have lots of descriptions of wildlife, flowers, majestic views etc. It's about Cheryl Strayed's personal journey as she struggled to come to terms with her mother's death when her mother was 45 and she was 22. She does not try to make herself look like some kind of heroine, and is frank about her own failings. You feel glad with her when she reaches her epiphany. ...more
This was OK, but it had a real chance to be better. Hidden behind the gimmick of eating every bit of the pig is a book about Galicia's history, culturThis was OK, but it had a real chance to be better. Hidden behind the gimmick of eating every bit of the pig is a book about Galicia's history, culture, and people. Parts of it were really interesting, and I found the constant lengthy descriptions of gluttonous ingestion of bits of pig a distraction (in fact the first chapter, in which he claims to have eaten cocido long past the state of satiety made me feel sick). It would be quite hard for a vegetarian to read this book, so he's restricting his market too. Warning: it ends with a no-holds-barred description of a traditional matanza (pig-killing).
I suppose he felt he needed a USP to attract a publisher but It would have been much better if he'd just left that aspect out -- while still, of course, addressing the Galician obsession with pigs (not that other parts of Spain don't have pig obsessions too). Then he could also have written about seafood and fish, an equally important part of Galician culture (he only mentions eating octopus once in the entire book). And the chapter about Manuel Frega might have made more sense in a more general book -- it is completely out of place here, and not that interesting anyway, since he doesn't know how to interview him.
He's not a great writer, and given that he's from Yorkshire I found the Americanization of the text (presumably imposed by a US publisher) a bit irritating. Still, there were things to enjoy here. Worth a read if you are thinking of visiting Galicia. Favourite quote:
Spain doesn't demarcate the different spheres of social living much, which makes the country a bit like a giant kindergarten with a bar in it and a permanent tapas menu fixed to the wall.
This was OK, and an easy, undemanding read -- Maya Angelou can always draw you into her stories, and it's an affectionate and respectful portrait of hThis was OK, and an easy, undemanding read -- Maya Angelou can always draw you into her stories, and it's an affectionate and respectful portrait of her mother. It's rather short though -- I easily read it in a day -- and that left me feeling it wasn't good value. For fans of Angelou; if you haven't read any of her work, start with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings....more
To some extent, this is a good counterbalance to Dominic Sandbrook's biased, Whiggish Seasons in the Sun. It's more balanced and a lighter read. It'sTo some extent, this is a good counterbalance to Dominic Sandbrook's biased, Whiggish Seasons in the Sun. It's more balanced and a lighter read. It's obvious that Beckett is approaching the subject as a journalist. He gives broad-brush political background, I would guess largely gleaned from secondary sources, but he really comes alive when focussing on individuals, especially interviewing people like Edward Heath, Jayaben Desai, and John Gouriet. Nothing wrong with that, clearly these individuals had important roles in what happened. But he gets too wrapped up in describing their houses, what they are wearing, his chats with taxi drivers, what the weather was like when he visited them (yes, really!). This would pass in a newspaper, but it's just filler here. The interviews mostly don't tell us anything new either. He also recounts visits to iconic sites like Saltley Gates (surprise! There's nothing there now) and Maplin (surprise! It's a mudflat).
So yes, there's interesting stuff here, but as with Sandbrook's book, I was disappointed with the lack of social and cultural history. Feminism, for example, is dealt with simply by interviewing one of the founders of Spare Rib. There isn't all that much on the rise of the National Front and the anti-racist movement. And I was really surprised that he omitted all mention of education, such a controversial topic in that decade. He seems to like colourful characters, so you'd think he would seize on Rhodes Boyson. And unlike Sandbrook, he minimises mention of Tony Benn, who is all but invisible here.
On the plus side, he did do a good job of explaining the Social Contract and demonstrating how the unions shot themselves in the foot with their greed for unsustainable pay rises in 1978 and 1979, thus landing themselves with Thatcher. And we all know how that turned out. It did make me reflect that the "greed is good" ethos was already there in the 1970s -- Thatcher didn't invent it, she just made it into a virtue.
Three and a half stars, rounded up to four. I'm still looking for the perfect book on the 1970s though!...more
Update: on finishing it, I bumped my rating up a star, because it did have some better points. For example, as I mentioned in the comments, the sectioUpdate: on finishing it, I bumped my rating up a star, because it did have some better points. For example, as I mentioned in the comments, the section on Grunwick was well done. But I still don't like his attitude, and most especially the tiresome way that he draws heavily on Tony Benn's diaries yet can't resist making a snide comment every single time he mentions him.
I haven't finished this yet (about halfway through), but I'm reviewing it anyway. Sandbrook's trilogy of doorstops on Britain in the 50s, 60s and 70s has had rave reviews, so I chose this for reading on 10 hours of train journey to and from Madrid. I have to say that so far I'm quite disappointed. First because it's turned out to be more political than social history. Secondly, and more importantly, because it takes a Whiggish approach of starting from the premise that Thatcherism was the answer to all Britain's woes. Now, what was the question? Let's select our evidence to fit our thesis. In the preface, he even claims that "there is no getting away from the fact that this is generally regarded as the lowest point in British history". Seriously? Worse than the 1930s? Worse than 1914-18 or 1940? And that's just the 20th century. It may be regarded as such by his well-off Thatcherite friends, but it is far from a universally acknowledged "fact".
As I read, I kept thinking, "Well, anyway, you weren't there" (he was born in 1974). Now I accept that of course you can write history without having been there. And if you lived through the events in question, it's tempting to rely on your own anecdotal experience, which may not be typical. Particularly if you were young at the time (I was a student in London during the time period covered by this book). But he seems to rely far too much on secondary sources. Some of the "evidence" is positively feeble. If you are writing serious history and resorting to Basil Fawlty, Dr Who, and Rigsby from Rising Damp to back up your assertions about the mood of British people in 1976, something is wrong somewhere. Elsewhere, letter writers to the Express and the Daily Mail, and the famously snobbish and right-wing diarist James Lees-Milne are held up as proof that the country was going to the dogs. These people aren't typical either. Despite extensive discussion of economics, the oil price crisis of 1973 barely gets a mention -- if you believe Sandbrook, all of Britain's economic problems in the1970s were caused by trade unions, abetted by Labour governments.
Lots of people had fun in the 1970s despite the problems. If you were a member of one of the powerful unions, you were in clover, with inflation-busting pay rises and closed shops to protect your job. Even if you weren't, it was much easier than it is now to find a job if you wanted one -- every long vacation I and my friends could easily find jobs to top up our generous (by today's standards) student grants. The women's movement was flowering and we had great music to dance to. Of course better-off people with investment incomes or savings were pissed off because inflation and heavy taxation were eating away at their resources, and the pay deals gained by the unions were not sustainable in the long term and had to be stopped somehow. But public services worked pretty well, and there were far fewer beggars and homeless people on London streets than there are now.
He also takes at face value the opinions of leader writers in right-wing papers, notably on the subject of Tony Benn, that devil of the tabloids (he is careful to refer to him frequently as "Wedgwood-Benn" to emphasise his patrician background), while Harold Wilson is painted as a maudlin alcoholic and Marcia Williams as a loony (well, this last may be accurate). This is far from an impartial history. I also can't help wondering how much real research he can have done, churning out three 600-page doorstops in a few years while making television programmes at the same time. Much of this book is probably recycled from other books on the period.
It's not all bad. But with all that to say, I can see I might not finish it :) One person was so annoyed by it that he set up a blog to go through the book page by page pointing out the bias and factual errors. Unfortunately he must have got fed up too, because he seems to have stopped in November. Still, it makes entertaining reading....more
Any keen cook will enjoy this book I think -- I did. Each of the chapters deals with a single large topic -- knives, for example, or fire, and gives uAny keen cook will enjoy this book I think -- I did. Each of the chapters deals with a single large topic -- knives, for example, or fire, and gives us an overview of it through the ages and across the world. Inevitably this means there's little in-depth information or deep analysis, but it can be interesting and thought-provoking. I think my favourite chapter was the one on knives, because I'd never really thought before about the fact that French, and by extension European, cooking prescribes different knives for different tasks -- filleting, boning, paring ... whereas in a Chinese kitchen the cleaver does everything, with incredible precision. And in China and Japan, all the cutting is done in the kitchen -- no knives on the table. Not only that, but most cooking is done in a wok, whereas again the French insisted on a complete batterie de cuisine, with single purpose vessels. From this chapter I also finally discovered a plausible reason for the French stricture against cutting salad leaves with a knife -- before the invention of steel, iron knives stained, and imparted a metallic taste to the salad.
Sometimes the rapid pace leaves you hungry for more and better explanations -- I am still baffled by the claim that in India they made ice by simply putting earthenware vessels of water in trenches and covering them with straw. How does that work?? And occasionally she gets carried away by some unrelated enthusiasm -- why does she suddenly start raving about how marvellous Oxo vegetable peelers are in the middle of the chapter on kitchens, for example? But overall I definitely recommend it as an intriguing read for cooks....more
I can't really put it better than the Goodreads blurb. This book of essays is a fascinating insight into the mind of a very unusual and very talentedI can't really put it better than the Goodreads blurb. This book of essays is a fascinating insight into the mind of a very unusual and very talented writer.He is lucid and frank about his creative process, his episodes of mental illness and how they relate to the act of creation, and his passion for myth in its widest sense. Interesting asides on the teaching of English Literature in schools (exactly mirrors my experience and opinion of it) and archaeology. All, of course, suffused with his rootedness in Alderley Edge, where he's lived all his life. Inevitably there's a bit of repetition as these are lectures and articles produced for specific circumstances over a long period of time. But if you're a fan of Garner's work, you should read this.
I derived deep enjoyment from reading this book. Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, grew up in Mallorca, went to universitI derived deep enjoyment from reading this book. Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, grew up in Mallorca, went to university in Oxford, and then married a Catalan and brought up her family in a village just outside Barcelona. This position gives her a unique and piercing insight into Catalan culture and society during and after the Franco years -- both an inside view, from her Mallorcan childhood and education in a Catholic school, like any other young Spanish girl, and simultaneously an outsider's view -- like Persephone, she lives in two worlds. I was already an adult when I moved to France, but much of what she says about the fine line inside her head between her different languages and cultures resonated with me. She's both observant and astute, painting a vivid picture of changing Catalan society.
It's not a conventional autobiography -- rather than a sequence of events, it's a series of meditations on events in her life, and the lives of the women around her, from the village midwife to an exiled Latvian prima ballerina, reduced to running a ballet school in Palma. She skilfully reveals their hidden strengths and their ways of coping with oppressive Spanish mores during the dictatorship. There's a lot of sadness and stifled potential in these women's stories. The book is also about translation -- hardly surprising that this became her career, and she writes well both on the challenges of finding the right nuances when translating between languages, and on the difficulties she herself faced reconciling her English upbringing with the restrictions of life in Spain. Belonging or not belonging is a strong theme: feeling at home, yet being seen as a foreigner. If you have ever felt like this, you will enjoy this book. ...more
I was going to write a review of this, but then I came across this review, which very eloquently conveys what I would have said. It's not a page-turneI was going to write a review of this, but then I came across this review, which very eloquently conveys what I would have said. It's not a page-turner like The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, but Summerscale has done a wonderful job of putting the affair in context. Did they or didn't they? Isabella is the epitome of an unreliable narrator, swept away by her own wishes and fantasies. But it hardly matters in a sense; Summerscale succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating how simultaneously terrified and fascinated the Victorians were by female sexuality.
Incidentally, the book is much shorter than it looks; close to 25% of it is end notes!...more
I seem to have forgotten to review this. It wasn't fantastic, but it was an interesting concept. Don't pick it up thinking you're going to get a true-I seem to have forgotten to review this. It wasn't fantastic, but it was an interesting concept. Don't pick it up thinking you're going to get a true-crime/whodunnit sort of book. The crime is a hook for an examination of British society in the late 1940s. What dismal, improvised lives people led. Sometimes Souhami gets a bit too far off track -- the life story of Albert Pierrepoint, already a bit marginal to the story, led to a diversion to Auschwitz. I could see that it was a bit relevant, in the sense of it reflecting attitudes to the value of a human life and the rights and wrongs of killing, by the state or others. But it felt tacked on, after the more domestic nature of the rest of the book....more
I knew what this book was about before I started, but the novelistic quality of it still took me aback when I started reading it. It was hard to belieI knew what this book was about before I started, but the novelistic quality of it still took me aback when I started reading it. It was hard to believe it was non-fiction. How did Katherine Boo get inside the heads of these Mumbai slumdwellers and describe scenes she couldn't possibly have witnessed? But it's so well written that I soon got absorbed in the story and stopped wondering. If this aspect does bother you, I recommend reading the afterword first, in which Boo explains how she researched it.
It's a masterful piece of work -- a compelling story of individuals struggling to at best better themselves and at worst simply survive in a shanty town next to a lake of sewage, a stone's throw from Mumbai airport and its luxury hotel. What makes it powerful is that it's not just a story; Boo links it to Indian society and government as a whole, and to the apparently inexorable process of globalization. At one point she seems to suggest that globalization is a good thing for these slumdwellers -- hard to believe given what they are going through just metres away from privileged Westerners clinking glasses on their hotel terraces. Towards the end, as the global recession hits, the situation reminded me of the famous Labour poster from the 1930s. "Let's all step down one rung," says the capitalist at the top of the ladder. The unemployed man's head is only just above water as it is.
It's a depressing read. Teenagers commit suicide using rat poison, people are tried for nonexistent crimes and asked to bribe their way out of trouble, neighbours walk past a dying man by the side of the road, doing nothing to help. At the beginning of the book, teenager Manju, hoping to be Annawadi's first college graduate, is running a school in her shanty. By the end, her mother has figured out that colluding with a corrupt politician pretending to run several schools with fictitious employees and pocketing a slice of the money is much more cost-effective.
In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.
And yet in the end, Boo notes, some people in these circumstances do try to be good -- especially the children. But even then:
I am continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. ... by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. [...] Where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.
You just have to hope that if enough of them can actually get an education, things may slowly improve....more