Lead book review

A dutiful exercise carried out in a rush

The final volume of Peter Ackroyd’s History of England feels like a dutiful exercise carried out in a hurry, says Philip Hensher

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

Innovation: The History of England, Volume VI Peter Ackroyd

Picador, pp.512, 30

Like department stores, empires and encyclopaedias, the multi-volume narrative national history is an invention of the later 18th century. It reaches its apogee, promising to bring everything important within a single enclosure, in the 19th and early 20th century. After that, ambitious examples appear to be fighting against a general lack of enthusiasm.

Most of these works are little read now, from David Hume’s 1750s The History of England all the way through to Winston Churchill’s idiosyncratic A History of the English-Speaking Peoplesin the 1950s. The grand sweep has a tendency to define the significant in advance. Many of these histories can explain a sequence of legislation, such as the Factory Acts, but are incapable of really evoking the texture of the times or the tenor of minds. At best, they are a useful framework — I mean, who doesn’t mentally place events of the past against the dates of rulers, thinking of Victorian and Edwardian architects as subtly different in some way?

But there’s no denying that we are becoming increasingly sceptical about these grandly inclusive tours d’horizon. They seem to leave a lot out: the experience of women and the working classes and other outsiders often enter only when the ruling elite decides to offer them education, the vote or previously withheld opportunities. Perhaps these massive narratives will disappear like Debenhams, or go into a long, old-fashioned decline like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Or perhaps they will change into something new. David Kynaston’s wonderful sequence of books about postwar Britain, the latest volume of which is just out, is rooted not in Acts of Parliament but in individual voices, often quite unknown. Dominic Sandbrook’s highly enjoyable books of the same period are unusually responsive to the fast-changing texture of popular culture and are much more evocative than many narrative histories.

Innovation is the final volume of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England, which this most industrious of writers has been bringing out since 2011. It is rigidly confined by the 20th century, beginning with the accession of Edward VII in 1901 and ending with the damp squib of New Year’s Eve 1999 at the Millennium Dome. It’s rather a shame that Ackroyd doesn’t continue for another 20 years. So much of what has happened in the past two decades is very illuminating about Englishness.

Still, the 20th century is certainly enough of a subject, and witnessed the utter transformation of England. Ackroyd’s approach is traditional, not to say old-fashioned. The accepted landmarks are indicated, sometimes rather briskly. Political figures and leaders are given some space, and parliamentary edicts rather generously accounted for (‘The National Minimum Wage Act… was opposed by Tories on the grounds that it would lead to unemployment’).

Nuclear power gets eight lines in total, while Geoffrey Howe’s famous resignation speech is quoted extensively over almost two pages. Culture, whether mass or elite, is only rarely alluded to, though it tells us so much — Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Spitting Image have to do a lot of work. The only British films mentioned are ththankse Carry On series and The Italian Job; even Brief Encounter and the Ealing comedies do not feature.

The main idiosyncrasy, I suppose, is in making the case for some unlikely figure. Ackroyd openly prefers John Major and Edward Heath to Margaret Thatcher, though I’m not convinced by his enthusiasm for Harold Wilson as someone who ‘considered champagne a poor substitute for beer’. Wilson was, of course, a great brandy-and-cigars man in private.

Considering what an excellent novelist Ackroyd is, the book doesn’t succeed in bringing people’s characters to life. Sometimes the pen portraits are very peculiar, especially of the Labour leader John Smith: ‘With his bullet head, his spectacles and thinning hair, he recalled a dour trade union leader of the old school.’ Really? I always thought he looked like what he was, a prosperous Edinburgh solicitor. Hugh Dalton is ‘of vampiric appearance, loyal soul, brilliant mind and disastrous naivety’ — a summary which hardly begins to suggest how many people loathed him.

It is only very rarely that we get the sense of a human being through their own words. The witnesses after the second world war who suddenly turn, mid-rationing, saying ‘Oh, for a bit of butter!’ are a very rare appearance. They’ve been lifted, too, from Kynaston’s primary research, with very limited acknowledgement.

The narrative has its points, but it is surprisingly conventional; it feels like an abridged summary of what the author already knew, and towards the end descends into a bored précis of what he has come across reading through bound copies of the Times. Ackroyd’s vivid personality, so impressive in his lives of Blake, Eliot, Dickens and the biography of London, is so little in evidence here that I rather unkindly wondered how much help his two research assistants provided, the only names on a laconic acknowledgements page.

The book is quite startlingly inaccurate on dozens of occasions. George VI became king in 1936, not 1937. The famous 1933 Oxford Union motion about not fighting for king and country is significantly misquoted. How Elgar could be regarded as one of the two most successful British composers in the 1930s escapes me: he wrote nothing of any importance after 1919 and was painfully out of fashion by the time he died in 1934. Mrs Thatcher didn’t ‘form a new acquaintance, one Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’, at Yuri Andropov’s funeral in 1984. She wanted to meet him, but was rebuffed. She first met him on his trip to the UK at the end of the year, three months before he became General Secretary. It wasn’t the ‘leader of East Germany’ who announced the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but an ill-informed Günter Schabowski, by mistake. The novel of Kingsley Amis’s that Thatcher was so dismissive about (‘Huh! Get another crystal ball!’) is not about ‘a communist take-over of Britain’ but a Russian occupation — communism having long been replaced by feudalism. And so on.

As well as no acknowledgements, there are no references, and sometimes a claim really needs a footnote. Can it really be said that in the 1930s customers of the new chain stores were ‘left to browse the well-stocked aisles themselves’? Traditionally, self-service supermarkets in the UK are only dated to the postwar years. And I’m pretty certain that English troops in the first world war didn’t call it ‘the Great Fuck-Up’. The compound noun is unrecorded until the 1940s, and was American for some time after that. What is the evidence for claiming that ‘the Queen herself had been puzzled and disturbed by Wilson’s decision [to resign], but she acquiesced with her habitual grace’? It is very odd to claim that ‘the BBC [during the Falklands War] was not always a friend to Thatcher, but here, perhaps for the last time, she found in it an ally’. The government was often infuriated by the BBC coverage of the war, and Thatcher regarded some of its reporting as verging on treasonous.

These astonishingly frequent errors clearly undermine the general authority of the book; but even cleaned up, I think it would fail to convince. And Innovation is an odd title to choose when you have so little interest in technology and scientific breakthroughs. The internet, the discovery of antibiotics, nuclear power and many other things with specific English connections are passed over either in silence or with the briefest possible mention.

I am very sorry to find so little worth recommending in such a weighty book by an admirable, clever and, in other circumstances, pungently memorable writer. But this feels like a dutiful exercise carried out in a hurry. If only Ackroyd had published instead a collection of 40 brief essays on themes that actually interested him, from Dan Leno to folk music to working-class transvestites, we might have had a history of the 20th century with some life, some authority, some proper accuracy, and, of course, some of the old vim and irresistible charm. How I would like to read Ackroyd on George Brown, for instance. Not too late.

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