In London last month I picked up a nice, fat paperback “The Making of Modern Britain, From Queen Victoria to VE Day,” by Andrew Marr, to read while flying across the Atlantic. It took me weeks to finish (the plane ride only lasted 10 hours) and I enjoyed every information-packed page.
The fact that a Scotsman wrote it primarily for an English audience makes the project even more interesting. An American reader becomes a bemused bystander, listening to the Brit-speak, fascinated to find out what they may have to say about us.
By Brit-speak, I mean “this syren (sic), this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity” (John Maynard Keynes describing the politician Lloyd George). Marr does call that description “going it a bit.”
Marr takes for granted that his readers have heard of Lloyd George and King Edward VII, Ben Tillet, Lord Kitchener, Mr Rolls and Mr Royce, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, Music Halls, and more. But do the British know where the common knowledge differs from historical fact? The detailed argument Marr offers is fascinating.
One example is the British evacuation through Dunkirk in June, 1940. Marr writes, “One can peel away the layers of misremembering for ever... Men did fight for places on the boats. Others became wildly drunk, or broke down. It is not true that the British army was saved by flotillas of little pleasure boats taken across the Channel by their plucky owners. Many fishermeen, lifeboatmen and commercial boat owners refused point blank to help... The Royal Navy was always in the lead, taking absurd risks and suffering severe casualties to get the troops away. Nor it is true that the (soldiers) returned home full of contempt for Jerry and determined to get back to Europe and fight as soon as possibile. There are many eyewitness and first-person accounts of demoralized, angry, near-mutinous men, shattered and humiliated, returning to the English ports.”
“Looking back,” he says, “we learn to see ourselves more sharply. Our forebears were living on the lip of the future, just as we are. Their illusions about what was to come should make us, right now, a little humble. They were tough, passionate and young, however ancient they seem now.”
Marr vividly describes the Edwardian-era British as “very far, and strangely near... Few of us would feel at home there for any length of time. Every town had places where the children were literally shoeless and where people were withering... from malnutrition. The smells of the town included human excrement and unwashed bodies, along with tobacco, beer, coal smoke and the rich reek of horse... Every middle-class household had a maid, or maids, a cook, and often a gardener or groom. Class distinction was not an abstract thing, but present in most houses, standing quietly in the room.”
It’s familiar, but somehow strange. In 1908 there already was deep-seated unease about the growing power of the Kaiser. One journalist “warned a friend to get rid of his German nanny because, as a keen cyclist, she was almost certainly a military agent.” Others claimed the “German high command had a secret civilian army hidden in England, posing as waiters, clerks, bakers, hairdressers and servants.” According to one Member of Parliament “there were 66,000 German reserve soldiers living secretly in the Home Counties with an arms dump at Charing Cross, just across the road from (Parliament).”
The mania erupted again at the beginning of the Second World War. “Unfortunate Germans, Austrians and Italians were rounded up and sent to internment camps in the north of England or on the Isle of Man... of these many were Jewish professional people who had fled Hitler – the Isle of Man camp became a bubbling center of culture unmatched almost anywhere else in wartime Europe.”
“The Making of Modern Britain” brilliantly pulls together hugely diverse historic strands into a clear narrative, while oddly omitting events that took place in British colonies. It happened like this, to these people. Decisions, votes, wartime events could have gone another way; but this is how it turned out. This book is an important, easy-to-digest effort to renew the historical record, a project important to any modern citizen in whatever country.
Andrew Marr earlier wrote “A History of Modern Britain,” taking the story to current times. Both books were big sellers in the UK, and both were the basis for BBC documentaries. As far as I can tell, the BBC does not allow North American viewers to view them. There may be other ways to view or sample these programs, and if you find them, please let me know.
IMPORTED ENGLISH EDITION: “The Making of Modern Britain” by Andrew Marr. MacMillan UK hard cover $34.95. ISBN 0230709427.
IMPORTED ENGLISH EDITION: “A History of Modern Britain” by Andrew Marr. Pan Publishing UK paperback $15.95. ISBN 0330511475.
US EDITION: “The Making of Modern Britain” will appear in a US paperback version in November 2010. $14.95. ISBN 0330510991.
About the WWII internments: “By 1943 the vast majority of internees had been released to do war work.”
Two BBC pages on the author... and this one...
To make the Dunkirk story more clear: There was of course a flotilla of little boats of all kinds, including ferries... they got across the channel under the eye and with the help of the Royal Navy, which towed many. The main use of the small boats was to move troops off the Dunkirk beach (the docks were destroyed by then) and ferry them to the large Royal Navy ships offshore which then transported them home. Few of the small boats made the round trip unaided, and none or almost none carried soldiers all the way back. Overall about 338,000 men were rescued. Of that number 123,000 were French. Many more French would have been left behind if Churchill had not insisted on an additional day of rescue by his navy. As it happened, 30,000 or more French soldiers had to be left behind to surrender to the Germans.