I’m so 20th century

There are not enough hours in the day, as the band Gomez noted. I am a voracious reader. I am also self-employed. These two truths do not rub along too easily together. I am one of those people – not rare – who always has more than one book on the go, a couple at home, one in my bag for public transport. At the moment I have three books on the go that I wish I had more time to read. I’d like a week off work so that I could concentrate on one and finish it. Then I could add a new one to the carousel and not get enough time to read that. When you are self-employed, you become very conscious of not working. (Word recently gave me two books to read and review, which means reading and working – Nileism by Allan Brown and The Celestial Café by Stuart Murdoch – so I put my leisuretime books on hold and read those.) My other problem is that I tend to pick big, fat books, which take up a lot of space in my bag which might be more usefully employed for a packed lunch.

My three books are, as pictured, Israel by Martin Gilbert (first published in 1998, but revised in 2008), The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (published in 1984), and When The Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett (published in 2009). The first, which I bought and started reading in 2009 after the three-week Gaza War and put aside when it was usurped by something a little easier, is back in circulation because of Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise on C4, which has not just reignited my interest in the troubled region, but underlined how little I know about its history. I aim to rectify that.

The second I bought in 1988 when I was co-writing a daft play about the assassination of JFK called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out. This was in the dark days before the internet, and the quickest way to “research” his shooting was to buy a book that covered it. I only read the assassination chapter at the time, and filed the book away for what turned out to be over 20 years. I plucked it from the bookshelf before Christmas after yet another documentary on TV about the Kennedys. Even though the family tree that’s helpfully supplied ends in 1984, at which point lot of Kennedys now dead were still alive, it’s their rise to prominence that I’m interested in and which is proving fascinating. It’s not just about trivia, but you’ll love this: in 1929 patriarch Joseph Kennedy made so many phonecalls to his lover Gloria Swanson that he had the highest personal phone bill in America for that year.

The third book is the easiest read of the three, although still unwieldy as I have it as a pre-publication advance proof, with a plain orange cover. Over Christmas and New Year, this was the book, and I was getting through its detailed political history of Britain in the 1970s at a rate of knots not seen since I rattled through the complete works of David Peace two years ago. (A rare excursion into fiction, although his novels are so rooted in history, they almost count as non-fiction.) When The Lights Went Out I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in the way we live now, since so much of the pain we’re feeling in 21st century Britain has its origins in what happened between the election of Heath in 1970 and the election Thatcher in 1979. It deserves finishing. I owe it that. I owe Andy Beckett that, for all his thorough research, and all the dying 70s politicians he interviewed in the process. But Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian who has written more books than most of us will read in a lifetime, has barged Beckett off the top of the pile. I will return to Britain in the 70s, of course, but for much of the foreseeable I’ll be at the birth of a nation in Palestine.

So, like some kind of time traveller limited to the 20th century, I’m currently in Britain in the 1970s circa the Social Contract, Palestine in the 1920s circa the Balfour Declaration, and Hyannis Port in the 1940s circa the death of “Young Joe” Kennedy in a disastrous American bombing raid called Operation Aphrodite. Each time I pick up a book, I have to reacclimatise to the era and the climate. What I observe about myself, with no forward planning about what I’m going to read next, is that I am clearly a 20th century man. I have spent the last 15 years educating myself. I was no good at history at school. I’m not sure it was as interesting at O-level in the 70s – my main memory was the Industrial Revolution: canals, looms, the Stockton-Darlington line – and I certainly struggled to engage with it. I failed O-level history. In fact I got a “U” grade, which isn’t a grade, as it stood for ungraded. So, in my thirties I returned to the subject and filled my shelves with history books. I even joined a history book club, which meant one new paperback a month. I read about the Reformation, and about the two World Wars, and about the Russian gulags, and the Vietnam war, and … actually, apart from the Reformation, you can start to spot a theme. I devoted myself to understanding the 20th century. I’m still at it.

History is so much more fun when you plan your own curriculum. I think researching my biography of Billy Bragg in 1997 – using books, as I was pre-dial-up – really concentrated my mind on getting to grips with the century we were then still living through. Not all history books are fun to read. Some are dry. Some, like John Keegan and Eric Hobsbawn, are not. I’ll be honest, Israel is fairly dry – which is apt, I guess, as the very inhospitability of the Arab soil lies at the heart of the Zionists’ story, of the physical struggle and determination to lay down roots in a foreign land they felt was theirs, and the century of trouble that led to – but I will persevere. I notice that Simon Sebag-Montifiore has a new book out called Jerusalem, and he’s a very readable historian, but that doesn’t fit in with my New Year’s Resolution, which I am determined to stick to: only read books I already own.

I will review all three books when I finish them. I can see in a secondary pile Robert Service’s biography of Lenin and a brilliant book about post-Communist Russia called The Oligarchs by David Hoffman, both of which I started and set aside when more pressing reads took over. I will return to those first. Because I already own them.

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9 thoughts on “I’m so 20th century

  1. I read When The LIghts Go Out over Christmas and New Year as well – in fact, it was the second book I read on my shiny new Kindle – and I second your recommendation. It’s terrific.

    I realise that the last thing you need is more recommendations! But on the subject of the Kennedys I really liked Robert Dallek’s bio of JFK. Even better than that, though, is ‘Ask Not’ by Thurston Clarke, which is about Kennedy’s inauguration speech. It doesn’t sound like a topic which could fill a book, but it’s actually one of the most fascinating and, in its way, thrilling books I’ve read. (I was alerted to it by Louis Menand’s review in The New Yorker, if that helps to seal the deal…)

  2. Bravo to you for pursuing a detailed knowledge of history, I love it myself; so much so that I, coincidentally, also achieved a “U” at ‘O’ Level – but then five years later ended up passing a degree in the subject. What that might say about the NCC history teachers, or me, I dunno. But it does go to show that if school doesn’t always know best, then nor do the pupils I suppose.
    ‘Aphrodite’ was the scheme to load up past-it heavy bombers with explosives and use them as giant remote controlled dive bombers, wasn’t it? Continuing the aviation theme George Beurling, Canadian RAF ace, was associated with the early air force of the State of Israel – but you probably knew that already..

  3. We’re developing a theme here, as I too failed to connect with History at school. I have always been fascinated by it though, and actually loved history lessons in primary school. Something in secondary education must have killed it for me, as I did not even select it for GCSE.

    I too read a lot, but I feel that history is a huge gap in my education. I’m afraid I don’t know where to start, so maybe you or others here can help me, Andrew? I’m looking for a highly readable history book to start me off and get me hooked. Preferably 20th century but not necessarily.

    I have been browsing Amazon and the Eric Hobsbawm series Age of Revolution, Age of Empire etc. seem to be very popular. Have you read them? 4 volumes taking us right up to 1991, with very positive reviews. Anyway, thanks for reading, and thanks in advance to anyone who responds!

    • Darren, unless your interest is general history in which case the ‘Age’ books are good, I’d recommend going for a book about a subject or theme you’re most interested in – space travel, war, medicine, art, science, sport, a particular person or country, etc. A decent book of history will always have enough info on the general historical context to make it a useful read.
      What do you like?

      • Well there are areas that attract me specifically, such as the world wars, but I suspect that’s only because I already have a basic grasp of them through popular culture, TV etc. I am therefore interested in general history, so I may go for the ‘Age’ series. Maybe through them I will find an area of history which holds particular interest for me and I’ll explore it further. I think I’m interested in all of it really, so I’m just looking for something to get me started. It’s accessibility I’m really looking for at the moment!

    • If you’re looking for accessibility and good, solid information to fill holes in your history education, I’d recommend “Great Tales From English History”, by Robert Lacey. Initially available in three volumes, it’s now out in a big, chunky omnibus, and covers 7500BC to 1953AD. It’s a series of snapshots built around famous figures and events from history, and is a great introduction to English history through the centuries. Very readable. Apparently he plans to do one for Scotland as well.

      • I can’t comment on the other tomes mentioned here but I do have the Hobsbawn Age Of … series and I find them very readable indeed. And very nice covers on the ones I’ve got!

  4. I too am reading When The Lights Go Out and am thoroughly enjoying it – the parallels with current affairs appear limitless. To keep the theme going I’ve got Crisis What Crisis by Alwyn Turner as another 70s history book ready to go next, followed by Rejoice Rejoice 80s by the same author which covers the 80s.

    I’m also sitting on Dominic Sandbrooks two tomes, Never Had It So Good and White Heat covering Britain from 1956-70, so once I’m done with Thatcher I can time travel back to the happy world of consensus politics and the swinging sixties.

    Darren – if you’re looking for some easy entries into history around the World Wars, try the “Lost Voices..” series which takes interviews from people involved in the conflicts and builds them into narratives of the events, rather than supplying a historian’s eye view. Alternatively, Steven Ambrose (of Band of Brothers fame) writes very well on WW2 from an American point of view, tending to focus on the soldier’s experience rather than the big picture history.

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Great post, this has put my mind at rest, as I too am one of those people who have more than one book on the go – I see it as a kind of book procrastination with myself. I can start a book no problem, then see another on the shelf I fancy, start that and start to get bored with the former etc etc. Do you find that historical books are not such a good read on the train? I like to really concentrate and take in the events and it seems I can only do this at home, as a commute just isn’t enough time to become absorbed – that’s where the Collings and Herrin podcast fills that void brilliantly!! I’m reading nineteen eighty four and really enjoying it, nnut it keeps being put on the back burner mand part of me just wants to get it read so I can start that exciting book calling me from the book shelf! I’m sorry Mr Orwell! Great book though! The grapes of wrath sits half read as does DDay by Anthony Beevor – aggghhh I’d better get started!
    Hope you are well, best wishes, Matthew

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