2011: a real page-turner

Well, I’d love to bring you my favourite books of 2011, but I made a New Year’s Resolution on January 1 to only read book this year that I already own. I felt that this was a genius idea: I’ve got loads of books I’ve bought but never read and what better time than a global financial downturn to make the most of what I’ve already got? My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of mostly non-fiction books which I accumulated during the good years when more of my income was disposable. Staring down the barrel of another straitened year, and gazing up at all those unread books – books that I really wanted to read! – I had my eureka moment.

Thus, my 2011 has not been one of exciting new books. It has been one of exciting old books. I’ll be honest, I’ve not exactly torn through a lot of them. I put this down to two things: the New Yorker, again, which continues to fill my reading hours on public transport, and the news itself, which has required closer reading of the Guardian on a daily basis, as the international political and economic situation has become ever more compelling and grave, and more closely tied in with the way we live now.

My book-reading choices have been tied in with this. I vowed to finally finish Andy Beckett’s stirring and enlightening When The Lights Went, his study of Britain’s political 70s, which I’d carried over from the year previous. But guess what, I still haven’t finished it! Why? Especially when I love it so much? Because, around chapter 15, Brent Vs The Cotswolds, which looks in detail at the flashpoint Grunwick strike of 1976-1978, Beckett starts to quote in earnest from The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second autobiography. (She wrote The Downing Street Years first, then worked backwards.) I remembered that I’d bought The Path To Power a few years ago when I was planning a novel set during the Falklands war. It’s doubly ironic really – that I would even dream of writing a novel, when my publisher would in fact only allow me to write memoirs; and that The Path To Power ends just as Thatcher takes office, and thus does not cover the Falklands. Beckett’s book ends with Thatcher’s victory in 1979, as does The Path To Power. These books form an interesting pair. Although Beckett writes from the left, his account of the decade is fair-minded. Thatcher’s account is much more ideological and one-sided, as you’d expect. (In fact, you’d ask for your money back if it wasn’t.)

I decided to take it off the shelf and read it because I have a simple theory that the rot for this country set in during her long reign in the 1980s. However, she didn’t just turn up in 1979 and ruin everything, as Beckett’s book reminds us. And you need context if you’re to understand what went wrong. And something really did go wrong. The wreckage lies all around us. I hoped that reading about Thatcher’s formative years, I would come to understand why she dismantled British industry, broke up communities, screwed public services, sold us all down the home ownership river and turned us all into selfish bastards who’d do anything to get a better car than our neighbour’s. I’m still 100 pages off finishing – she’s currently telling me all about her international trips made as Leader of the Opposition and why it’s sometimes necessary to shake hands with dictators, and even socialists – but I think I’m starting to understand her.

She’s a far more complex and yet way more ideological individual than you’d ever guess from the forthcoming The Iron Lady film, with Meryl Streep. (I’ll be reviewing that in January – it’s pretty disappointing, I’ll tell you that much in advance.) Her belief in free market economics was sown early on, and her pathological distaste for “statism” as she always calls it, and the namby-pamby trappings of collectivism and socialism merely harden in office. It’s fascinating to read her gearing up for power, and how Labour handed it to her on a plate in 1979 under Callaghan, who attended a summit in the Caribbean sunshine during the Winter of Discontent. You rather suspect Thatcher would have snubbed Carter, D’Estaing and Schmidt to stay at home and drive through the streets in a tank.

In all, a fascinating book, albeit sometimes boring, as political memoirs tend to be, and a valuable insight not just into the woman who, I still maintain, ruined Britain, but to the climate that allowed that to happen.

I like films. And Scenes From A Revolution by Mark Harris sated my interest in this regard. Again, an old book – it came out in this ugly-looking hardcover version in 2008 – it looks in laser-surgical detail at the five films nominated for best picture in 1968 and what they tell us about the industry’s paradigm shift from the old-style roadshow-based studio system and the new, counterculture-reflecting handover of power from producers to directors and writers – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat Of The Night and Doctor Dolittle. It’s a poor title, as well as a horrible cover, but the book inside is engrossing, and full of great trivia! I do have a tendency to get into books that are either hardbacks or just massive, like Thatcher’s, which means they only get read at home. This makes the going very slow indeed. But Scenes From A Revolution, in skipping back and forth between each film as it grinds ever closer to release, has a lovely momentum. As you leave one film in production, you can’t wait to return to it, to see how it’s getting on, and this maintains your interest through the whole book. Frankly, I already knew the story of how Hollywood changed hands in the late 60s, but not, I found, in this much detail.

I thoroughly enjoyed Post Everything, Luke Haines’ follow-up to Bad Vibes, his rewrite of Britpop history. This is the only new book I read this year, and that’s because it was kindly sent to me. He is an incredibly funny writer, and afraid of no one, which is why his humour is so cutting. Haines is the only person alive to have a book in my Top 5 and an LP in my Top 20 (which I haven’t posted yet, bear with me).

And that’s kind of it for my literary year. I also have a copy of Pete Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and The 1970s, which someone kindly sent me and which is clearly a work of admirable industry about a man I love in a decade I love, but it’s not one for reading; rather, it’s for dipping into, which I have been doing.

I broke my New Year’s Resolution in November and bought a clutch of quiz books with which to test my general knowledge for Celebrity Mastermind, the best of which are pictured above, two from the Best Pub Quiz Book Ever series, which I came to rely on as a portable brain gym. I also caved a couple of weeks ago and bought a brand new paperback copy – from an actual bookshop! – of Keynes: Return of the Master by Robert Skidelsky, first published in 2009, which I’ve sneakily started reading as I’m pretty sure I’m a hardcore Keynesian but wanted to double check. (If Thatcher hates him, I’m probably going to love him.) Skidelsky positions JMK in the midst of today’s economic crisis, and his description so far has clarity on its side. I’ll get back to this when I’ve finished the other two books about British political history I’ve mentioned.

I’ve been glancing jealously over the endless book roundups in the newspapers and I wish I’d been able to read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which is constantly mentioned in dispatches, and the much-fancied Walter Isaacson bestseller Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, and I wish I could have afforded to buy The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke in hardback as it would look nice on my hardbacks shelf even if I’d not got around to reading it yet, but these are hard times. Maybe I’ll get to them next year. I’m thinking about rolling over my 2011 New Year’s Resolution into 2012. It’s been pretty cool. Although I’ve just renewed my subscription to the New Yorker for another 47 issues, so maybe I won’t read any books at all.

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