Friday, January 28, 2011

The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: Writings 1989–2000, by Ian Jack (Vintage)

Nostalgia drives this collection of Ian Jack’s journalism. His parents, he says, were “survivors from a previous British age”, but a dominant theme in the book is that we all are – at least those of us no longer young. Jack loves to unearth the past, delving into his teenage diaries (“What a little prick”) or recording his mother’s recollections (“We’ve lost so much”) or examining the contents of his late father’s toolshed or bookcase. The best long essay here explores the Hatfield rail crash of 2000 and shows how unflashy investigative journalism can uncover searing truths. Two other stand-out pieces have as their subjects the contralto Kathleen Ferrier and the sinking of the Titanic. There are enjoyable shorter essays, too, on giving up smoking or the films of Mitchell and Kenyon. Jack’s backward-looking stance works best when he is exposing the vandalism of the past (like the fragmentation of Britain’s railways under the Tories), but his unrelieved emphasis on what has been lost leaves one wondering if he feels anything at all has been gained.

PS The image above comes from footage from Mitchell and Kenyon's Pendlebury Colliery c.1900. Nostalgia-buffs might enjoy some of the archive films available for free at Moving History.

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