The cover of The Sex Pistols' 1976 album, Anarchy in the UK
Dominic Sandbrook’s new history book, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain (£30, Allen Lane) looks at the times between 1974 and 1979, years that saw the Winter of Discontent, the three-day week, higher taxes, soaring inflation, and rising crime rates; the pound went down, as did living standards. It was the era of punk and of The Sweeney. The tome is the fourth in a series of bestselling books about post war Britain – the last ended in 1974. Critics are largely impressed – Sandbrook himself was born in 1974.
For the nostalgics
A woman once told historian Keith Lowe, writing in The Daily Telegraph, that reading Sandbrook was like pleasuring yoursef. He thinks she’s “spot on.” Sandbrook can tell “a good story”; plus his subject matter’s “comforting”, even though there was a lot to be unhappy about in those years – Jim Callaghan even said that if he were younger, he’d emigrate. There was a Brain Drain, there were racial, social and economic tensions. But amongst “the gloom”, there’s “idealism” and a “cultural boom.” And Sandbrook is brilliant at evoking nostalgia. This is a “charming, insightful and thoroughly compelling book.”
Not for the nostalgics
Britain then was “a nation in decline,” said Gerard DeGroot in The Sunday Telegraph. In contrast to Lowe, he thought that the book overflowed with “words like ghastly, shabby, tired, disma, drab and dreary,” making it “impossible to feel nostalgic.” Sandbrook’s writing, however, is “a joy”, and he makes that bleak time seem like “a rather entertaining black comedy”, though the book is “heavy on anecdote and light on analysis.” He’s good at politics; but he’s bad on culture. He’s “like a geek at a party full of trendies.”
And though he’s obviously right-wing, said D J Taylor in The Independent, Sandbrook manages to be “even-handed.” The whole book reminded Taylor of the time he gave his father a book about the Second World War. “Dad wrote his name on the flyleaf and then added the words ‘Who lived through it’. The temptation to write something similar on Sandbrook’s title page was every bit as strong.”
But is he to be pitied?
A N Wilson in The Spectator wept for Sandbrook having to read “so many novels by Margaret Drabble, and waded through so many sociological texts informing him that ‘as late as 1973 a staggering 16 per cent of homes in the north of England still had outside toilets.’” But he conceded that Sandbrook’s “prolix” style was a grower.