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Author: Ian Jack writes for the 'Guardian.'
Duration: 325 pages
Publishing House Vintage claim that the journals date from: 1989-2000, but in real terms articles go up to 2009. The essays are not in chronological order - the timescale is disjointed.
My appetite for published essays from renowned journalists was whetted by the veteran pen of W F Deedes - 'Words and Deedes.' Bill's journals stemmed from 1931 - 2006; Deedes died a year later at the age of 94 years. A great longevity of a Telegraph man whose pen never tired, giant footprints for the likes of Ian Jack and Tim Park to follow, although the route may differ you can be assured 'current affairs' and 'history non-fiction' has a habit of evolving. 'The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain' written by Ian Jack does not strive for political partisan, contrary to what the title suggests. Or has 'Team Great Britain' split up into Russian styled independent states, with the proverbial 'istan' endings. The subject areas of reflection are vast; 35 of them - it reminded me of a singular-worded shopping list for a Burn's Night Banquet - Jack might as well include: 'Tatties,' 'Haggis,' alongside, 'Cherries,' 'Sundays' and 'Fat.'
Jack seems like a man with a one word plan, although not all of his essay titles are that abrupt. A 20 page starting point curiously named; 'The White Elephant: January 2009' (unpublished essay prior to this book) paves the way for how Ian Jack writes, by tapping into his family background. Expect a banquet of nostalgic pangs, early verses - prose and school-boy antics. "Elaine, Elaine, I love you all in vain," - while sheltering under an echoing culvert from the rain. An advocaat and lemonade, and remembering the friends made. Getting acquainted with sticky toffee-covered Brazil nuts, sucking while engrossed in 'St Joan' a play by George Bernard Shaw - an invitation from Pa. Nettles, willowherbs, and brambles, are part of the parcel during a ramble. A ballpoint at a ready for the 'Dundee Courier' a grand toby jug is an ornate carrier. The chipped gold rim of the fat little gentleman's hat glinting in a shaft of the sun, what came of Gran's friend Sandy Gunn? - These are a few of my favourite things; indeed, Mary Poppins; eat your heart out. A slice of memory lane gets interrupted by a slice of reality - An overturned launch on the River Ganges near Manihari Ghat, Bihar - four hundred drowned, Hindi chants of "bol bam" turned to screams - Bihar's system was one of caste - the 'Calcutta Telegraph' obscuring the gravity of the tragedy. Jack investigates, 'The Unsteady People.' Where in Bihar, swastikas are a Hindu symbol that literally means "to be good" many of them mean "good fortune." Yet corruption, ignorance, poverty, and tradition rule without shame. The only means to recognise these terms in a culture which is richly vexed - requires a detachment of a kind - but an understanding of it, often the younger generation who've opted for an education in the West but are instructed to return have a better clarity of ire to their culture. You now hear of barbaric acid attacks, as you never use to. In the transcript, Manihari Ghat's tragedy begs the question of expunging the poverty stricken who were on that launch boat. The TV coverage was evident in the west. It galvanised another wave of grief from what happened on the 15th April 1989 at Hillsborough. Liverpool and Sheffield united in grief, the underclass given another raw deal.
The subjects Jack tackles isn't initially dealing with Britishness head on, albeit, the studies prize open historical snap-shots of what walked on these shores. His Indian and Sri Lankan tours of our Commonwealth lands depicted a sad reminder of *real* poverties existence - the truest form of 'hand-to-mouth' survival. The hard daily grind etched on their leathery gaunt faces. The Hatfield train crash, 'The 12.10 from Leeds' - was a question that grew into a historical study that grew into an essence of what went wrong with Britishness. Jack's logs of events are detailed, from dated journals, comments from signal men, the punishment, interviews, the contractors, and privatising rail. The risks were exposed in full glory, comparable to the 'Titanic.' Lessons are never learnt - contingency plans are notoriously inefficient usually due to a 'surprise mask,' followed by a dehumanised statement such as: "Let's look at the evidence, write the report, and regulate what needs to be regulated to improve our rail / road / sea safety." Select the prefix where necessary. Deep down, I believe the author has made an engaging case against the 'stiff upper lip' mentality. A no fuss mindset separates us from those who we see wailing openly whenever a disaster strikes abroad. Can you imagine fifty British folk wailing uncontrollably in full view of the TV crews transporting across the globe; the answer to that is no. Footage of Hillsborough gives the impression the pandemonium was under control, even when 96 football fans were crushed in front of our very eyes. The victims were wheeled out onto the pitch almost in slow motion to be treated. One of the most funny memorable lines in Dad's Army was "Don't panic, don't panic!" eloquently played by the late Clive Dunn who *was* panicking, running around in circles, being un-British.
A re-established identity of a Great Britain, one what conveyed contemporary Britishness within the first years of the new millennia needed addressing. Labour, was at the heart of writing it in stone; in an attempt to refresh the Scottish, English's 'British compatriotism' - which was fraying then and evident today. The question of Scottish Independence is on the cusp stimulated by the oil bankroll so it is apt that a Scottish journalist eloquently encroaches on an Orwellian prose, as it were; moving on to the next phase, whatever that may entail. What we do get as readers is a comprehension of where Jack resided; identity being the operative term of the book, Jack's identity is wisely engineered. And therefore his anthological pieces, conveys a sensitivity a clarity of what Britishness means to Jack. This is one of his strengths. "Identities are not like hats. Human beings can or do put several on at a time." Linda Colley wrote this in 'Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 - 1837'- written in 1992. It is profound to state that the question of national identity during the mid part of the twentieth century up until our vote in 1975 to stay in the "European Community Common Market," had not been discussed for two hundred years. Our nation's identity had never been an issue pre the modern age, the status quo deemed to be that Briton's inherited it from their fore-fathers for generations, like a form of 'identity deoxyribonucleic acid' but then our islands populous were no where near today's populous - Then, community was the benchmark of social interaction, education, and ethical / moral values - Jack intrinsically labels the comparisons that divided eras. Many small communities shaped Britain's values effortlessly - the balanced changed dramatically when communications evolved and instead of small communities and networks being the benchmark of community, a big diverse one emerged. It encouraged Glocalisation, hereby the internet tool has been at the fore front of literary 'bringing home' the 'global community'- however, this sacrificed much of our habitable community. The global community has a common enterprise now, and identity has diminished because of it.
Jack is talented as journalists come, and 'The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain' does unearth some fruit, in 'Cherries,' Jack plucks out historical knowledge of the allegedly ailing British apple, which once grew in abundance in Britain - alas, we chose to import chilled ones from Spain, and cooled plums from the US. Britain has come a cropper due to acting on the notion: 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.' Odd, when no nation is as lush and as green as Britain. I found it quite an eye-opener - Highly recommended. ©1st2thebar 2013
The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: writings 1989-2009' (Ian Jack)
Ian Jack is a well established British journalist, currently writing for the Guardian. He has been widely published, first as a reporter for the local press in Scotland, then graduating to national broadsheets, with senior editorial roles in London. Jack's length and breadth of experience as correspondent and editor are evident in this anthology of 'writings'. His early background, in particular, informs much of this work, as he reflects on contemporary Britain and just how we arrived at the state in which we find ourselves today.
First, a minor 'declaration of interest': I share certain elements of the author's background in Scotland, London and northern England. But this is not really so uncommon and I'm sure most - if not all - readers will find sufficient resonance here. In fact, Jack's foreign correspondent pieces on the Indian subcontinent lend an international perspective on the 'Great Britain' of the title and its imperial heritage.
This 'state-of-the-nation' anthology of some 35 items includes feature articles and short newspaper column items mostly published in the last two decades.
In his introduction, the author distinguishes between the 'longer essays' and 'shorter pieces'; only the latter are presented mainly in chronological order as they were published in newspaper columns. I found this structure slightly puzzling but not critical. The compilation is retrospective, but the pieces are bound thematically by a consistent element: a remembered Britain, the nation of empire and industrial revolution, great engineering and inventions, and its peoples.
It's a good title. Jack states that he didn't have Britain (or 'Britishness') in mind at the time of writing; but from the perspective of 2009, this seems increasingly relevant. He does allude to Gordon Brown (also from south Fife) but largely manages to avoid party politics or indeed nationalist controversies. They are at least both happy to regard themselves as both British and Scots. The author's apparent acceptance of the term 'Scotch' - for anything other than whisky - may not find much favour north of the border nowadays. Similarly, 'North British' - but he does explain this in terms of his own background.
Apart from Jack's early family reminiscences, the pieces I found most engaging were his in-depth report on the Hatfield rail disaster and the item on the Titanic following the release of James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film. These features are well researched, even-handed and with that human touch that comes with the best journalism. This reminded me of another James Cameron, an earlier renowned Fleet Street journalist also with a Scottish background.
It occurs to me that if Jack had still been in his childhood home in Fife he might have heard stories about debris falling off the Forth Bridge, before the maintenance regime was (I think) reviewed. As a Home Counties commuter, what he does notice is weeds growing on the tracks. Detailed personal observations like this bring these stories to life for me. In fact, as I write, the Scotsman newspaper is reporting the cause of a much more recent derailment as 'due to a worn rail'!
Much of the writing feels nostalgic, reflective perhaps rather than sentimental, harking back to a bygone age but firmly rooted in the present. Jack's style is distinctive. As a time-served journalist, he wastes no words. His pieces are direct and well researched. For instance, the Hatfield item draws on extensive interviews held with railway engineers and experts.
The volume is somewhat sparsely illustrated. A select few black and white illustrations accompany some of the pieces, including some poignant family photographs as well as one or two more exotic and news archive shots.
There are far too many subjects here to cover in this brief review. I found the items on India and Sri Lanka/Ceylon slightly less engaging than the ones that chimed with my own experience, but that's purely personal. Jack was, after all, a South Asia foreign correspondent. These stories are all colourful, informative and news to me! The legacy of empire is most relevant here.
A few other subjects covered, worth highlighting (purely personal selection) :
* The decline of smoking in recent years
* Changes in holiday patterns
* The seaside
* The cinema
* Shopping, town centres and malls
* Kathleen Ferrier - life and music
* Archive films and screen archives
* 'Post-industrialism' generally
For me, this is journalistic social history at its best. It may also have something in common with George Orwell's 1939 novel 'Coming up for air' but without so much negativity and pessimism. (Final thought: Orwell actually wrote '1984' on the Scottish island of Jura).
~~Price and availability~~
The paperback reprint edition is currently discounted by Amazon at £6.69 with free delivery (August 2011). Kindle version: £7.99. Hardcover: £13.29
Hardcover: 352 pages
Jonathan Cape, 2009
Paperback reprint: 320 pages
*Ian Jack (Wikipedia article) : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Jack
*Ian Jack (Guardian) : www.guardian.co.uk/profile/ianjack
~~Footnote : tall chimneys and funnels~~
It's worth noting that there are a few real gems here for those with a passing interest in engineering / industrial archaeology: for instance the real reason for the fourth funnel on the Titanic and for the height of all those old factory chimneys.
[© SteveS001, 2011. A version of this original review may be found on other review sites]