The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain

As a child in the 1950s, Ian Jack hated the depressing tedium of Sundays. No shops were open, no trains ran - every week, for one day, the country stood still. Looking back from a time when Sundays are dominated by "arduous trips to Ikea and jams on the motorways", Jack is bemused. How could those peaceful Sundays, with a quality so missing from contemporary Britain and so longed for, have seemed simply dull?

The essays and columns collected here are fixated on the paradoxes of nostalgia and retrospect: they furrow their brows at the present and look sympathetically, quizzically at the past. The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain confirms Jack as one of those rare journalists whose work has a lasting interest that belies the ephemeral status of its medium.

Jack dusts off old things with the fascinated concentration of an archaeologist at a dig. Objects that speaks to his sense of a more wholesome past - bus conductors, British cherries eaten from a paper bag, a model of the Titanic made out of a coal-based resin, or his father's bookcase, which evokes an era of working-class autodidacticism - are the keys that link his experiences and those of his family to wider historical developments.

The big story here is the decline of Britian as an industrial force, and the effects of this on the working class. Digging through his father's old coal shed (left untouched for twenty years by his widow, Jack's mother) a series of scarcely identifiable tools and objects present themselves (dolly tubs: "a wooden appliance with two arms, and legs or feet, used to stir clothes in a tub"). These remnants of the "departed culture of coal" are viewed with ambivalence - they hark back to a simpler time of industrial prosperity, but Jack is not insensible to the hardships of those - like his mother - whose gruelling task it was to operate the dolly tubs.

So Jack's nostalgia is always more complicated than a sentimental yearning for the old way of life. It is not the passage of time itself that he regrets: some changes are simply inevitable, some beneficial. Jack deplores the privatisation of the railway system not out of some ideological hatred of private enterprise, but because - as he shows with patient, slow-burning anger in "The 12.10 to Leeds", an investigation of the Hatfield crash of 2000 - it created a system of money-saving incentives that compromised the safety of train travel. This urgent and detailed account of the political and economic pressures that precipitated the disaster is one of the book's highlights. Jack leads us through the history of railways and shows just how delicate the iron road can be, requiring the constant vigilance of engineers lest the rails splinter and break.

In rooting out the hidden causes of painful social and cultural change, the essays collected here frequently end on a note of ambiguity. They become more powerful still when they attempt what Jack sees as journalism's most difficult task, and name the guilty men.

Matthew Taunton's "Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris" is published by Palgrave Macmillan