This is a brief history, in 62 chapters, of the British national spirit from 1953 to the present day. And by present day, I mean these crucial last few months, when our national spirit has been so sorely tested. Framed around the Queen’s television address on 5 April 2020, shortly after Boris Johnson was diagnosed with Covid-19, and the Black Lives Matter protest in Parliament Square on 7 June, when Winston Churchill’s statue was sprayed with the words “was a racist”, Andrew Marr flits back and forth between the decades with the authority of an expert witness.
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Some chapters, such as the tale of John Grigg, who was slapped in the face after complaining in the National and English Review (1957) that the Queen sounded like “a priggish schoolgirl”, are postcard-sized, while others, such as those that recall the success of the comic Viz and the Labour Party’s failure to effect modern educational reform, read more like essays.
Marr’s interest, as his title suggests, is less in reporting the changing times than spotlighting the main players. Some of his emblematic Elizabethans, Margaret Thatcher and Meghan Markle for example, are already part of the official story, while others, like Khadija Saye, the 24-year-old artist who perished with her mother in Grenfell Tower, are new to the annals of British history. So too are some of the first NHS medical staff members who died of Covid-19: Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, Edmond Adedeji, Fayez Ayache, Alice Kit Tak Ong, Jitendra Rathod, Alfa Saadu and Adil El Tayar. In 1953, Marr notes, the dead doctors would more likely have been called “Wilkins, Smith, Walker, McDonald, Davies, Jones”.
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So what does it mean to be British today? asks Marr. “Who do we admire? Whom do we applaud? Whom do we especially dislike?” When he typed these lines we admired Marcus Rashford, the 23-year-old Manchester United player who campaigned for free school meals during school holidays, we applauded the NHS, and we especially disliked Dominic Cummings. This time next year, who knows how the cards will shuffle. At the rate things are moving, Britain might then be a republic.
If Elizabethans were a novel read by Martians, they would complain the plot lacked credibility: how could these belligerent, class-obsessed Brits change both so much and so little over one reign? At the Coronation, the city’s silhouette was one of bowler hats, flat caps and head scarves; men in offices wore ties and carried briefcases, women had stiff little handbags that clicked open at the top, and children struggled with elocution lessons. The churches were full on Sunday mornings, we addressed one another as Mr and Mrs, and we enjoyed what Marr calls an “unironic, full-throated enthusiasm for the monarchy”. Today the churches are empty but the mosques are full, we wear surgical masks and stare into our phones while walking; the Queen’s favourite child has been “cancelled” due to his association with a paedophile, while her grandson has evolved, seemingly overnight, from a turbo-Sloane to a new-age feminist.
All of which shows what rich terrain Marr has to traverse, and there can be no better guide to the Elizabethan landscape. Having been at the vanguard of journalism for the past 30 years, Marr has interviewed many of the figures he discusses. British newspapers, he says, “produce some of the strongest and most vivid writing anywhere”, and he is part of that tradition. What he offers here, however, is a personal perspective, and his opinions give the book its flavour. Bob Geldof is “dishevelled, foul-mouthed, prone to bragging and not one of the very greatest musicians of the age”; Roy Jenkins is “a veritable balloonist of upward mobility”; Ted Heath is “a great grumpy First World War tank, slowly lumbering down into shell-holes and up over tangled barbed-wire fortifications yet never deviating from his objective”. When the empire collapsed, Enoch Powell “responded almost as a spurned lover”.
Mary Whitehouse – “the Midlands Joan of Arc” – must be admired for hitting some real targets, like pornography and paedophilia, while the Beatles were to the New Elizabethans what Shakespeare was to the old: both “spoke to people of all backgrounds and ages about timeless things – love, loss, ageing, the search for the divine… and taxation”. Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, “has good claim to be one of the most influential new Elizabethans of all”; Geldof “did more to help his fellow men and women than any other Elizabethan”; Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins – the “Jonathan and David of the permissive society” – reshaped the country more effectively than Harold Wilson and James Callaghan; the #MeToo movement began when Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes; and that what Clive Sinclair did not take into account when he gave us the first electric car was that the British “won’t spend good cash to look like a plonker”.
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Readers will, of course, argue with him. Flagging up the importance of Diana Dors, who “owned” her sexuality, Marr ignores Elizabeth Taylor; noting the significance of Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige (1956) which distinguished “U” from “non U”, he says nothing about the current state of the language, where plain English is being replaced by gobbledegook. While he champions modern art and technology, he overlooks the modern novel. But Marr’s exclusions make for a strong forward drive. At the heart of his plot is the irony that we have been so busy falling out over whether or not to be European that we failed to notice we’ve become American.
It is a stroke of genius to begin with James Morris, correspondent for the Times, waiting at base camp to deliver his scoop: Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit of Everest on 29 May 1953. When James transitioned and became Jan in 1972, we didn’t bat an eyelid; but we tend to forget, says Marr, “the real character of this second Elizabethan age – the radical variousness, the unexpectedness of the Queen’s subjects”.
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The centrepiece is the chapter on the arch-rivals Gina Miller and Nigel Farage. Like two people born in the same house but left by different doors, both “harked back to a world of clearer and better rules”. To prove his point about their similarity, Marr asks us to identify which of them said the following: “I’m never short of an opinion or six, so I said some typically politically incorrect things about how certain women held out as heroines of diversity are more like men in skirts.” It’s Gina Miller, of course.
The final section is about how we “earn our bread”, and Hovis, Marr reminds us, was the subject of the most successful advertising campaign of all time. With Ridley Scott directing and Dvorak’s New World Symphony providing the soundtrack, a young lad pushing his bike up a cobbled street was Britain’s fantasy of its own recent past. We might see ourselves, Marr concludes, as the new Elizabethans, but we “won’t be new for very long. We will, ourselves, be part of history soon.” And Andrew Marr will be one of our chief historians.
Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence” will be published next May by Bloomsbury
Elizabethans: How Modern Britain was Forged
William Collins, 512pp, £20
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed