Simon Thurley is the chief executive of English Heritage, as we call the modern incarnation of what, two hundred years ago, was the Office of Works. It then became the Ministry of Works, before it was absorbed into the Department of the Environment and finally established in its current, grander-sounding identity. The word ‘heritage’ is easy to scoff at, but it encapsulates a truth that antiquarians, historians, archaeologists and writers from Sir Walter Scott and William Morris to Augustus Pitt-Rivers, old uncle John Betjeman and all tried to impress upon the nation: the places that have been preserved for posterity are a great outdoor museum of the national story. They are markers of the route we have travelled, and although the story of that journey is continually retold with different emphases, to downplay it leads to a vapid inadequacy of understanding. As Thurley points out, the ill-conceived Millennium Dome ‘came to symbolise the nadir of appreciation of Britain’s history and heritage. Its zones were free from the accumulated debris of what were seen as colonialism, xenophobia, national triumphalism, oppression and class war.’ Fortunately, by the time of last summer’s Olympic opening ceremony, the tide of moralistic feeling had turned.
Thurley knows his subject intimately; his account is stuffed with useful, interesting facts and with vignettes of bygone personalities. Yet this is really a book on two separate, if closely linked, subjects, and this split is evident from the title. Men from the Ministry is in part an institutional history