The Reign: Life in Elizabeth’s Britain – Part I: The Way It Was, 1952–79 by Matthew Engel - review by Robert Colls

Robert Colls

That Was The Queen That Was

The Reign: Life in Elizabeth’s Britain – Part I: The Way It Was, 1952–79


Atlantic Books 640pp £25

I really enjoyed this romp through the headlines, partly because Matthew Engel is such an amusing writer and partly because all sixty-one of his chapters come up like three-minute songs on the jukebox – soon over and always time for just one more. The book has a nice Sergeant Pepper-style cover. The timing’s fortuitous too. Her Majesty was always keen to oblige.

Engel thinks like a journalist but writes like a raconteur. He can always see the joke, or at any rate the point of the joke. Did you hear the one about the 1950s Ministry of Defence official defending the four-minute warning? Imagine doing this in a Harold Macmillan voice:

Some people have said ‘Oh my goodness me – four minutes? – that’s not a very long time!’ Well, I would remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes.

So said Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe, and there’s plenty more where that came from. But Engel is too good a journalist not to want to get at the truth as well. The Reign is not so much a history as a collage put together from interviews and press cuttings, along with a smattering of books. Where two points of view clash, he puts them alongside one another with a tart reminder of whose side he’s on. Nothing in this book is original, yet everything is interesting. He spends not a minute setting up. Everything becomes clear as we go along. At the heart of it is the story of how we grew up over the decades to become the more decent, educated, prosperous and mature society that we nearly are today.

On the whole, the past gets a pasting. Engel likes the Beatles, amateur sport, diminishing inequality and free-range childhoods spent in a more innocent age when you could ring up the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Frampton Mansell 66. He quite admires Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Jim

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