The British obsession with the past is nothing new. Even the most self-conscious modernisers evoke it – hence Harold Wilson’s fixation with Churchill and Tony Blair’s cringe-making references to the Sixties. People have often looked back to some lost golden age, though when a historian examines those golden ages, they always turn out to be periods that were riven by doubt and division. Hannah Rose Woods illustrates this by starting in the present and then working her way back to the 16th century and those British foundation myths that revolve around Protestantism, separation from Europe, global adventurism and the cosier bits of Shakespeare.
Summarising the book in a paragraph is a bit unfair. Woods has a taste for sweeping generalisation, but she can also be subtle. This virtue is displayed in the middle part of the book, where she captures the contradictory ways in which people often recalled the recent past. She shows, for example, how the old described the harshness of their early lives in ways that were simultaneously realistic and romanticised, and how some people felt that there was something melancholy about the coming of peace in 1945. The excellent chapter ‘1914–1880’ describes how an age that is now often seen through a haze of ‘is there honey still for tea?’ sentimentality often seemed like one of febrile modernity at the time.
However, although I have not mentioned many complexities of the argument, I have also missed out some padding, repetition and stating the bloody obvious. One senses that this is a book designed to be discussed – on Start the Week, at literary festivals and at publishers’ lunches –