Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain

A history book written backwards?

The idea might sound bizarre, but in fact, in the case of Hannah Rose Woods’ excellent new book, it makes perfect sense. For this is a history of nostalgia itself. As Woods gradually takes us back from the 2020s to the Tudor era, it makes so much sense that a chapter covering the years 1914 to 1945 should follow the one focusing on the period spanning 1945 to 1979, that it soon begins to seem normal.

Indeed, there never seems to have been a time when Britain wasn’t taking a fond look back over its shoulder to savour the apparent security and certainties of the recent past. Many today might mourn the passing of the immediate post-war decades. But Woods is good at myth-busting and points out things were rarely as simple as they seem. From the perspective of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Britain seemed, on the one hand, to be drifting into seemingly irreversible decline. We had lost our empire, been humiliated over Suez and as the 1960s moved into the 1970s, seemed to be perpetually lurching from one national crisis to another.

This is all true enough. But at the same time as Harold Macmillan pointed out, “most of our people have never had it so good.” During his premiership and for nearly twenty years after it, lots of people had more money and free time than ever, acquiring cars, living in their own homes and going on foreign holidays for the first time.  The year 1977 is often seen as marking something of a national low point, coming so soon after the 1976 IMF Crisis. But surveys from that year indicate Britons were then amongst the happiest peoples in the world. As the Canadian philosopher, Joni Michell had argued a few years earlier, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

There is more. Contrary to popular myth, lots of people were pleased to be moved out of their slums, most people who went to the New Towns didn’t regret it (even in Stevenage) and some people were never happier during their entire lives than when the Nazis were bombing them during the Second World War (no joke!)

In short, this is an enjoyable and well-written book, packed with insights. You’ll be sure to remember it fondly, once it’s all over.

Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods. Published by: W.H Allen. Available: now.

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