A history of Britain in statistics? Boring surely? Well, no actually. Believe it or not, this is actually a very informative and a genuinely very readable and yes, sometimes very funny read, packed full of “did you know?” type facts which you will instantly want to share with anyone nearby, regardless of whether they want to hear them or not.
Providing numerous insights into how our way of life has changed in the last 200 years – what we are called, what jobs we do, how long we live, when and if we marry, how many children we choose to have, what we choose to call them, how likely we are to divorce, when and how we die and what of and so much more.
The book also makes a compelling topical case for the importance of statistical information. During the recent Coronavirus pandemic, the public need for regular up-to-date and accessible data has grown dramatically. How, after all, could we ever defeat the virus without knowing how many people have it, where they live, who its affecting the most, how fast its spreading, how many people are dying from it and how many people have been vaccinated?
Mark Twain is often quoted as referring to “lies, damned lies and statistics.” But this is a nonsense. Assuming the figures are correct and the listener is fully aware of the context, statistics should not be seen as the same thing as lies, damned or otherwise. They are close to being the opposite of lies. This quote is too often used as a lazy rebuke by people who are either too stupid to understand the statistical data they’re being provided with or by people who want to undermine its credibility because too misquote Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, A Few Good Men, “they can’t handle the truth.”
Or as the comedian Stewart Lee quoted a sceptical taxi driver as saying, “you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”
This is an engaging, amusing and well-written book, but it’s interesting for another reason entirely: it’s the story of us.
Book review: The Official History of Britain: Our Story in Numbers as Told by the Office For National Statistics, by Boris Starling and David J. Bradbury. Published by: Harper Collins.
It’s the early 2020s and the world has been gripped by a global pandemic. Sound familiar? But without wishing to in any way trivialise the very serious ongoing Coronavirus outbreak, the fictional virus Lauren Beukes has envisaged in her new novel (which was, of course, written before the recent crisis), is in many even ways worse, killing almost the entire male population of the world as an initial dose of flu turns into prostate cancer for virtually all male recipients.
Teenaged Miles and his mother Cole are away from their native South Africa visiting family in the US when the new plague hits. Miles turns out to be immune. His father is less lucky. And unfortunately, Cole’s morally flexible sister Billie is keen to take financial advantage of the new possibilities created by her nephew now being one of the last fertile male humans left on Earth. Beukes’ novel is a compelling and gripping thriller given added resonance by the current global outbreak.
2020 was rubbish, for obvious reasons. But what other years in recent history have also been generally terrible?
For many people, 1914 became enshrined forever as the year the world took a permanent downward turn with the outbreak of the First World War shattering a golden age which would never return, initiating an era of global instability which would persist through a Great Depression, another world war and a new terrifying forty-year nuclear arms race confrontation after that.
Silver linings?: In truth, the world was very far from perfect in 1914 anyway and the outbreak of war undoubtedly accelerated the progress of necessary and welcome social change which would have probably occurred sooner or later anyway. Would this have been any comfort to the average young British Tommy as he stood anxiously, shivering in his trench in 1914, awaiting his turn to climb over the top into No Man’s Land though? Probably not.
The late 1920s and with America booming its merry way through the Jazz Age and even the defeated Germany finally developing into a relatively prosperous and politically moderate democracy off the back of American loans, people at last seemed to have put the horrors of the Great War behind them. Then boom…or rather bust: the collapse of the US stock market in October 1929, threw everything into chaos again. While the US eventually found a saviour in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt elected in 1932, the resulting Great Depression pushed Britain and France into turmoil while Germany lurched towards Hitler and imperial Japan and Mussolini’s Italy soon became increasingly aggressive on the international stage. With the impotent League of Nations powerless to stop things,within a few years the armies of the world were soon beating the drums of war once again.
Silver linings?: From a left-wing perspective, it might seem encouraging that the Depression did push American voters away from mediocre pro-laissez faire Republican isolationist presidents into the inspiring, highly interventionist New Deal which arguably pushed the US closer to socialism than ever before and led to five consecutive Democratic presidential victories in a row. But it did lead to the rise of Hitler. Even Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts started marching around the UK. So, generally, it wasn’t worth it.
Eighty years on, talk of the ‘darkest hour,’ Vera Lynn, the Battle of Britain and the plucky, cheerful defiance of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ have conspired to give 1940 a somewhat romantic air. The reality was surely deeply traumatic with the forces of the Third Reich overrunning western Europe, the devastating defeat at Dunkirk and the nightly terror experienced by large swathes of the population as they suffered sustained aerial bombardment as well as prolonged separation from loved ones with men fighting overseas and countless children evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside.
Silver linings?: It’s probably true that the sense of national unity and purpose forged in the heat of war had a lasting positive effect on the post-war national political landscape. Despite this, it is only really the fact that against all odds, Hitler didn’t actually invade Britain that redeems 1940 (as well as the arguably more horrific years of 1944 and 1945) at all. Were we looking back to 1940 from the perspective of a world after a Nazi victory, 1940 would undoubtedly now be seen as easily the most catastrophic year in human history.
The heady highs of the 1960s had well and truly worn off by 1973. In the US, the agonies of Watergate and the aftermath of Vietnam diminished the American image forever while in Britain, the confrontation between the Heath Government and the unions brought Britain to a shuddering strike-bound halt by the end of the year as the nation adopted the Three Day Week. Worse still, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East not only brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the dramatic increase in global oil prices which resulted effectively ensured the western world would spend the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s in the throes of economic recession.
As the 21st century dawned, the world could celebrate not just a new millennium but a state of relative peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement and a decade of international relations free of the East-West rivalry of the Cold War. Not everything was perfect in the world: it never is all of these summaries have necessarily been very selective. But even this couldn’t last as the terror attacks of Tuesday September 11th 2001 unleashed a new age of insecurity in western affairs which persists to this day.
People die every day and celebrities are, of course, no different. But there was something was new about the numbers and calibre of the famous people dying, often prematurely, in 2016. David Bowie. Victoria Wood. Alan Rickman. Terry Wogan. Caroline Aherne. George Michael. Prince. Carrie Fisher. So many of these names struck a nerve (often occurring before what seemed to be their time) that it was hard for anyone not to be moved.
And then there was the Brexit vote. And Donald Trump’s victory. As a bad news year, 2016 was pretty relentless. Whatever your politics, both these elections seemed to trigger a new age of ugliness and intolerance to debate which have poisoned political discourse ever since. Unbelievable as it would have seemed at the time, the David Cameron years of austerity and coalition now seem like a bygone era of simplicity and innocence in comparison.
Silver linings?: From a conservative viewpoint, I suppose, 2016 could be seen as a year of triumph with the petty complacency of the ‘left-wing elites’ confounded by the triumph of down-to-earth working class hero types like millionaire’s son Donald Trump, ex-public schoolboy and former city stockbroker, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. From the perspective of January 2021, this interpretation is starting to look like something of a stretch.
1919: Another global pandemic and a botched peace settlement at Versailles which made another war inevitable within twenty years.
1945: Victory. But also a terrible escalation in violence as the war neared its end and the launch of the atomic age.
1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis brings humanity closer to destruction than ever before. Had things turned out differently, this would easily be the worst year on this list. Although I wouldn’t have written it in the first place as I would never have been born as the human race would have died out.
If you studied English at secondary school during the 1990s, there is every possibility you will remember reading the book, Empty World, by John Christopher.
The book tells of a disease which originates in Asia before rapidly spreading across the world and devastating the global population. Although published in 1977, the book obviously has plenty of resonance to anyone reading in 2020 as the world struggles to tackle the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
The novella focuses on a teenaged boy, Neil Miller. Neil is living with his elderly parents after having been orphaned in a road accident when he first begins to hear news reports of a new mysterious disease coming out of India. Initially, just a minor story chuntering away in the background, concern rises as the news coverage gradually reveals that the ‘Calcutta Plague’ spreads further and further across the world. Soon there are rumours it has arrived in Britain. Neil’s grandfather is old enough to remember the Second World War. He suggests spreading rumours should be made into a punishable offence again, as it was then.
Soon the Calcutta Plague’s presence in Britain is beyond doubt. One of Neil’s elderly teachers succumbs to it, as do both his grandparents. The disease takes the form of a fever, before generating symptoms which appear to emulate a very rapid version of the ageing process. This is not very similar to COVID-19 at all, although the fictional plague does attack older people first. Eventually, it becomes clear that it is infecting pretty much everyone including some children Neil knows of his own age (fifteen) and younger. This resembles the progress of COVID-19 in some respects. The elderly are undoubtedly being hit harder by the virus although contrary to early rumour, children can get it badly and die from it too.
The key difference, however, is that while the vast, overwhelming majority of people who get COVID-19 survive, with the exception of a few random people like Neil who get the initial fever but subsequently seem to be immune, the fictional Calcutta Plague kills anyone who gets it. As the title of the book suggests, the story is essentially apocalyptic. Neil finds himself roaming or driving down completely empty streets, looting empty shops and battling an inevitable brief explosion in the rat population, the disease having killed nearly every human on the Earth.
As terrible as the current COVID-19 pandemic is, we should be grateful it is not quite as bad as that.