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‘The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: writings 1989-2009’ (Ian Jack)
Ian Jack is a well established British journalist, currently writing for the Guardian. He has been widely published, first as a reporter for the local press in Scotland, then graduating to national broadsheets, with senior editorial roles in London. Jack’s length and breadth of experience as correspondent and editor are evident in this anthology of ‘writings’. His early background, in particular, informs much of this work, as he reflects on contemporary Britain and just how we arrived at the state in which we find ourselves today.
First, a minor ‘declaration of interest’: I share certain elements of the author’s background in Scotland, London and northern England. But this is not really so uncommon and I’m sure most - if not all - readers will find sufficient resonance here. In fact, Jack’s foreign correspondent pieces on the Indian subcontinent lend an international perspective on the ‘Great Britain’ of the title and its imperial heritage.
This 'state-of-the-nation' anthology of some 35 items includes feature articles and short newspaper column items mostly published in the last two decades.
In his introduction, the author distinguishes between the ‘longer essays’ and ‘shorter pieces’; only the latter are presented mainly in chronological order as they were published in newspaper columns. I found this structure slightly puzzling but not critical. The compilation is retrospective, but the pieces are bound thematically by a consistent element: a remembered Britain, the nation of empire and industrial revolution, great engineering and inventions, and its peoples.
It’s a good title. Jack states that he didn’t have Britain (or ‘Britishness’) in mind at the time of writing; but from the perspective of 2009, this seems increasingly relevant. He does allude to Gordon Brown (also from south Fife) but largely manages to avoid party politics or indeed nationalist controversies. They are at least both happy to regard themselves as both British and Scots. The author’s apparent acceptance of the term ‘Scotch’ - for anything other than whisky - may not find much favour north of the border nowadays. Similarly, ‘North British’ - but he does explain this in terms of his own background.
Apart from Jack’s early family reminiscences, the pieces I found most engaging were his in-depth report on the Hatfield rail disaster and the item on the Titanic following the release of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film. These features are well researched, even-handed and with that human touch that comes with the best journalism. This reminded me of another James Cameron, an earlier renowned Fleet Street journalist also with a Scottish background.
It occurs to me that if Jack had still been in his childhood home in Fife he might have heard stories about debris falling off the Forth Bridge, before the maintenance regime was (I think) reviewed. As a Home Counties commuter, what he does notice is weeds growing on the tracks. Detailed personal observations like this bring these stories to life for me. In fact, as I write, the Scotsman newspaper is reporting the cause of a much more recent derailment as 'due to a worn rail'!
Much of the writing feels nostalgic, reflective perhaps rather than sentimental, harking back to a bygone age but firmly rooted in the present. Jack’s style is distinctive. As a time-served journalist, he wastes no words. His pieces are direct and well researched. For instance, the Hatfield item draws on extensive interviews held with railway engineers and experts.
The volume is somewhat sparsely illustrated. A select few black and white illustrations accompany some of the pieces, including some poignant family photographs as well as one or two more exotic and news archive shots.
There are far too many subjects here to cover in this brief review. I found the items on India and Sri Lanka/Ceylon slightly less engaging than the ones that chimed with my own experience, but that’s purely personal. Jack was, after all, a South Asia foreign correspondent. These stories are all colourful, informative and news to me! The legacy of empire is most relevant here.
A few other subjects covered, worth highlighting (purely personal selection) :
• The decline of smoking in recent years • Changes in holiday patterns • 'Chavs' • The seaside • The cinema • Shopping, town centres and malls • Kathleen Ferrier - life and music • Archive films and screen archives • 'Post-industrialism' generally
For me, this is journalistic social history at its best. It may also have something in common with George Orwell’s 1939 novel ‘Coming up for air’ but without so much negativity and pessimism. (Final thought: Orwell actually wrote ‘1984’ on the Scottish island of Jura).
Price and availability
The paperback reprint edition is currently discounted by Amazon at £6.69 with free delivery (August 2011). Kindle version: £7.99. Hardcover: £13.29
Hardcover: 352 pages Jonathan Cape, 2009 0224087355
It's worth noting that there are a few real gems here for those with a passing interest in engineering / industrial archaeology: for instance the real reason for the fourth funnel on the Titanic and for the height of all those old factory chimneys.