For the past few weeks, I have been conducting what writers call ‘background research’ and what other people call sitting in a deckchair reading a book. I am hoping, quite soon, to start work on a novel (or a series of novels) that will, to some extent, concern life and events in Britain in the past half-century.
The words ‘to some extent’ are added because all novels need to be principally about their characters, and if characters are present only as symbols of the novelist’s ideas and prejudices, they won’t be very interesting or convincing and it won’t be a very good novel. Characters need room to breathe, and they may choose to go in quite different directions from the ones their author intended. At the moment, I don’t know how (or whether) I can surmount this obstacle, but it is a universal problem for novels of this nature.
Apart from the reading recently required for my PhD, this has been the first time since my early 20s that I have been able to sit down and read books for week after week. It has been a liberating and stimulating experience. Too much of what we all do is the product of habit, whether good or bad. One of my worst habits had become a failure to read very much. I hope that this has now been reversed. People assume that, because I am a writer, I must be a voracious reader. That, sadly, is a non-sequitur.
If one is trying to think oneself into an epic novel that covers, broadly speaking, the period from the late ’60s to not far short of now, where does one begin? How does one compile a reading list? In my case, the answer was complicated by the fact that I also wanted to read about some of the issues that have peppered these blogs over the past couple of years.
I have been acutely conscious when writing series of blogs such as Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse (30 July – 27 August 2017) and The Road to Revolution (4 March – 8 April 2018) that I have been writing about what I feel, rather than what I know. I try, sometimes, to supplement my feelings with research, but I frequently end up with propositions I cannot quantify and with questions I cannot answer. I thought it was high time that I tried to add factual information and concrete understanding to my perceptions of issues such as the growing inequalities of wealth, the lack of a visible improvement in living standards, the mammoth tax evasion by corporations and super-rich individuals, and the apparent inability of democratic governments to affect any of these things.
So I have been reading about these issues too. How far, or how specifically, any of them will find their way into the putative novel, I have no idea. It doesn’t matter at this stage. I wanted to read these books anyway. But it does mean that my reading list has been particularly serendipitous, and also largely academic. Over the course of the next few blogs, I want to write about what I have read and where it has taken me.
Broadly speaking, the books fall into two categories: works of history and works of economics. The pre-eminent book in the first category has been Post-War by Tony Judt, an immensely long, panoramic history of Europe since the Second World War. It manages to be extraordinarily detailed, country by country, while never losing the sense of its wider context. It covers not only political and economic developments, but cultural movements too. I cannot praise it too highly.
Hope and Glory, by Peter Clarke, covers only British history, but for the whole of the 20th century. It is another fine book: comprehensive, lucid and well written. Less good was British Society since 1945 by Arthur Marwick – a social history, as its title implies, but insipidly written for the most part and lacking insight. It had its moments, however. I liked his comment, relating to the 1970s, that Britain had acquired a new cosmopolitanism without shedding its old xenophobia. And when (page 204) Marwick forgets his objectivity and launches into a crazed tirade against mass-produced beer, it is rather endearing.
Together, these three books have done a magnificent job, partly by reminding me what I have forgotten, partly by telling me what I never knew, but perhaps mainly by putting into a broader context events I knew because I lived through them, but could then judge only in the moment.
I have written before (blog on 28 February 2016) of The Black Hole of History, a theory to which I am greatly attached and believe to be of fundamental importance to our understanding. It holds that in everyone’s education, no matter how good, there is a time gap (usually of about 50 years) between what we are taught as history and what we know from experience. About that period of time we all know next to nothing, unless we choose to fill in the black hole for ourselves. Which means that, for those who go into politics, the period they know least about is the period they need to know most about. Which means, in turn, that mistakes that could be avoided instead get repeated.
These three books have filled in a portion of my black hole. On an even greater scale, they could do the same for generations younger than mine. In fact, I’m inclined to think that no one should be admitted to a University unless they’ve read Tony Judt’s Post-War.
However, it is the economic books that I most want to write about at the moment, not least because they will enable me to enlarge on much that has been preoccupying me and that I have already written about. So a new series of blogs will begin next week, sub-titled The Second Crisis of Capitalism. It will be based on the premise, now reinforced, that if the 1930s represented the first crisis of capitalism, then we have now entered the second crisis.
The first crisis was ushered in by the Wall Street Crash of 1929; the second by the financial crash of 2008. In both cases, the causes of the crisis had been accumulating for a long time. And just because lessons learned from 1929 prevented an equal apocalypse in 2008 does not mean that the second crisis is any less threatening in the long term. The blogs of the next few weeks will attempt to explain why.