Writing history ? Elizabethans by Andrew Marr ( Collins 2020)
So – tasked with the opportunity of exploring and writing history – which period would most capture your imagination ? In the execution of this (perhaps labour of love) what would your choice be – broad and long or short and deep? The mastery of primary and secondary information requires skill and stamina. Analysis and judgement demands tenacity and intelligence and a preparedness for some risk. The pen of the reviewer can be fatal.
Andrew Marr is a much respected journalist and is best know for his presentation of BBC Ones Andrew Marr Show where most of our leading politicians have been held to account in recent times. His programme Start the Week on Radio 4 demonstrates his fluency, skill and breadth of knowledge. An easy style often belies a considerable intelligence an insight. He is no stranger to history with the publication of A History of Modern Britain and The Making of Modern Britain. Both books accompany a series of documentaries.
So where do these 483 pages take this reader?
Marr knows how to tell the human story of the years of The Queens reign. Three parts ( Elizabethans at Home; Elizabethans in the World and Elizabethans at Work) contain 63 chapters. The scope of these chapters is breathtaking – but Marr has a gift for telling the human story. He enables the reader to get inside these months and years. Preconceptions and Judgements are interrogated.
Getting beyond the obvious differences and development of social attitudes, technology, war, Europe, class divisions and the unpredictable world of politics a fractal picture emerges of our complex national identity. We are reminded of the necessity and inevitability of change.
The decline of religion is especially noteworthy and for this reader unsettling. There are no clear reasons for this but the Churches influence (and in some ways credibility) has (and may well continue) to decline. What are we loosing in this marginalisation ? There is no organised opposition that is dismantling the integrity and truth of the claims of religion and its place in our communities. Marr does not name what we might be loosing. There may be some pointers here about indentity, language, culture, adaptability and the languages of truth.
It would be fascinating to know how Marr went about choosing who to include and how to tell their story. Grounded in these lives is the assumption that class, race and gender ( and related social attitudes) have always been more permeable and complex than we think. The chapter on Farrokh Bomi Bulsara, who we all know by his stage name of Freddy Mercury uses this story of fame as an example of our soil as a fertile for opportunity and diversity. The fairness of Marr and his judgements is consistent. Mary Whitehouse is admired. Diana Dors is an example of a woman who could own her sexuality. Jan Morris forges a new path for gender inclusivity. And in politics Enoch Powell appears and is paired with Tony Benn. One becomes the gargoyle of the Left; the other the national treasure. But on Europe, they had remarkably similar views.
Marr argues that the decline of the British military during the period of decolonisation is significant in these years reflecting our economic fragility. Marr suggests that a certain stereotype of manhood was lost but also our international reach was (and is) diminishing.
The other passion of Marr is education. He suggests that although health and welfare went through dramatic change as we became Elizabethans, education did not. Marr’s figures on this are staggering in that a private school elite is still in place. Marr is nothing but honest -confessing that he is part of it !
Perhaps Marrs final paragraph is worth quoting
‘History requires that we learn lessons, not that we not that we submerge ourselves in reverie. Today, we have to learn to work harder, while being more generous in our global outlook, kinder to neighbours who look and sound different to ourselves, and more restrained in our personal tastes. Does that sound impossibly pious? Or simply impossible? Then we should remember the struggles and achievements of our parents and grandparents. They were there first. They can teach us still.A decent future means taking the best part of the past, ditching the mistakes and starting again.” (pp 448-449).
And so the words of my history teacher in my County Durham Grammar School echo in my memory – ‘ All civilisation is rooted in our understanding of history’ – it was an attractive pitch for those of us considering our A level choices.
Time moves on. Marr reminds us that we may all be part of history quite soon as the end of the present Elizabethan becomes a possibility. What might the future look like? What part will we play in the shaping of it? This is a good read – certainly a possible Christmas present – don’t be put off by a rather unimaginative and bust cover picture ! Perhaps only a collage could capture such rich and textured years as a modern Britain was forged.