Only the second week and I’m already cheating. I always love the fiction/nonfiction prompt for Nonfiction November – it’s hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, and here’s the prompt: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.
This time around, though, instead of a novel, I want to pair history books with a (fictional) television programme. It was actually the latter that prompted me to pick up the former. It went like this: back in August, I had my second covid jab, and unlike the first it knocked me off my feet for a few days. I wasn’t ill, just so tired that I could barely move. Conveniently, this was at a time when I had prebooked annual leave; if I’m honest, it was quite nice to have an excuse to lie limply on the sofa, catching up on television that I’d been meaning to watch for years and hadn’t got round to. Case in point: I inhaled both series of The Hour over the course of a couple of days. Somehow, despite the fact that I knew going in that it had been cancelled on a cliffhanger, I still found myself extremely indignant about the intense and unresolved ending. Anyway, one of the things I realised while watching the first series, which focuses on a fictional BBC current affairs programme against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, is that I know almost nothing about said Crisis. Bel and Freddie made a very compelling case for why I should learn more about it. Also Anna Chancellor as Lix. Lix is in many ways who I want to be when I grow up, albeit with less whisky. It was all very good.
This is a very long and rambly way of saying that I started listening to Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and the Crisis that Shook the World (Alex von Tunzelmann) because of The Hour. I’m not very far in, but thus far I’m enjoying it. The narration is good, though I think if I were making the choice about format again, I’d probably pick a physical copy. The author makes extensive use of quotes and it’s difficult to distinguish these from the narrative flow, so differentiating between von Tunzelmann’s analysis and that of, say, Anthony Eden can be challenging at times. I’ve already learnt a lot – I had not realised Churchill was PM as late as 1955, for example, and so had underestimated the role that he played in the crisis.
The late fifties and early sixties were such an interesting (and difficult) time in British and international history that I doubt I’ll be satisfied with just one book, so here are a few other books that have found their way onto my TBR as a result of The Hour…
After Suez: Adrift in the American Century by Martin Woollacott is another look at the Suez crisis, but where Blood and Sand looks at the fall of the British Empire, this focuses on the rise of American hegemony and the shift in global power dynamics – because, of course, the end of the British Empire didn’t mean an end to imperialism or colonisation; it meant a change to what we called it and who was largely responsible. I haven’t picked this up yet, but reviews suggest that Woollacott – who wrote this in 2006 after about forty years of experience in journalism and foreign affairs reporting – looks at the changing dynamics following Suez through the lens of events like the Gulf War and other recent conflicts.
In the second series of The Hour, the focus shifts from Suez to other topics, among them the nuclear arms race. It’s surprisingly difficult to find books about the role of nuclear arms development in British politics during this time – everything is very overshadowed by Eisenhower and the US. Much of what I can find is memoir and reflections by servicemen, and almost all of it sounds like pretty uncritical, uninteresting Boys’ Own Adventure stuff. However, Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-Bomb Tests by Nic Macellen seems a bit more thoughtful and analytical, though it may turn out to be too academic to read for general interest. It looks at the history of the nuclear tests on several Pacific Islands (Operation Grapple), using oral histories from different groups who were involved. If you’re curious, it’s available via open access here.
The last topic covered by The Hour that was interesting enough to make it onto my TBR is the history of TV journalism itself. One of the most interesting through-lines of the programme is the wrangling between the government and the team at The Hour about what it means to be a “public interest” broadcaster – does this mean informing, reassuring, or challenging the public? Given that this remains a contentious issue today, I think it would be interesting to have a look at a time when TV news journalism was still in its early stages. The BBC: The First Fifty Years is a rewrite of Asa Briggs’ huge four volume history of British broadcasting – but instead of looking at the archives the way he did in the four volume edition, it’s supposed to be a more analytical look at the way the Beeb both changed and was changed by social and political forces between 1922 and 1972. I can only find reviews in academic journals, and they are extremely divided on whether this is wonderful or terrible. Clearly I will have to read it myself and find out. Though perhaps not any time soon, as all the copies I can find online are going for upwards of £50 and I think my library are starting to get annoyed by all my interlibrary loan requests.
Full disclosure – The Hour itself has been criticised for all of the following: historically inaccurate haircuts, letting women out of the kitchen before the 1960s, anachronistic language, questionable depictions of journalism, and too many “self-satisfied” highbrow cultural references. Everyone who worked for the Spectator, the Telegraph, and the Mail hated it. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – I loved it and I recommend it highly.
I hope you’ve picked a book that points out that Australia invited Britain to atom bomb Aboriginal homelands (Maralinga) and that as far as I know Britain is still refusing to pay damages to Australian servicemen and local Indigenous people who witnessed the bombs without protection, and in the case of the latter, with little or no warning.
I must say though I admire you for attacking your subject in such depth, I’d just read a few lines of Wikipedia.
The book I’ve picked for that topic is by an Australian academic working out of ANU, and the blurb says that she’s worked to include the voices of several groups, including Indigenous people. I think she’s made an effort to allow marginalised people to represent their point of view in the book as far as possible.
I loved it too. Great post, great links 🙂
Glad I’m not alone! The scathing reviews I found when I first started writing the post surprised me enormously. Thanks for your comment 🙂
I’m looking forward to your review of Blood and Sand – Suez is a period I don’t know enough about either, and given its importance in terms of the second half of the twentieth century that seems like a major omission. I hope you’ll be recommending it! I read a novel set then a year or two ago, the first Booker winner, Something to Answer For by PH Newby, but I found it rather disappointing overall. However it did give me some insight into the effect on the British psyche for the generation who lived through it.
One of the interesting things depicted in The Hour (rightly or wrongly) is that there was a real generation gap, with young people in their twenties singularly unfussed about the empire and more worried about conditions at home, with older people more interested in hanging onto territories and colonies. Blood and Sand seems like it’s going to get into the ins and outs of how the public responded to Suez, and I’m hoping it will address whether that generational divide was real or not and, as you say, how it impacted the national psyche.
I think it probably was real. My Dad was a young man just back from the war, and he definitely was more interested in improving the conditions in Britain – strongly socialist. My grandfather however served in India as part of the Raj, and was firmly pro-Empire, and may well have been a Tory. By the time I was politically conscious – the early 70s – Empire had ceased to be of any real interest to young people at all, except as part of history. I think that’s why Churchill was so stunned to be swept from power in a Labour landslide after the war – he hadn’t realised that younger people no longer shared his passion for the Empire and were determined to change things at home. The book sounds very interesting – I’m tempted… 😀
Wow, I have never read any book really on this theme, thanks!
Maybe just a mystery by Agatha Christie set there!
Here is my post: https://wordsandpeace.com/2021/11/08/nonfiction-november-2021-book-pairings/
Yes, I’ve read a Christie set in Egypt around this time – Destination Unknown – but unusually for Christie I was not particularly impressed by it!
Good for you for going a bit left-field. Sounds like an interesting series, and I love Anna Chancellor too. As I recollect, she was a great Miss Bingley in the 1995 Pride and prejudice.
And, for the record, I do think people who pick up on anachronisms can sometimes be just a bit too precious. I mean, some women WERE out of the kitchen in the 1950s, for a start. Just today I heard a woman speak here in Australia who went to university in 1946. And historically inaccurate haircuts. I mean honestly… Of course, it’s good to get hair and clothes but I saw the show and I felt they got most of it right.
Oh, and I enjoyed The Hour too, and don’t recollect bothering about the hair. However, I am impressed that its inspired you to read the history!
PS I forgot when I started this comment that I’d seen The Hour!! How stupid am I!
Yes, my grandma moved to London independently at 17 to train as a nurse – by the end of WWII she was running a surgical ward at about the age of 22, she didn’t get married until she was well into her thirties – and all that was long before 1956!
I forgot Anna Chancellor was Miss Bingley! She inhabited that character so well that I never would have matched her up with Lix. Wonderful actress.
What an interesting and competent woman she must have been. Was she one of those matrons the nurses were scared of?! We don’t know Matrons as such these days, but I remember being in hosptial in the 60s and being aware of them. And those ridiculous starched headwear they used to wear.
I think my grandma became a district nurse and health visitor instead of going up the management route in the hospital, so she was never a matron. They’ve reintroduced the role in the UK, though minus the headgear. I have to say I was never much scared of our matron, though I have met some pretty terrifying ones in other wards and hospitals!
Good for her. I think the management route is tough when you live your profession and want to do what you trained to do rather than manage others doing it.
I know an anachronism pulls me out of the story. Sometimes I’m savvy enough to notice the hair or the clothes, but other times, especially in film, it’s using an actor who is famous today and putting them in a film set decades before. Like, I know that’s Super Famous Person! You’re not fooling me with that 1970s mustache! I think it’s the clothes and the hair that let us and settle into the setting and then ignore the clothes and hair and just be there. Oddly, the way fashion trends come back also throws me off. I used to wear what are called baby buns in my hair in the 90s, back when everyone did in the U.S., and now I see girls with them again! We’ve come full circle.
The Super Famous Person thing doesn’t bother me *unless* they are super famous for one particular role and nothing else. I think I’d struggle with Chris Evans in a period drama, but Meryl Streep would be fine.
As for the hairstyles, I can’t comment on the historical accuracy, but I gave a picture of Bel (the strawberry blonde in the picture) to my hairdresser last time I went and I’ve never been happier with a hairstyle. I’m therefore very pleased they were slightly anachronistic.
Oh, cute! I’m used to your hair being so long!
I love creative takes on these pairings and this is a great one! I think it’s pretty delightful that a TV show within a TV show inspired you to be so interested in this topic.
Thanks! Yes, whenever I watch a period drama of any sort I always end up wanting to learn more about the time.