Staring at God is the first serious and really wide-ranging history of the Home Front during the Great War for decades. Scholarly, objective and extremely well-written, it describes how, in Heffer’s words, “the government and people of a great naval and mercantile power, shaped by the tenets of laissez-faire, broke with traditions of their culture, liberties, doctrines and customs, and adapted to total war”... Heffer’s eye for the telling detail is evident on almost every page... The description of the effect of the war on ordinary Britons is filled with empathy, in particular for the women, on whom fell the burden of war work, single parenthood, and often widowhood.
At more than 900 pages, Heffer’s book might seem a daunting read. But it zips along, not least because his political narrative is leavened by so many wonderful cultural and social details: the origins of Hubert Parry’s hymn Jerusalem, the banning of DH Lawrence’s book The Rainbow, even the huge appeal of spiritualists and mediums, thanks to the support of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Heffer’s grasp of political motivation and character ensures that his passages about the government crises are compelling reading. Particularly strong is the chapter about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. Britain’s harsh reaction to the rebellion, epitomised by the execution of the ringleaders, created an ‘industry of martyrdom’ that ultimately fuelled Irish republicanism and brought British rule in southern Ireland to a violent end. Heffer is just as good on the political storm – generated by shell shortages, the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and press agitation –that led to the formation of an all-party coalition under Asquith in 1915. But when it comes to political intrigue, the finest chapter is that covering the coup of late 1916, when Lloyd George ruthlessly overthrew Asquith, splitting the Liberals and ensuring their long-term demise. Exuding serenity to the last, Asquith talked of going to Honolulu after he had been ejected from Downing Street.
Staring at God is the third book in what will be a four-part series covering Britain from 1838 to 1939. This volume is more concerned with high politics than its predecessors, High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain and The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914. As a result it is less entertaining. The author does, nevertheless, still indulge his delightful addiction to quirky facts. There’s interesting detail about dogs, horse chestnuts and pigeons, to name a few. The last had a bad war, being shot as spies or cooked in pies.