James Hamilton-Paterson, still one of England’s most skilled and alluring prose writers in or out of fiction, has done something even more original. With imaginative scenes enacting ‘what we have lost’, he combines closely researched and detailed accounts of the decay of one legendary British product after another... his chapter on Triumph and its merger with several other motorbike companies is vivid, knowledgeable and shocking... Hamilton-Paterson ends What We Have Lost with a marvellously written requiem for British firms and brands now dead or buried under takeovers or lost to the portfolios of foreign-based conglomerates.
In the end, though, what spoils Hamilton-Paterson’s book for me is the lack of recognition of the things that went well: the rescue of Rolls-Royce engines, the rise of JCB with its beautiful Staffordshire factory, our role making satellites and pharmaceuticals, the resurgence of the car industry. It’s not clear if he wants manufacturing in Britain, or British-owned manufacturers, or why that distinction matters. Moving in its recollection of the objects and firms that made up this lost age, the book is lessened by dubious and angry analysis. Read it for the former and ignore the latter.
This is a doubly nostalgic book — for old stuff and for old certainties about why things went wrong...Is it really the case that Britain has long been a country run by an incompetent bluffocracy — landed gentry, sleazy financiers and civil servants more familiar with Greek and Latin than the insides of modern industrial society? It seems very unlikely that Britain was worse governed than elsewhere. What needs to be noted is that declinists themselves are very like the imagined elite they criticise. Hamilton-Paterson, an Oxford-educated poet, novelist and journalist, is not an engineer or planner or economist... above all the blame lies with “British politicians and City financiers”. They have made Britain less equal, less productive, less united and have sold it off to foreigners.Yet he cannot summon up the alternative politics — except in passing and surprisingly friendly references to left-wing critics of the quality of British business leadership... In its own Middle English way, this is just the history to accompany Jeremy Corbyn’s “Build it in Britain” campaign.
Triumph’s is just one of the industrial falls from grace featured in James Hamilton-Paterson’s engaging and racy What We Have Lost, which takes readers on a tour of Britain’s factories, nuclear power stations and shipyards to try to diagnose what caused the world he grew up in, where everything was made in Britain and British technology seemed to reign supreme, to disappear...While the book is pacy, the tendency to get sidetracked and leave arguments hanging makes it unsatisfying.
...he writes beautifully. The late, great J G Ballard once said of him, ‘I love his elegant and intensely evocative style: strangeness lifts off his pages like a rare perfume.’ The perfume wafts more densely from his fiction writing – he is a distinguished novelist – but it is hard to think of an economist who could craft such an elegantly readable account of postwar failure as this.