...what makes him such a deft public historian is the way he stitches these patches of rich local colour into a narrative with the widest possible reach. Having dealt with the immediate postwar period in two of his previous books, Never Again: Britain 1945–51 (1992) and Having it so Good: Britain in the Fifties (2006), here he picks up his story in 1960, the moment Britain becomes modern. Don’t, though, expect a slack meander through the entire decade, stopping off at the usual staging posts: Profumo, the Pill, Beeching, Mary Quant, blah blah blah. What we have instead is a forensic look at the years from 1960 to 64, what one might call "the low 60s", when everyone aged over 35 still wore a hat... Such is the length of this book – nearly 600 pages long – that it would be easy to slip and slide in the shale of detail. But Hennessy has such a keen associative eye and such a generous heart for the sheer oddness of everything that the narrative spins along like a comfortable chat.
Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands
"To its credit, Dopeworld is nothing if not ambitious. Vorobyov states as much himself, describing it bombastically as ‘true crime, gonzo, social, historical memoir meets fucked up travel book’. That is a lot to cram in. If sometimes he drops the ball (the..."
— The Spectator
As these vignettes suggest, Hennessy’s writing is characterised by a wonderful mixture of wit and erudition. It also contains beguiling fragments of autobiography. For example, he recalls reading in Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo affair a description of the ‘Man in the Mask’, who allegedly served naked diners wearing only a waitress’s pinafore, and remarks that this by no means accorded with dining practices in mid-Gloucestershire when he was a schoolboy. As a Cambridge undergraduate he attended a lecture, never forgotten, in which Ronald Hyam illustrated the former vastness of the rapidly vanishing British Empire: ‘If you were a chap almost anywhere in the world around 1904 and you went for a pee, you would point your cock at a piece of porcelain on which was written “Shanks of Greenock”.’ Later, as a journalist and historian, Hennessy met many of the participants in his story, and he enriches it with intimate glimpses of their personalities.
For those who know him only from the radio, Hennessy is as good a writer as he is a talker. One feels that if he were to drop a hammer on his foot his expostulation would probably be noted for its elegant good humour and its apt reference to something Harold Wilson once said.
And he has done the work. Where others have been scurrying around for years, seduced by the immediate present, he has been meeting everyone from the immediate past — the ancient politicians, the long-retired civil servants — and reading everything from the cabinet papers releases to the diaries of people only a few remember ever existed.
Hennessy concludes with a powerful expression of faith in our age-old institutions. But he admits elsewhere that ‘our British political system is being tested on the anvil of Brexit’. Britain’s problem with Europe will not be resolved soon, whatever happens at the end of October. Genuine patriots of all stripes might think that their priority is now to preserve our democracy and reunify a sadly fractured people.
Hennessy, in this fascinating but whimsical book (whimsical because it is dominated by the author’s personal enthusiasms, researches and memories, and thus more political than social) observes that the veto was “one of the great Cartier- Bresson decisive moments of the 1960s… From today’s perspective, the emotional deficit many British people felt towards the European Community… showed there was a good deal of psychological corroboration for de Gaulle’s analysis.”
It is a nice speculation that, if Macmillan and Heath had come clean as Kilmuir suggested, there might today be no Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, because there would have been no European membership. The British people would still be steaming in splendid, albeit threadbare isolation behind that much-loved locomotive the Mallard, as their hearts, if not their brains, always preferred.