The changing face of home

There’s more than a little ambivalence in calling Ian Jack a “modern man-of-letters”. He wasn’t trained in the academy or the review section, but in the deep end of newspaper journalism, at Harold Evans’ combative Sunday Times and as editor of the Independent on Sunday in its first, halcyon years. Moreover, he isn’t especially modern – certainly not in the insidious sense of contemporary nu-speak, that signifies precisely a rejection of modernity (e.g. the “modernisers” of the Labour party who wedded it to 19th century economics); the writings gathered in The Country Formerly Known As Great Britain are primarily about the past, distant and not-so-distant, or the ways in which our present is haunted by the world of our ancestors. And yet there’s nothing much else to call him: through forty years of investigative reporting, essays, memoirs, and championing of non-fiction as editor of Granta, almost no other figure has so successfully eluded the stultifying categories of the literary and journalistic market, with such a signature wit, quiet erudition and sharp eye.

In a certain sense, this volume seems like a golden handshake on retirement: now 65, after leaving Granta in 2007, his main outlet has been a column in the Saturday Guardian notable for its ruminative, retrospective quality, in contrast to the hard-edged reporting of his ’80s work, collected in Before The Oil Ran Out (1987). Those columns form a good portion of this book: reflections on everyday life in this country that slip, from bus-conductors, seaside holidays and the sabbath-day, to meditations on the evanescence of all that had, in his life and the collective lives of Britons, been so certain. The greatest changes, the ones signalled by Jack’s title, have of course taken place since the neo-liberal dawn – capitalism being, famously, the system in which “all that is solid melts into air”: the slow death of Britain’s primary industries, and the destitution and destruction of the communities that relied on them; the virtualisation of the economy and collapse of the old public sphere; the end of the organised religion that underwrote British identity; the breakup of empire and union. Anyone with the slightest grasp of recent history can tell you all about this, but Jack has spent the last twenty years obsessively examining these changes from the other end of the microscope, documenting, without sentimentality or obfuscation, the way history plays out in our everyday lives. Events are filtered through personal and family history – the demise of the working-class autodidact, for example, seen through his father’s old bookcase.

Not to suggest that the book is a lament – like Michael Collins’ insidious The Likes of Us – for the old certainties of manufacturing and unions. It is, rather, an investigation, digging through the strata of the past with a precise and attentive eye. When he breaks for a moment into poignancy, as in the essays on his mother, or the Titanic, the result is genuinely moving. And when nostalgia inevitably enters the picture, he is brutally, analytically honest about it. This culminates in the closing piece, ‘The Best Picture He Ever Saw’, an essay about the lost possibilities of cinema conducted through the flea-pits of Jack’s youth, and an elegy for his brother Gordon, dead of diphtheria at the age of seven. Cinema was a democratic art-form, frequented primarily by the working-classes, and an artificial enchantment as strong as the rest of the industrial world – “chimneys, pits, mills, tenements and ship-breaking yards” – that fascinated the young Jack more than nature. It had begun to disintegrate years before his parents’ lives did: he recalls coming across, in the late ’50s, the ruins of the mill where his mother worked – “such complete ruination, weeds replacing work, was one of the things that made my parents… seem like survivors from a previous British age.” He travels to the BFI archives in Hertfordshire, and is confronted with the reality of decay: films disintegrated to “yellow-ochre dust”.

He looks bemusedly at devolution at its roots, glancing at the spectral remains of what was achieved under the banner of ‘British’ identity. ‘The 12.10 To Leeds’, about the Hatfield train-crash, is a quietly relentless evisceration of a government transport policy which turned the world’s first, most advanced railway-system into a threadbare and chaotic mess, operating for private profit. Adjacent to it are a triptych of pieces about the Indian subcontinent, examining the fate of Anglo-Indians, and, in the brilliant ‘Serampur’, the life of William Carey. He was responsible for bringing the first steam engine to India, and, despite the apparent failure of his mission to convert Indians, his enormous achievements linger, a ghostly remnant of the “utopian alliance” between industry and Protestantism. Jack finds in the dying docks and jute mills of Serampur “a tribal memory” of “the old industrial civilisation of Britain”, invested, in its increasingly total ruination, with a Sebaldian melancholy by Jack at his most rigorously lyrical. Since this book’s publication, a coalition government has come to power motivated by a green-and-pleasant vision of the past, codified by the Tories’ resident neo-medievalist crank, Philip Blond. Jack provides a necessary, powerful and invigorating corrective to such attempts to re-manufacture history, to write people like himself, and myself, out of existence.

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