A Week in Books: Overwrought, over-praised and over-sold

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The Independent Culture

Shortly after smart and confident American servicemen began to arrive en masse in Britain during the run-up to D-Day, the grumpy native male decided that the Yanks were "oversexed, overpaid and over here".

Shortly after smart and confident American servicemen began to arrive en masse in Britain during the run-up to D-Day, the grumpy native male decided that the Yanks were "oversexed, overpaid and over here". (The native female had, famously, a rather different reaction.) Now, another sort of friendly invasion is in full cry, as the work of every Bush-bashing writer jumps the ocean to denounce the misdeeds of Dubya's America. A proportion of this critical barrage deserves to make the trip. We should study the habits of the hyperpower. All the same, the US awkward squad is starting to look overwrought, over-praised and over-sold.

These authors damn the imperial export of US policies and products, but - by an ironic twist of fate - their noisy presence here confirms that irresistible hegemony. Love it or loathe it, we're never allowed to forget America. In publishing, this dominance means that space on mainstream lists for analyses of British culture and society has shrunk nearly to vanishing point. Almost all the liveliest and most topical books about the way we live now - in Essex rather than Kansas - emerge from smaller independent imprints.

This applies, piquantly enough, to writers from the right as well as left. So Roger Scruton, the Wiltshire Schopenhauer, now sails under the banner of Continuum Books. And Ferdinand Mount, once head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit and former editor of the TLS, has published his critique of Britain's changing and growing class divisions with the increasingly expansive Short Books. Mind the Gap (£14.99) voices an eloquent lament over the "hollowing out-of lower-class life" to leave a heartless social landscape of privilege (the "Uppers") and deprivation (the "Downers"). It even compares this new and crude stratification to the chasm between the light-dwelling Elois and the underground-toiling Morlocks in HG Wells's The Time Machine.

Mount mourns the passing of sturdy, self-sufficient working-class Britain in High Tory tones that - to these ears - can occasionally slide into cosy nostalgia. Predictably, he pays a lot of attention to the uplifting role of the Chapel and not much to the Union - which his ex-patroness, of course, did so much to undermine. It was arguably not the "natural tendencies" of "full-blooded capitalism" that wrecked our industrial heartlands in the 1980s, but the full-blooded use of the power of the state to crush all opposition.

Yet Mount's motives are honourable, his arguments decent, his compassion genuine, and his contempt for the flash-trash media culture that mocks the poor utterly justified. Moreover, his moral touchstones here often come not from the old-fashioned right, but the non-party left. The visions of radical thinkers such as Jeremy Seabrook, Richard Sennett and Colin Ward enrich this book. If Mount's clout can introduce them to traditional Tories, so much the better.

Mount calls Ward, whose ideas about flexible land-use he borrows, the "doyen of housing revolutionaries". Which is true; but that's in part because he is also the most distinguished British anarchist alive. Ward has spent long decades cheerfully advocating benign and peaceful ways to bypass or ignore both state and market. If you wish to explore his own writing, I recommend Arcadia for All: the legacy of a makeshift landscape (£14.99), co-written with Dennis Hardy and re-issued by Five Leaves ( www.fiveleaves.co.uk). We need more works such as this, or Mind the Gap itself, on the shelves today. And (dare I say it?) we could probably survive with fewer rants-to-the-converted from disgruntled US liberals who can't at present bag a cushy White House job.

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