With his much-praised debut, Pinochet in Piccadilly, Andy Beckett proved himself an adept practitioner of the miniaturist's art. When the Lights Went Out finds him taking a few steps further back into the recent past, and contemplating a far larger canvas. The question is, which palette will he employ: the familiar DayGlo indulgences of British non- fiction's personalised, post-Hornby orthodoxy (wherein the author purports to provide an insight into broader social conditions by anatomising his youthful fondness for Bruce Springsteen, or the evolution of his relationship with a favourite space hopper), or the less eye-catching but ultimately more satisfying paintbox of real intellectual inquiry?
This book's opening exchanges suggest a slightly uneasy combination of the two. Beckett's account of Edward Heath's pre-war political education – his awkward meeting with future TUC nemesis Jack Jones on the front-line of the Spanish Civil War, the physical shock of Adolf Hitler almost brushing his shoulder at a Nuremberg rally – is unexpectedly gripping. Yet his description of a face-to-face meeting with the former prime minister at the latter's suitably grand retirement home in Salisbury's leafy Cathedral Close seems somehow less immediate.
Like so many retired politicians, Heath's eyes are fixed too firmly on posterity's prizes for the interviewer to ever properly hold their gaze, and descriptions of his haughty demeanour, "casual grey chinos" and "proud dagger nose" add little of interest to the picture we already have of him. The payoff to this unrewarding encounter comes a year later and 130 pages on, when the author returns to Salisbury for Heath's funeral and the "almost jolly" reception that follows it, and realises afterwards that he has "not seen a single damp eye".
In the case of Margaret Thatcher's famously abrasive adviser Sir Alfred Sherman, the interview/death time frame is telescoped still further. Just one month after receiving a (presumably fully dressed) Beckett in his boxer shorts, and responding to a discreetly framed question about whether any conclusions might be drawn from the rise of his former employer with a disdainful "it was chance", the man with as much right as anyone other than the Iron Lady herself to be called the architect of Thatcherism has duly wheezed his last.
At such moments, When the Lights Went Out's titular intimation of human mortality threatens to become an overtone. And if this book has a single, grand, overriding theme – which I believe it does – that theme is how swiftly history conspires to have the last laugh on those who believe they have the power to shape it.
Again and again, Beckett's commendable yen for legwork takes him to the sites of the 1970s' most feverish national debates – from Birmingham's Saltley coke depot (scene of the NUM's greatest mass-picketing triumph), to the projected location of Heath's grandest white elephant, the Maplin airport development at Shoeburyness in Essex – only to find that the sands of time have already extinguished the passions those ideological battlegrounds once inflamed. Yet, far from inducing cynicism about the significance of politics, the author's determination to track the footprints of his historical actors forward into the present day underlines the irrevocable consequences of the decisions they made, or had forced upon them.
Beckett's is in some ways quite an old-fashioned, top-down view of history, wherein which Oxbridge college a politician attended is still deemed to be a vital factor in shaping their subsequent career. In this context, the occasional irruption of voices from outside the traditional establishment – as heard in the fascinating testimony of the Grunwick activist Jayaben Desai, or amid the intrepid detective work that uncovers exactly which out-of-the-way West Country barn Desai's libertarian adversaries employed as the setting for their boldest strike- breaking coup – is not just a welcome novelty. It also prefigures the extent to which Margaret Thatcher's keen eye for the shifting balance between political elites and mass opinion would reconfigure the British political landscape in the 1980s.
It's traditionally journalists who think in decades, rather than historians. But in interrogating the historical meaning of "The Seventies" with such vivid and exemplary rigour, Beckett has combined the best attributes of these two overlapping professions without diluting the distinctive flavour of either.
To anyone hoping for another jocular celebration of lurid flock wallpaper and Mind Your Language, his meticulously researched and elegantly realised volume will probably come as a rather austere surprise. But there are a lot of such long sharp shocks around at the moment. (As Beckett's conclusion gratefully notes, the gloomy shadow of his chosen decade certainly looms larger over the Britain of 2009 than it did when he started the book six years ago.) And if the rest of them are half as instructive and salutary as this one is, perhaps we're all going to learn something.