BOOK REVIEW / The British marathon: 'Never Again: Britain 1945-51' - Peter Hennessy: Cape, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
PETER HENNESSY worked for more than 10 years in the more rarefied reaches of journalism. He is the author of a clutch of books on government and politics. He currently occupies academic perches at a bewildering range of locations around the country. He writes a column for The Director and was until recently a regular presenter of Radio 4's Analysis.

He also has a passion for long- distance running. Some years ago he competed in a mountain race in Wales, and persuaded the BBC to let him wear a tape recorder, so that listeners might share in the agony and the ecstasy while breathing rather more easily in their own armchairs.

Hennessy has now embarked on an enterprise that will test his physical and intellectual stamina over a longer distance. This plump volume is a history of this coun-

try in the first six years after the war. His plan is that it should grow into a history of Britain that encompasses his own lifetime (he was born in 1947); he anticipates that he will collapse over the finishing line around the turn of the century.

This is an ambition of almost Victorian earnestness, but Hennessy has taken his precautions. His technique, he tells us, will be 'to pitch the narrative somewhere between the meticulousness of the historian's fine print and the word-pictures and simplifications of the politician.' He cites E P Thompson on the dangers of reconstructing history from 'top level sources' in the Public Record Office.

Hennessy certainly permits himself an unconventionally wide range of reference. Mao Tse-tung rubs shoulders with Marks & Spencer, and Cardinal Hinsley marches in step with Flanagan and Allen. We read about crime and cricket, about Butlin's holiday camps and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne; we are reminded of the death of Grace Archer and even about a Willie Whitelaw interview in Woman's Own: 'Mrs T's Leadership Will End in a Muddle.'

Hennessy begins with a substantial chapter on the Second World War - a necessary setting of the scene for his treatment of the Attlee years, with the establishment of the Welfare State at home and the retreat from Empire overseas. For much of the book, however, he seems to write within the conventions of popular social history.

Hennessy's picture researcher, Cathie Arrington, has served him well. There are evocative shots of Anderson shelters being delivered in Islington during the phoney war, and of horseflesh arriving in Brixton during the transport strike in 1947. Herbert Morrison sits puffing his pipe in front of a pensioner's black range; Ernest Bevin stands in a gilded salon with Schuman and Marshall, one shoe on the seat of a Louis seize fauteuil.

Stylistically, Hennessy is something of a jackdaw, a professional deformation that lies in wait for many journalists and broadcasters. In a paragraph about the structure of the book, for example, he describes it as being 'front heavy'; this, he explains, is because of 'the need to bring the reader up to speed on each theme as it's first tackled.'

Some of the writing is slovenly: 'The British Empire was always a bit of a myth in the sense that it was never anything other than overstretched.' And some is downright ugly: 'There are three kinds of hindsight which have been liberally applied to Beveridgism.' Generally, though, the narrative moves along crisply enough, and there are some effective

characterisations.

Hennessy owns to writing with a degree of passion, and he writes from left of centre (a press release accompanying the book tells us that he will be chairing a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool at which Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Douglas Jay will discuss lessons for the Nineties from the Attlee government). Shrewdly, however, he covers a flank by quoting Enoch Powell: 'The politician has to simplify in order to do business with his public: but the historian can be so obsessed with the falsity of simplification as to qualify his subject out of recognisability.' Clearly, if contemporary historians did not exist, we should have to invent them.

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