Books to judge by their covers

Literature and Culture in Modern Britain, First Edition - Literature and Culture in Modern Britain, First Edition - Literature and Culture in Modern Britain, First Edition
May 26, 2000

"It does exactly what it says on the tin" is the slogan of a brand of wood-preserver (I cannot remember which, so the advertisers have only half-succeeded). I reckon the editors of these books have mainly succeeded in what their covers claim. As the series preface announces, the aim is "to give the reader the intertextual cultural history of modern Britain, one in which literary, cultural and historical processes are intimately connected." One may take issue with some of the emphases, but the basic project is sound.

The series's completion is timely. The more faddish versions of Marxist literary theorising have passed their sell-by dates but the need for an economically grounded and socially responsible literary and cultural history of modern Britain persists. In this respect the editors can be seen - and indeed see themselves - as the heirs of various liberal and broadly leftwing projects: Raymond Williams, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the journal Literature and History ; the Essex Sociology of Literature group and, most recently, the Lumi re group, whose ideas drive many of the contributions.

This is a series that takes intelligent issue with the remorseless commodification of just about every aspect of national life in Britain over the past 100 years - from the systematic exploitation of leisure, through the de and re-privatisation of industries and services, to the marketing of "Cool Britannia" and the glossily ephemeral bauble that is the Millennium Dome.

Each volume is organised along similar lines. Refreshingly, each begins with a chronology and timelines, rather than tagging on such materials in an unread appendix. This serves to point up the historical specificity of the material. It also draws attention to some suggestive coincidences: that 1926 saw the publication of Winnie the Pooh and Spengler's The Decline of the West as well as the General Strike; that 1946 saw Russell's History of Western Philosophy , the establishment of the Arts Council and the nationalising of the Bank of England; and that 1989 was the year not only of the fall of the Berlin Wall but also of the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie because of The Satanic Verses . Readers are not allowed to forget that literature gets written and read in the history to which it relates, however obtusely and apparently contradictorily.

This literary-cultural and historical-political emphasis is maintained in the body of the books. Alongside chapters devoted to each of the major literary genres are chapters on contemporary media - cinema, television and radio - as well as on newspapers and popular music. It is especially pleasing to see substantial sections on technology and art. Contemporary readers may routinely experience the convergence of these two areas in just about every aspect of their lives outside education. But what C. P. Snow long ago dubbed "the two cultures" continue to be segregated in traditional degree programmes. These books help remedy that.

There is no concerted attention to the British Isles in terms of regions or countries. There is therefore not much examination of England or Englishness, as there is in recent popular accounts such as Jeremy Paxman's The English (1999) and, more theoretical and provocative, Anthony Easthope's Englishness and National Culture (1999).

There is also little sustained treatment of Asian, Caribbean and African communities and identities in Britain. Occasionally these issues arise in existing sections, for example, Asian-British music and theatre in the chapters "Popular music since the 1950s" and "Lifting the lid: theatre 1956-99". But while readers can follow up "Scottish writing" through the index, they will look in vain for directions towards Ireland and Wales - or indeed Irish and Welsh anything. Devolution gets a single mention. All this stands in contrast to the collection of essays edited by Susan Bassnett, Studying British Cultures (1997), which has a more relaxed, less anxiously Anglocentric sense of Britain's place in the world.

Some of these shortcomings are matters of design. There are references included in the notes for each chapter, but there are no further reading sections as such. Nor do any of the general introductions offer a bibliography for the period under discussion. There is therefore no way of exploring alternatives to the occasionally reductive, left-right political vision - as well as the incipient nostalgia for 1960s radicalism - that characterise parts of these overviews. That said, the contributions are lively and diverse. These volumes offer an engaged and engaging sense of who and what has gone into the making (and marring) of modern Britain.

Maybe they are not quite built as set textbooks, but they do offer informed and stimulating, highly recommended reading for a variety of courses in modern and contemporary British literature and culture.

Rob Pope is professor of English, Oxford Brookes University.

Literature and Culture in Modern Britain, First Edition: Volume One: 1900-1929

Editor - Clive Bloom
ISBN - 0 582 07548 3
Publisher - Longman
Price - £16.99
Pages - 250

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