Goodbye to all that
The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: Writings 1989-2009. By Ian Jack.
The Economist | Sep 10th 2009
Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
THE crazy competitiveness of the British newspaper industry does not, alas, generate a commensurate quality of journalism. In general, the crowding of the market encourages shallow sensationalism, not consideration and depth. Ian Jack is a rare and shining exception to that rule.
"The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain" is a collection of his writing over the past 20 years, including newspaper columns and longer essays. His preoccupations include family, railways and the Indian subcontinent. He concentrates on "the special twists and peculiarities" of sometimes obscure places and people. He draws out links between private history and the public kind, following connections and intimating meanings.
A recurrent theme is the decline of an old, imperial, confident version of Britain, and in particular the industrial civilisations of northern England and Scotland in which Mr Jack spent his childhood and his forebears their lives. This was a land whose maps were marked with the goods each region produced—ships next to Newcastle, coal and wool for Yorkshire. There were trams, orderly queues, makeshift picture houses and smoking factory chimneys. The Sabbath was observed and sugar was an indulgence. India captivates Mr Jack because it preserves some vestiges of this dead civilisation in tropical aspic, "frozen in the Victorian economy of the lower Ganges". Britain now is characterised by obscenity, reality television and adolescents whose sentences go up at the ends. It is "unsound" and "incompetent".
Some readers may be sceptical of Mr Jack's left-wing conservatism, and wonder whether the economic changes and "rootless wealth" he seems to lament did not bring some benefits alongside the dodgy privatisations and "slapdash new primitivism of shopping malls and car parks". Indeed, by his own account, the vanished communities he chronicles were blighted by lethal epidemics and casual racism; home to backstreet abortions as well as civic pride.
But such a response misses Mr Jack's point. This is not a political book (its subtlety is ill-served by its embittered title); it is elegiac rather than nostalgic. Its author emerges as a grittier W.G. Sebald, a lyrical German writer with the same forlorn urge to rescue lives and cultures from oblivion. Mr Jack's real interests are time and memory: how a country's past, or a person's, gets cut off from the present; how history comes to feel "outside and apart", bequeathing "a sense of baffling loss".
At the heart of the book are three magnificent essays, about the Hatfield train crash of 2000; the sinking of the Titanic and the film "Titanic" (a wonderful meditation on hysteria and myth-making); and the lost cinemas of Farnworth, Mr Jack's home town, which is also a circuitous epitaph for a lost brother. His contributions to "this unequal struggle to preserve and remember" cumulatively transcend journalism and attain the status of literature.