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Reinventing Britain: From Gunboats to Pop Stars

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Britain may have lost its empire and world-beating manufacturing base; it may be dismantling its armed forces and opting for third-division status as a grumbling, inward-looking, semi-detached appendage of the European Union. But I say, look here: There are other kinds of leadership. I'm talking about "Grand Theft Auto" and "Downton Abbey."

Britain's role as an exporter of popular culture is the subject of my seasonal book recommendation -- "The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination," by Dominic Sandbrook. This is a topic of particular interest, I grant you, for a made-in-Britain cultural export such as myself, but I wouldn't draw your attention to the book if I wasn't sure its appeal goes wider than that.

Sandbrook is a historian and journalist -- author of an excellent series of narrative histories of the U.K. since the 1950s. ("Seasons in the Sun," covering 1974-79, is the best thing I've read on the economic and political crisis that led to the election of Margaret Thatcher, the pivotal moment in postwar British history.) All those books are good on cultural background, even though they're mainly about politics. This latest title pulls together the fragments of cultural context, combines them with many more, and examines the whole.

The result is enlightening and provocative, but most of all great fun. Sandbrook has eclectic tastes -- from Black Sabbath to "The Lord of the Rings," from "Coronation Street" to "Phantom of the Opera," Catherine Cookson to Martin Amis, "Chariots of Fire" to "Top Gear." He has smart, funny things to say about them all. He writes with affection for his subject, and he's splendidly intolerant of cultural theory and intellectual snobs.

Taking Tolkien seriously is inevitably complicated by the fact that he has long been associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdoes -- by which I mean those critics who for more than half a century have been sneering at his books and their readers.

(As Sandbrook reminds us, Edmund Wilson not only said Tolkien wrote "juvenile trash" but also called attention to his "impotence of imagination." Beat that.)

There isn't much of a big thesis, fortunately. "The Great British Dream Factory" is really a collection of essays organized under four broad themes. The first asks how, against a background of postwar decline, popular culture redefined what it meant to be British, and especially English. (The Beatles take back America.) The second shows that British pop culture, despite appearing to challenge the established order, often upholds it. (The Rolling Stones and their country houses; the public-school ethos from James Bond to Harry Potter.)

The third uncovers the Victorian and Edwardian roots of much popular culture after 1945 -- notably in the stories of Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells. And the final part looks closely at the cult of the individual and the enshrining of self-realization in modern pop culture -- again finding links to Victorian precursors. (From Samuel Smiles to John Lennon via "Room at the Top" and "The Prisoner.")

Though it touches on a wonderful variety of books, television shows, movies and music, the book leaves out a lot. As Sandbrook says, it couldn't be otherwise: "Only a madman would try to cover the entire sprawling spectrum of British cultural life in the last few decades, and I have made no effort to mention everything."

Still, some omissions are hard to forgive. No "Monty Python"? No Peter Cook? What was the man thinking? Satire in general gets short shrift.

Not to labor the point, but I would have liked Sandbrook to look more carefully at mockery, including self-mockery -- a mode of commentary that Brits especially like and that "Monty Python" raised to impressive heights. For a power in decline, some minimum capacity for self-mockery may be necessary. It's a help in adjusting to your diminished status.

In this, it occurs to me, the U.S. could encounter some difficulty. Much as Americans may regret their politicians and bureaucrats, they are strangely respectful of rules, offices and institutions. (You rarely hear jokes about the Constitution.) The British feel less passionately about such matters, as about most things. They're comfortable with their institutions and don't much want them changed, yet find them absurd and like laughing at them. That seems healthy -- but then, I'm British.

I hope that Sandbrook will turn his attention one day to U.S. popular culture. Meantime, I promise you'll enjoy "The Great British Dream Factory."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net