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Piano man from Pinner: Is Sir Elton John the best symbol of postwar Britain? (Yabosid CC BY-SA 2.0)

I often drive or cycle along Abbey Road in St John’s Wood, north-west London. My journey is usually halted by a procession of foreign tourists imitating the Beatles on the zebra crossing near the famous recording studio, an image which adorned the cover of one of the most famous albums of all time. Most of the tourists are young and were born long after the Beatles broke up in 1969. But the group’s legend lives on and continues to inspire devotion among people of all ages around the world. It is a small example of a phenomenon that Dominic Sandbrook explores in his lively and stimulating new book, subtitled The Strange History of our National Imagination.

His thesis is not new: Britain, home of the Industrial Revolution and once the envy of the world in manufacturing and engineering, managed to squander that inheritance for a variety of reasons but has triumphantly discovered a lucrative new role as the world’s cultural powerhouse, a journey beautifully (or ludicrously, according to taste) encapsulated in Danny Boyle’s opening extravaganza for the London Olympics of 2012. So while the world long ago rejected our cars, it now laps up James Bond, our rock music, Harry Potter and so on. Sandbrook charts the journey of “the popular culture that has so entranced the world”. His emphasis is on the word “popular” and one of his central planks is that far being subversive, as so many self-styled cultural historians like to describe it, Britain’s popular culture “is actually much more conservative than we think” and owes everything to the influence of the Victorians.

This approach will doubtless enrage media studies academics and progressive columnists but that’s just how Sandbrook likes it. Indeed, he loves to debunk received opinion. Take the Beatles, again: “In the 20th century, perhaps only Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth rivalled them as symbols of Britishness,” he comments. But while their talent and hard work were not in doubt, their main interest was not revolution but making money.

Sandbrook takes a quirky approach to his subject, dividing it into four parts. The first is an account of how Britain changed from a country that made things into one that told stories for a living, a trail leading from J. Arthur Rank to Damien Hirst. Second is an examination of how British popular culture did not subvert the established order but actually reinforced it, epitomised by pop stars’ fondness for buying English country houses. Harry Potter and James Bond have their origins in Victorian public-school fiction: Tom Brown’s Schooldays still casts a long shadow over 21st-century story-telling.

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