Our Island’s Storytelling

How Britain discovered a lucrative new role as a global cultural powerhouse

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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.

Part Three looks at the lasting influence of Dickens and H.G. Wells, without whom, says Sandbrook, there would have been no Catherine Cookson, the influential science fiction writer John Wyndham, or Doctor Who (Sandbrook’s judgments are mostly very sound but he displays rather too much reverence for the BBC’s tiresome time traveller). And finally comes an examination of what Sandbrook terms “the single most striking theme in Britain’s popular culture in the last century: the cult of the individual”. The poster boy here is John Lennon, for whom Sandbrook reserves his most trenchant loathing — a self-mythologising narcissist who ended his days in “his promised land: a world of almost unlimited wealth, in which he never had to do any work”.

The book sometimes reads like an extended version of this magazine’s Overrated/Underrated feature. Lennon heads the Overrated line-up, closely followed by Ian Fleming, Damien Hirst and the rest of the YBAs, not forgetting their godfather Charles Saatchi, while J.K. Rowling gets an honourable mention for lack of originality.

The Underrated column contains many more names: to take a few, Billy Bunter, Catherine Cookson, George MacDonald Fraser (creator of Flashman), J.R. Tolkien (perhaps Sandbrook is a trifle too respectful but his analysis of the roots of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is masterly), the Boulting Brothers and Agatha Christie, condemned by the ineffable Polly Toynbee of the ultimate crime, that of being middle-class. But Sandbrook demonstrates how dark Christie’s work is and how it reflects the profound changes that Britain underwent after the First World War, in particular the slow disintegration of rural society and its replacement by a world where nobody knew where anybody really came from any more. Sandbrook might have added that Christie also analysed the notion of the banality of evil several decades before Hannah Arendt.

Along the way there are entertaining reflections on the role and roots of Britain’s extraordinarily successful videogame industry; on the importance of art schools in the 1950s and ’60s in promoting creativity in music as well as art; and on John Braine’s ruthless and amoral hero Joe Lampton, the archetypical aspirationist, as the fictional figure who epitomises the spirit of postwar Britain.

But perhaps, concludes Sandbrook, a real person, albeit with an invented name, best fills that role: Reg Dwight from Pinner, a grammar school boy who became a world-famous rock star as Elton John, came out long before it became routine for celebrities to do so, gave generously to charity, played the piano at Princess Diana’s funeral and was duly knighted. Most significantly, he turned the movie Billy Elliot, which itself addressed some of the key issues of the Thatcher era, into a hugely successful musical, another worldwide hit for UK Ltd. But decent man though he may be, there is something rather depressing at the thought that he defines an era. John Lennon or Elton John: not much of a choice, is it?