Lloyd Evans

Facetious or scandalous?

Very funny guy, John O’Farrell.

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An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain

John O’Farrell

Doubleday, pp. 375, £

The Making of Modern Britain

Andrew Marr

Macmillan, pp. 451, £

Very funny guy, John O’Farrell.

Very funny guy, John O’Farrell. His columns are a hoot and his excellent memoir, Things Can Only Get Better, turned me temporarily into an insomniac. His latest book, a facetious history of the last 60 years, lacks the cohesion of his memoir and the concentrated force of his columns. Because he feels obliged to cover the whole of the shoreline he finds himself writing about subjects, like Northern Ireland, that don’t engage his emotions, only his knack for mockery.

If you tried writing to Bobby Sands MP at the House of Commons about getting your parking ticket rescinded, while he was starving himself to death in a cell smeared with excrement, he never even got back to you.

That’s funny. It’s also quite distasteful. The comic technique — authoritative truth overturned by a silly somersault — becomes wearing. Only when comment and comedy are born simultaneously are the results top-notch. Explaining why the Western powers invaded Iraq to avenge themselves on al-Qa’eda, he says, ‘basically anyone who used the letter ‘q’ without a ‘u’ was fair game.’

O’Farrell is at his strongest when discussing the Left. In Attlee’s government Nye Bevan was responsible for housing as well as health. Labour supporters joked that the party ‘only had half a Nye on housing’. This is a book to dip into rather than read at a sitting. And I fear it may be one of those pass-the-parcel gifts whose recipient is merely a conduit between Waterstones and Oxfam.

Far more rewarding is Andrew Marr’s masterful history of Britain between 1901 and 1945. He traces our painful transformation from a tired, sprawling imperial power into a taut modern democracy. The pages teem with risqué stories. In Downing Street, as the Great War rages, two government ministers are secretly writing love letters during a cabinet meeting. One is Asquith, the prime minister, infatuated with a woman 35 years his junior. The other is Edwin Montagu, a rising star in charge of munitions. He ends his letter, ‘Yours very disjointedly and disturbedly (Winston is gassing all the time) ….’ Both lotharios were writing to the same woman, Venetia Stanley, a society beauty who forsook Asquith and married Montagu.

Another scandal is the story of Lloyd George’s peerage shop based in Parliament Street, Westminster. This semi-legal brokerage was run by a former spy and theatre impresario, Maundy Gregory, who sold OBEs, knighthoods and baronetcies to war profiteers and even to convicted fraudsters. The operation was outed by the flamboyant and enigmatic Victor Grayson, who in a speech in Liverpool in 1920 referred to ‘a monocled dandy with offices in Whitehall,’ who was responsible for ‘the greatest piece of political chicanery since the days of the rotten boroughs.’. He didn’t name Gregory but threatened to.

A few days later Grayson was beaten up on the Strand. After that he simply vanished. He was last seen crossing ‘in an electric canoe’ to a bungalow on Ditton Island near Hampton Court. The bungalow was owned by Maundy Gregory. It’s not clear whether Grayson was murdered — Marr hints that Gregory was capable of extreme violence — or just given a huge bribe to keep quiet. The final twist is that Grayson was thought to have been a love-child of the Marlborough clan and was therefore Churchill’s ‘secret cousin’.

The figure of Churchill dominates this book and Marr is refreshingly immune to his mystique. A great leader, a great politician, not a great general, but a superb self-publicist who, Marr mischievously suggests, never drank as much as he liked to pretend. Churchill was right about Hitler, but his wayward romanticism caused him to blunder over Gandhi and over the Abdication crisis. Wallis Simpson, according to Marr, did Britain a huge favour by dislodging a ‘vain and petulant king’ and ensuring the crown passed to his stolid, unexciting younger brother just when those dour qualities were needed.

Churchill’s ancestry was another stroke of luck. Through his mother he had important American connections and was accustomed to making profitable lecture tours over there. A different wartime prime minister might have disdained American aid, but Britain was led by ‘a “half-breed” hack writer on the scrounge and not the affluent English aristocrat he could be mistaken for.’

This is the most exciting book of history I can remember reading, not least because it tells a story I feel I know already. The route is familiar, the scenery startlingly novel. Marr delights in subverting myths. The pre-war decade isn’t about woofter poets and vegetarian intellectuals fighting Franco in sandals. Only 2,000 Britons volunteered for the Spanish civil war. The 1930s is about the British electorate voting for timid, accident-prone Tory-leaning governments whilst the rest of Europe got high on extremists. The country was saved by an ‘unimaginative, tea-swilling, bovine inability to be easily excited’.

This exhilarating book should put a bulge in every grandpa’s stocking on Christmas Eve.