The Nanny State Made Me
Stuart Maconie Ebury, £20
The first child born in an NHS hospital arrived a minute after midnight on July 5, 1948. She was named Aneira after Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the health service.
More than 20 years later, the 8,047,970th NHS baby was born: Stuart Maconie, and he’s very proud of the fact that he is ‘a child of the State… born into the stern but loving embrace of one of its hospitals’.
His latest book is ‘a celebration of the public, the collective, the national, the municipal, the much maligned nanny state’.
The term ‘nanny state’ has become a dismissal of ‘big government’ (Above, Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor and Kenneth Williams in Carry On Doctor, 1967)
The term ‘nanny state’, coined in the Sixties by a Conservative MP fulminating against motorway speed limits, has become a dismissal of ‘big government’.
But Maconie argues that the welfare state has been responsible for some of this country’s greatest achievements.
He’s a leftie, but he’s not one of those hectoring ideologues who stands astride social media bellowing at people. He’s a funny, lyrical writer who prefers to persuade rather than browbeat.
IT’S A FACT
One of the first welfare states existed in India in the 3rd century BC, introduced by Emperor Ashoka. ‘All men are my children,’ he declared.
Each chapter examines a different element of the ‘nanny state’ – the NHS, comprehensive schools, public transport and so on – with an entertaining and, yes, persuasive mix of history, memoir and reportage.
Of course, he over-simplifies. Most political books do. And in one respect – the idea that the welfare state is under threat – this book has already been overtaken by events.
The Chancellor has announced plans to underwrite the wages of employees laid off during the pandemic crisis and put an extra £7 billion into the welfare system. The Government has taken over the railways.
But in other ways it could not be more timely. When we’ve won the war against Covid-19, there will be a discussion about how to win the peace, and some of the ideas here will be at the forefront of those deliberations.
Greg Jenner W&N, £18.99
Enough with the fame, already. Do we really need to read about another hyper-ambitious young wannabe gaining undue attention via a scandalous sex life and a penchant for appearing sans clothes?
Except these aren’t the exploits of the latest Instagram star, but the CV of Cléo de Mérode, a French ballerina who shot to notoriety in the late 1800s by ‘sexualising her brand’ and dating King Leopold II of Belgium.
Of particular repute were her ears, hidden tantalisingly beneath a chignon. When Mérode arrived in New York in 1897, one hard-bitten newsman begged for a glimpse of ‘a lobe, at least’.
French actress Sarah Bernhardt (above in about 1880) wore a stuffed bat on her head, kept a pet alligator, and ‘took to being carried in a litter’ after her right leg was amputated
If you thought weirdly obsessive celebrity culture was a thoroughly modern phenomenon, think again. ’Twas ever thus, claims Greg Jenner, the historical consultant on the BBC’s irreverent (and painstakingly accurate) TV series Horrible Histories.
In Dead Famous, Jenner trawls centuries of pre-Fifties history, digging up eccentric case studies in support of his thesis that fame-hounds, incessant attention-seekers and accidental superstars are nothing new.
There is a light dusting of scholarly study but primarily this is an opportunity to romp with some colourful characters from the pre-modern age.
IT’S A FACT
At her convent school, Sarah Bernhardt shocked nuns by demanding that her pet lizard be given a full Christian burial.
Folks like French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who wore a stuffed bat on her head, kept a pet alligator, and ‘took to being carried in a litter’ after her right leg was amputated. Or child star Edmund Kean, a prototype Macaulay Culkin, who blazed a trail on stage in the early 1800s before being hounded into obscurity by the haters.
In his teenage pomp, Kean would row down the Thames with a puma on a leash; by 20 he was a ‘has-been’.
Societal panics, too, are nothing new. Between 1910 and 1930, America wrung its hands over the number of wannabes flocking to Hollywood in search of fame. The papers called it ‘filmitis’.
Jenner’s breezily conversational style, a gag or exclamation mark rarely out of sight, won’t suit all tastes. If you flinch at the notion that Horatio Nelson ‘rose to fame by kicking Napoleon’s a*** at the Battle of the Nile’, this may not be the book for you.
Nonetheless, Jenner is an engaging tour guide who smuggles some thought-provoking points about our culture into his zippy pen-portraits. In the end, there is a degree of comfort to be found in the realisation that humanity’s obsession with fame, beauty, sex, talent, disgrace and dishonesty was just as fervid in the age of the daguerreotype as it is in the era of the smartphone.
The Fall Of The House Of Byron
Emily Brand John Murray, £25
When Lady Caroline Lamb announced in 1812 that her poet lover George Lord Byron was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, she wasn’t telling people anything that they hadn’t guessed already.
Even if you blocked your ears to the rumours about the poet’s private life – he’d abandoned his wife, slept with his half-sister – there was no getting away from his notorious family backstory.
Long before m’lord was a twinkle in ‘Mad Jack’ Byron’s eye, generations of Byrons had spent their time gambling away their fortunes, suing each other in court, fighting duels and sleeping with people whom they really shouldn’t.
But somehow they always managed to get away with it.
George Lord Byron abandoned his wife and slept with his half-sister – he has a notorious family backstory (Above, Thomas Phillips’s 1835 portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian costume)
In this luscious slice of popular history, Emily Brand knits together all the naughtiest Byrons of the Georgian period into a glittering family tapestry. My favourite is the poet’s great aunt Isabella, a stunning beauty who believed in true love and was determined to have a lot of fun finding it.
Her first marriage, to the much older Earl of Carlisle, turned out to be remarkably happy, although a cynic might point out that this could have had more to do with the fact that he was one of the wealthiest men in Britain.
Brand is particularly good at describing the outrageous excess of aristocratic life – Isabella was whisked from balls at the Carlisle family seat Castle Howard in Yorkshire to sparkling salons in London’s Soho.
She loved every minute, which is why, when her husband died in 1758, she wasted no time seeking a replacement.
Within months, Isabella scooped up a handsome but dull baronet called Sir William Musgrave. But when that marriage failed, the ageing beauty started behaving increasingly desperately.
She racketed around Europe looking for suitable aristocrats with whom to fall in love, attracting gossip and pity in equal measure.
The Byrons did occasionally stick their nose outside the ballroom, brothel or casino for a gulp of fresh air. One of the most famous was Isabella’s brother ‘Foul Weather Jack’ (everyone in this family got nicknames), who spent six years missing at sea in the 1740s before stumbling back into Soho looking like a pirate and scaring the servants.
This Jack Byron eventually published a successful book about his adventures following the shipwreck of the Wager off the coast of Chile. It was Vice-Admiral Byron’s example that gave his grandson the poet the idea that being a writer could be a thrilling – and lucrative – occupation for an aristocrat.
Brand has done an excellent job of placing the sexploits of the Byron family into the context of a broader social and political history. In between the anecdotes about excellent parties, we learn about the terrible mortality rates,financial losses, constant threat of social and political violence.
Beneath the shimmering surface, this feels like a fable for our times.
Dark, Salt, Clear
Lamorna Ash Bloomsbury, £16.99
Posh, arty London girl moves to Cornish fishing town, roughs it with locals, declares village wonderful, moves back to London to write memoir. Lamorna Ash’s debut, about life in an embattled Cornish fishing settlement, Newlyn, is terrific.
It’s a hugely moving but unsentimental account of not only today’s fishermen but also a salty, grafting, real-life England too rarely depicted in literature.
Authors of books such as this tend to romanticise fishermen, but Ash undercuts the emotion and sea-folklore by including modern trappings: skippers entertain crews with mobile discos and once ashore they head to the pub to do shots.
Lamorna Ash undercuts the emotion and sea-folklore by including modern trappings (Above, Newlyn Harbour: Mending The Nets by Harold Harvey, 1909)
Because we meet them engaged in such ordinary activities, the feelings about the sea Ash coaxes out of them are all the more striking (two of the most weatherbeaten confess to her that sometimes just being alone and looking at the sea makes them cry).
As her relationships with the townsfolk develops, she discovers that what she wants isn’t just an understanding of her Cornish roots, but rather a feeling of belonging to a place where life has meaning and purpose.
She writes with honesty about her own sense of inadequacy in Newlyn, at one point telling Kyle, a fisherman, that she dislikes having to say she’s ‘a posh girl living in London’.
‘Hang on, you know you’re posh?’ he says. ‘I thought I was going to have to tell you! You’re the first actual posh person I’ve met!’ Her frankness encourages people to open up to her, and by the end of the book, when she attends the funeral of a man who has taken his own life, she has found that belonging and acceptance.
Dark, Salt, Clear is not perfect. Ash can sound like a student excited about mixing with ‘the workers’ on a summer job. But it is well-timed, feels rather important, and has excellent tips on the filleting of fish. What more could you want?