Britain's empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture.
It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J. K. Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie.
To put it simply, no country on Earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain's modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst to The X Factor.
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THE JUNK FOOD OF POP HISTORY
Its chatty, gossipy anecdotes about cultural heroes. Also, David Thorpe's gung-ho narration, complete with dozens of voices (although all his Americans seem to talk like New York gangsters.
Absolutely. It's entertaining nostalgia with a dash of historical through-line to hold it together. Not much nourishment but very tasty.
Loved his Northern accents.
DICKENS, H.G. WELLS, BLACK SABBATH: HOW BRITS CONQUERED THE WORLD!!!!
Sandbrook is always enjoyable, although there's much less serious research in this tome. Basically, Sandbrook argues that Britain has given the world an enormous trove of culture over the decades, from Dickens novels to "Downton Abbey" and that all of it embraces a handful of themes: historical nostalgia; public school tales; love-hate relationships with the class system, and the working-boy-makes-good story (there are virtually no women in the book). Sandbrook cherry-picks to make his case (after all, Japan could make the same case for cultural dominance with sushi, anime and "The Ring") but who couldn't like a book that mentions everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Harry Potter and "The Prisoner?" Unfortunately, and for no good reason, Sandbrook spends way too much time slagging John Lennon as a hypocritical narcissist (he also took a shot at Lennon in a previous book). It adds nothing to his thesis and comes off as petty. Overall, though, Nobody does pop history like Sandbrook.
- Robert F. Jablon