- Elizabethans. How Modern Britain Was Forged, by Andrew Marr. William Collins, $34.99.
After the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, many have reflected on the eventual end of the Elizabethan era. Andrew Marr's Elizabethans. How Modern Britain Was Forged surveys the period from Queen Elizabeth's Coronation in 1953 to 2020.
Andrew Marr has had a distinguished journalistic and media career in Britain and currently hosts The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings on BBC One; Elizabethans spins off from his 2020 BBC TV series.
The reign of Elizabeth II is now probably better known to most people through watching the The Crown, but Marr's book will alert many to changes during her reign. He describes Elizabethans as an "attitudinal history" of Britain, telling "the story of change through the histories of the individual people".
Through an eclectic mix of 62 people, he explores issues of "class, fairness, conformity, immigration and culture" and "attitudes to work, gender, sexuality and 'abroad'".
Elizabethans is not an academic history, nor can it provide the detailed societal and political coverage found in the excellent chronological surveys of David Kynaston and Peter Hennessy. Rather it is a personal analysis of "What does it mean to be British today? Who do we admire? . . . Whom do we especially dislike?".
Britain has changed dramatically since 1953, when it had an "unironic, full-throated enthusiasm for the monarchy". Marr's reflections on Meghan Markle indicate the changes in that context.
Marr notes churches were full in the 1950s but now it is only mosques. Television was a rarity in 1953 in England, when people crammed into neighbour's homes to watch the coronation. Now Marr notes, through handheld screens, people are becoming "unwittingly entombed in a small echo chamber of their own prejudices".
James Morris, with whom Marr opens, was reporting for The Times newspaper from the Everest base camp when Edmond Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing reached the summit on 29 May 1953. This achievement was hailed as the dawn of a new Elizabethan era. Then James Morris became Jan Morris in 1972, personalising "the real character of this second Elizabethan age - the radical variousness, the unexpectedness of the Queen's subjects".
Attitudes to homosexuality and gender issues have changed dramatically over the decades. Some things, however, don't change. Marr, after commenting on Boris Johnson, reminds readers of "the sticky persistence of an exclusive class divide in modern Britain".
He highlights the names of NHS medical staff members who died in the first weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, which included Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, Edmond Adedeji, Fayez Ayache, Alice Kit Tak Ong, and Adil El Tayar. In 1953, he notes that the NHS doctors would probably have been called "Wilkins, Smith, Walker, McDonald, Davies, Jones".
Marr's profiles include David Attenborough, Marcus Rashford, Freddie Mercury, Tracey Emin, Enoch Powell, Darcus Howe, David Olusoga, Elizabeth David, Zaha Hadid, Dusty Springfield and Captain Tom.
Marr's choices can undoubtedly be questioned, but that's part of the fun. He omits, for example, Mary Quant and Tim Berners-Lee, while closing with David and Victoria Beckham, impressed by their "hard work", which is certainly debatable, as is that Bob Geldof "did more to help his fellow men and women than any other Elizabethan".
Marr indicates how luck or chance can play in individual careers. He follows the lives of "tough cookie" film actress Diana Dors, who, understandably, quickly changed her name from Diana Fluck, and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Both were "ambitious peroxide blondes from rough backgrounds", whose lives initially could have been interposed.
Marr supports the 1970s anti-pornography campaigner, Mary Whitehouse, calling her "the Midlands Joan of Arc", for her exposure of pornography corruption and paedophilia.
He calls Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, "one of the most influential new Elizabethans". He extrapolates from the meeting in Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956 to conclude, "modern feminism marks a pivot in relationships that will long outlast all Elizabethans".
In the chapter on The British California, namely Australia, he regrets "the loss of many ambitious, talented and hard-working people from the working class and lower middle class" under the 10 Pound migration scheme, while highlighting the "dark cold shadows" of the "forced" relocation of child migrants exemplified in the case of David Hill.
Nevertheless, he remains an optimist, as post-Brexit Britain tries to find its new role in the world with the Elizabethan era drawing to its close.