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The best books on Modern Britain

recommended by Danny Dorling

From the North-South divide to middle-class insecurity and the correlation of petrol use and obesity, Danny Dorling with five books on what makes Britain British.

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Danny Dorling

Danny Dorling holds the Halford Mackinder Professorship in Geography at Oxford University. He was previously a professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield.

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Danny Dorling

Danny Dorling holds the Halford Mackinder Professorship in Geography at Oxford University. He was previously a professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield.

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Your latest book is So You Think You Know About Britain?, which seeks to reveal “unexpected truths” about the country – on immigration, the North-South divide and so on. Is that the theme of these books you’ve chosen as well?

Yes. They’re all either written in parts of Britain, or about specific parts of the country. Really I just picked five books I’d enjoyed recently, but they do all have an unexpected edge to them and tell you things you probably didn’t know.

Your first choice is from London, it’s by a professor of public health, and it’s about obesity I believe?

Yes, it’s about the politics of obesity and fatness, but it also links that to our reliance on oil. There’s a lovely graph at the beginning of the book, which shows a really high correlation between how much petrol or gasoline people use in affluent countries per head and obesity. Essentially, the more petrol we use, the fatter we become – which is depressing. Although there’s a positive side to it as well, because it means that if we do wean ourselves off oil, we’re going to get thinner.

It makes sense. In the US, people often drive when they could easily walk.

I once spent a week in Santa Barbara walking, and I was frequently stopped by the police! They just assumed you must be up to no good if you were walking along the edge of the road.

Tell me more about the Roberts book.

Ian Roberts’s background is medicine – trauma surgery, in particular. That’s how he got into this. The book is about road traffic accidents and the direct harm that cars cause us. Cars are the biggest killer of older children and young adults in Britain. But he’s managed to link our over-reliance on cars not just to the immediate effect on our health, but also its long-term effects. If we manage to survive and not be hit by a car or injured as a youngster, then, if we live in a country that has reliance on petrol, we’re all, on average, a bit larger. It isn’t just that there are more fat people – it’s that the whole weight distribution moves across. What it means to be thin is never quite as thin as it used to. That’s not good for our bodies.

Ian Roberts is clearly a cycling advocate. Towards the end of the book, he gets into just how efficient travelling by bicycle is: it’s more efficient than walking. And the major problem for cycling is, of course, cars. He’s trying to work out a way in which we can move towards being healthier, thinner, and less reliant on petrol. Then there will be fewer wars around the world to get petrol.

Are the British particularly fat and unhealthy?

We are, yes. We are more obese than most people in Western Europe, although less than the average American, who does hit the obesity tops. The least obese country is Japan. People are a lot thinner in Japan, and that has to do with a lot less reliance on cars and a better public transport system. Also, a lot of walking and keeping fit, and a lot of cycling. Often people in Japan only have a single child. The mother will have a bike with a seat at the front, and the child goes in the seat. It’s normal in towns and cities not to have a car but to rely on your bike to get around. That leads to a much healthier population.

Isn’t it more their diet – eating lots of fish?

Yes, but the two are circular. You eat a better diet if you lead a healthier life. If you live in a place where you’re driving a lot – say you’re in LA, and have a long commute – you might well pull into a burger bar, get some burgers and eat them in your car in a traffic jam. These things are all connected. The Japanese could easily be as fat as the Americans. We know this, because when you take Japanese people and move them to America, they become fatter. Mexicans as well. Also, obesity within Mexico increases the nearer you get to the border with the US.

Your next book is from Glasgow. It’s by Frankie Boyle, the Scottish comedian, and the book is called My Shit Life So Far.

It’s a rude title but it does serve as a warning for what’s in the book. I put it in because there are a whole series of books by comics coming out now. These books are really insightful about life in Britain, and particularly the downsides of life, what’s unfair and unequal. They can get away with it, and they do it well, partly because they’re funny. If you’re telling lots of jokes, it’s easier to talk about what’s bad about a country without it becoming so depressing that you don’t want to read the book. Frankie Boyle’s book is about some particularly rough parts of Glasgow that he grew up in, and about the bad sides of the country. But it’s fun to read. If you want a book about the bottom end of British life that’s also fun to read, this is the one to get. It’s not the kind of heart-warming stereotype – like those books on Ireland: “We were poor but we were happy.” This is: “We were poor, we weren’t happy, but we could tell good jokes.”

His life really was shit was it?

Pretty shit for him, yes. He was brought up on one of those estates that was built for slum clearance on the edge of Glasgow. It was pretty dire. It’s one of those places where there has to be something strange or unusual about you if you’re going to get out. Clearly, Frankie Boyle was very sarcastic and could tell jokes. I was talking to a vicar recently – actually from the other side of Glasgow to where Frankie grew up – and I asked him what advice he gives young people. He said: “Get a strange hobby like keeping reptiles. Because then you become the person with the reptile shop and you can get out.” It may sound like strange advice, but it’s probably easier than making it on the comedy circuit.

On to Liverpool and Joe Moran, who is a social historian at Liverpool University. He’s written a whole book about Britain’s road system?

Joe Moran is absolutely brilliant. He can take a subject that seems like the most boring subject (he wrote a book about queuing before, Queuing for Beginners) and make it fascinating. You’ve got to know Britain, otherwise it’s a bit meaningless, but if I had to recommend just one of these books, I’d say please read Joe Moran’s On Roads. The other reason for picking Joe’s book is slightly personal, in that he begins with the A57. I actually live on the A57: it’s the road that goes all the way from Liverpool across to the Yorkshire coast. It’s a very strange road. It’s one of the hidden trunk roads of Britain. This sounds very geeky. I’m not into roads.

You’re not?

No. I’m not at all interested in roads – I don’t even drive a car. But Joe’s book actually makes them interesting. He is able to explain the nature of social change across the country, and the quirks of Englishness, from the point of view of what’s happened to our roads. There are strange parts of our motorway system, for instance within spaghetti junctions, that you can’t actually get to. There are parts of defunct flyovers still there, apparently. Lots of things like that. It sounds odd – but Joe makes fascinating a subject that sounds more boring than watching paint dry.

What did the book reveal to you, more generally, about Britain?

It revealed that there are lots of people who have tried very hard to make things work better from a technical point of view. For instance, the exact way in which our road signs are designed is a saga in itself. The font, the height of the lettering, how long a word you’re allowed to put on a road sign. There was a big battle by two sets of people to try to get different fonts on the British road signs, which in a way have become a model for the European road signs. The road sign font designers ended up driving cars very fast, while trying to read signs. Obviously the whole point of a road sign is that you should be able to read it in a very short amount of time while travelling at speed. But dozens and dozens of (almost all) men – quite geeky men – have done a lot of work, to get all the curves of roads worked out, and everything else about them that we take for granted. You just think it’s obvious, that’s how a road should be, until you read about the history and the battles that there were over these roads.

I don’t like cars and I don’t like petrol, but it made even someone like me warm to the roads and to the transport engineers. He does it in a very human way. He’s interested in the people, he’s not really that interested in the technology of the road.

English people are really interested in this stuff though, aren’t they? When I first came to school in England, we were given general knowledge quizzes, and the questions would be things like “Where does the M3 go?”

Yes, well Joe tells you why it’s called the M3, the real story behind that.

Does the book touch on bike advocacy, introducing more bicycling?

No. He’s not into that at all, Joe Moran. He doesn’t appear to have an agenda, or if he has an agenda it’s so subtle I couldn’t notice it. He just wants us to appreciate our roads. He’s into appreciating everyday objects. I can imagine him writing a book about alarm clocks, and telling us things we never knew about alarm clocks. It makes you realise that these things have quite an incredible history behind them. There is no reason for our road system to be like it is. The British could easily have had a more American road system, with far fewer pavements etc, if things had gone a different way.

Next you’ve got a book by Zygmunt Bauman, who is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Leeds. It started as a series of letters

that the Italian newspaper La Repubblica asked him to write.

Bauman churns out more than a book a year at the moment, and he’s very emeritus, he’s been retired for some time. I’m a fan of his books in general, though sometimes he does go on a bit. This one is nice. It’s 44 letters about a wide range of issues, so you can pick and choose. The reason I picked it is that he makes a comment early on about the nature of the current crash and economic recession in Britain. He says how different it is in the North of England compared with London. In effect, London has been bailed out now: the crash came and the crash went. But it’s still being felt deeply in the North. There’s a sense of bitterness in that the origins of the crash had nothing to do with the North of England, but the North of England is being left with more and more of the repercussions.

It’s interesting to read a description written by a man whose origins were partly Polish – he was a refugee from Germany – for Italians, talking about the place you happen to be living in. Also, he’s talking from the point of view of someone who is now very old. It’s reading about your life as if someone is talking about it incidentally, and it feels slightly uncomfortable. When Frankie Boyle was writing about Glasgow I got exactly the same uncomfortable feeling, of having the present being described very analytically. It’s not always a very happy picture that is being painted.

What do you mean?

Well, I’m in Sheffield now. Sheffield has probably been the most cut city in Britain for various reasons. There’s quite a competition between various cities at the moment, to claim that they’ve had the most cuts. All the cuts kicked in in April, that’s when the money stopped. People have been sacked, we’ve lost lots of people working in local authorities. The book is about many other things – this is just one letter of the 44 – but it’s the way he describes our modern times, it’s almost like somebody from another planet is describing life on earth. He’s detached enough so that he describes it as it is, and you read it and you go, “Yes, it is pretty awful.” But again, not much of an agenda. He’s not writing it specifically for people in Britain, he’s writing about the general situation we find ourselves in. But he’s been emeritus professor at Leeds for ages, so he’s not ignorant of the situation. I think he still lives near Leeds or in Leeds.

So is the mood really miserable where you are?

A bit angry, a bit miserable, but also a sense of denial among a lot of people. People think that if they haven’t been cut, they’ll be OK, but there are four more years of cuts to come. The chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, plans that the United Kingdom will soon spend less through its government as a percentage of GDP than anywhere else in Western Europe, and less than the US plans to spend by 2015. George Osborne can only do this with the support of the prime minister, David Cameron, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. There’s a huge hatred here for Nick Clegg, which is largely, but not entirely, his fault. He is the local MP for the bit of Sheffield I’m in. We did have 12 sets of cuts, including £112m in cuts announced in one week, last summer. That may have been because he was deputy prime minister, to show he was loyal to the government.

The saddest thing is watching young people not getting jobs, including our graduates and our postgraduate students. It appears as if almost no one is being hired under the age of 35. That’s by far the biggest cut, the lack of hirings. The other thing is the way we now accept things that we wouldn’t have accepted a year ago, like university fees of £9,000. And that’s just your fees! The Daily Mail worked out that along with the other debts that students have, to buy food and so on, you’re looking at a £70,000 debt for students. You couldn’t have imposed this on the population a year ago.

Bauman has been writing about dystopias for years. His books are about how bad things are, and in a sense reality has caught up with him. It may have been this bad, but it didn’t feel this bad in Britain, particularly in the boom years. Whereas now it actually is as bad economically, and it’s beginning to feel as bad psychologically. Reality is moving towards what Bauman has been writing about for some time.

Is he particularly focused on the North?

No, just one of the letters is. He generally talks about advanced capitalism and what’s wrong with it, how it can’t carry on like it is etc. But in an interesting way, it’s more nuanced than is the work of some younger writers.

What does he mean by “liquid modern world”?

It means you can’t get hold of it, it’s very hard to understand what’s happening, it’s moving around. I think he means almost like mercury, a liquid metal. It’s very hard to get a sense of reality at the moment: you think things are a certain way, and then suddenly the banks have crashed and the money has run out. It’s about insecurity.

Lastly, you’ve got a novel set in Sheffield, The Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Again, this is a bit indulgent because it’s set in Crosspool which is the suburb I live in. It’s very much about what this part of suburban Sheffield was like in the 1980s, and all the secrets behind people’s front doors. It’s a bit uncanny to read when it’s that close to home, and it also rings quite true. This is the affluent side of Sheffield, so in The Northern Clemency it’s the part of Sheffield where the man who is keeping the power station running during the miners’ strike lives. His son is one of the demonstrators who protested with the miners, though they didn’t want his help because he was a posh boy.

It’s about middle-class insecurity and duplicity really. It’s about people lying to each other. It’s a little bit depressing, the reality behind the front doors of what life in Britain is like.

Tell me more.

In the middle of Britain there is the middle class. The middle of Britain isn’t the very rich people, it isn’t the very poor people, it is the middle class. The book shows that the middle class put a lot of effort into making it appear that their lives are well sorted out and they’re comfortable. The neat little rows of suburban houses are all about looking organised and being organised. In fact, often, behind the front doors, their households are full of arguments and pretence and upsets. The book is a bit uncomfortable, but it is fiction, it’s a novel, so it’s less uncomfortable to read than some of the more factual books I’ve chosen. Also, it works for people of a particular age: you have to have been a teenager or a bit older in the 1980s for the book to really work for you.

But all these books, taken together, help create an image of what I think a lot of life in Britain is about today. It’s about people driving too much and getting too fat; it’s about life being shit in the poorest parts and that getting worse; it’s about the mundane reality of a motorway system and a set of trunk roads that holds it all physically together; it’s about a sense of great insecurity as to just how firm the concrete supporting our social system really is; and it is about how we act and live our lives as if everything is OK, when so very often we are only just managing to hold it all together and keep up appearances, while slowly sinking into debt and despondency. There is a huge amount of humour in all these books and quite a lot of sarcasm, but there is also an underlying sense that this is not how we should be living right now.

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