Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lion That Failed to Roar? (2015)

Book Review from the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Orwell’s Faded Lion. Anthony James. Imprint Academic. £14.95. 2015.

The focus for this book is the ‘Moral Atmosphere of Britain 1945-2015’ as the subtitle would have it, and it is an entertaining and potentially thought-provoking read. The book examines the evolution of British society since Orwell wrote about Britain as the Second World War was coming to an end. James has travelled widely and he is able to draw on many of his experiences to give a comparative slant to his observations. He especially focuses on Britain’s insularity and failure to live up to the revolutionary hopes he says Orwell had for it.

He writes from a generally radical and leftist perspective without any transparent alignment with any particular political party. As often seems to be the case with books like this, much is traced back to the Thatcher era and its shortcomings, though perhaps without a full recognition of the wider economic forces within capitalism that brought this sort of phenomenon about (including, over time, in other countries).

While well-written in many respects, the book suffers structurally. This is mainly because it is part political tract, partly a collection of literary critiques and part personal memoir. It is the latter that appears to be its greatest strength – while the politics is quite strong on the analysis there seems little by way of clear solution proffered, while the literary sections read rather like a series of mini-book reviews of the works of the major authors of post-war British fiction melded together, not altogether successfully. The style is journalistic and the narrative thread that links these various elements is not perhaps as strong as it might be.

The best section relates to a period James spent in a South Wales hospital and turns out to be the inspiration for the book. It examines the treatment he received, the conditions of the hospital workers and – most perturbing of all – the views of a number of the fellow patients he was forced to share a ward with. Let’s just say the fact that UKIP got around 20 per cent of the vote in many South Wales valley seats at the recent General Election is entirely consistent with the account here and the interpretation James places on it. The challenge is still how to transform these types of views within the working class and the assumptions that seem to underpin them.
Dave Perrin

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