Britain Etc. by Mark Easton


The Germans don’t do babies; they do three holidays a year instead and have been doing so for years now. One result is that the United Kingdom is set to become the EU’s biggest state not so far in the future. And the British are not sure that they like it much. The United Kingdom- if it remains United at all- of 2020 is set to be very different from that of 2000. A Newsnight interviewer this month quizzed a Cabinet member on the Conservative Party’s legalising of gay marriage. She, and all those researchers, just did not get it. It was a straightforward split, which had nothing to do with Party. It was simply Britain’s old versus its young.

‘Condition of England’ books are lapped up by publishers. For one, they get attention from reviewers for whom Hounslow and Hendon are but far and distant lands. The genre follows a familiar pattern, with opening nods to Priestley, Orwell and John Major. Original approaches, like the one Nicholas Crane adopted for his Two Degrees West (2000) are not cited. Roy Hattersley’s compendium In Search of England (2009) has much going for it. Its most common phrase may be ‘dry stone wall’, but his concern for the integrity of the Peak District matters. As lungs for fifteen million people it may well be dug into and quarried, but is never going to be sold out to TAN8.

Britain Etc does not do bicycling nuns or warm pints. It looks lightweight, but there is meat to it. This is for several reasons. Firstly, Mark Easton – the name is familiar, not sure about the face – does not have a job rich in waffle like ‘World Affairs Editor.’ He has a proper job, and it shows. He respects numbers and has won the approval of the British Statistical Society. High-velocity news does drama but it does not do insight, much to the advantage of the powers-that-be. Easton digs beneath the surface.

Britain Etc. review
Britain Etc.
by Mark Easton
328pp, Simon & Schuster

He pursues, as an example, to their source a set of numbers put out by Downing Street and the Home Office in 2008 on the subject of knife crime. He finds that they are entirely synthetic. He displays, on this occasion, the Labour leadership’s indifference to the most senior members of the NHS.

Easton has a sense for history. He traces this ‘War of Numbers’ back to Victorian times. On statistics the founding genius Sir Francis Galton is ‘warning that they should not be brutalised, but delicately handled and warily interpreted.’ As far back as 1847 a Premier, in the form of Benjamin Disraeli, is writing about how delightful would be the suppression of official statistics. The relationship between politics and statistics continues fascinatingly via Churchill, Harold Wilson to the modern era.  A year after 1997 the then new government is encouraged to publish ‘Statistics: A Matter of Trust’. ‘There are strong forces at work’ writes the head of the UK Statistics Authority in 2011 ‘to demote rationality, analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge within government.’

This appears in a chapter headed ‘N is for Numbers’. The book’s format looks gimmicky – it comprises twenty-six chapters from A-Z – but in fact leads Easton into any number of interesting places. He invokes the metaphor of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs that first revealed just how a horse runs. It is not an apt metaphor. Muybridge’s scrutiny is on a single subject. Britain Etc is more akin to a Cubist portrait, where a series of disjunctive perspectives reveal a multi-faceted architecture.

Dipping into the past, Easton disturbs the sea of sentiment that laps around wartime memory- except from those who were actually there. He evokes the awfulness of the National Cheese, the only type permitted under rationing. He records Samuel Pepys’ reaction when confronted with a glass of fresh orange juice: ‘I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt.’ The fictional Baldrick’s enthusiasm for the turnip is no greater nor less than that of Whig potentate Lord Charles Townshend.

Humans are not easily understandable, and nor are the societies that we cumulatively occupy. If ever there were a social problem it is alcohol. Young men, and women, are presenting cirrhosis on an epidemic scale without precedent. Easton goes back through decades of case law, health research, government policy, anthropology even. Booze, the Brits and disorder have nothing to do with opening hours, or hop versus grape and grain, it’s a cultural thing.

The same cultural bias infects the notion of the Bobbies on the Beat. This last autumn it was the only item that the utterly wet Labour campaign for the West Wales Police Commissionership could come up with. Easton does the work in seven packed pages. Even back in 1829, the days of Robert Peel, it was soon recognised that having police wander about the street had no effect of any kind, other than wearing out boot soles. In fact, says Easton, every western nation has seen a drop in crime, for reasons not known, but unrelated to any action undertaken by government, judiciary or police.

Britain Etc does not include this but there is one reliable indicator of a person’s likelihood of being a victim of crime. It correlates perfectly with the number of people an individual can name within a ten-minute walk of her home. The Bobby on the Beat may be no more than nostalgic addleheadedness, that substitutes for a reality of a society of car-driven unneighbourliness. But genuine neighbourliness really does count.

Many an unusual snippet enters Britain Etc. One-third of the dog population, Easton reports, is now obese and heading for diabetes.  Scot John Loudon saw the effects of enclosure in his native Lanarkshire and wrote Hints on Breathing Places in the Metropolis. The astonishing date of this work, linking civic health with access to grass and greenery, is 1829. Mill owner Joseph Strutt hands the deeds to his arboretum to his local town council and occasions the biggest party in Derby’s history. It is hard to imagine a Briton of 2013 handing anything to his local council beyond an earful of moaning.

But then politics has usurped so much of the civil domain. A 2011 quango has targets to ‘increase positive potato messages’. Crime, wrote former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews in Off Message, is a relative newcomer to the political agenda. Happiness is even on the politics agenda, even if it has to carry a posh label of Hedonics. Easton’s summary essays on poverty and immigration are worth the price of the book alone.

There is the odd weakness. An intelligent essay on Robert Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone’ and the effects of social media misses out on the fact that a large percentage of Britons – with men in the lead – report lives bereft of intimate friendship.  In ‘L is for Learning’ he repeats that dismal get-out by the educational nabobs ‘in our Google age, knowing facts may be less critical.’ No so; knowledge is about making connection. The mind needs its own raw material. Those bytes murmuring away on an Oregon server farm are like the artfully used can of tinned mushrooms in a Nigella Lawson recipe. You have to know for yourself how stuff works and fits.

Easton describes the writing of Britain Etc as ‘an interstitial project.’ If it is an interstice between professional and domestic demands, it is a good one. Easton’s family and employer should both be gratified at effort well spent. Britain Etc is rich but light. It is a chocolate mousse of a book; not as in the air-enhanced supermarket variety, but the mousse at home that starts with double cream and seventy per cent dark chocolate. He touches on the England – and his subject is England – of the World Nurdling Championships, but does not elaborate. That is for others. Read Bryson and Hattersley for detail, quirk and a feel for tradition. Read Easton for a real Britain, of greatness and blindness, grandeur and idiocy, delusion and delight.