I’ve never been a royalist. If anything, growing up in a working-class environment, my family was rather dismissive of everything the British royal family represents – aristocracy, privilege, unearned wealth, inequality, unelected power. My views have not shifted much, especially in the light of the various royal scandals of recent years. However, it is hard not to be impressed by Queen Elizabeth II; she represents a totally different era and mindset, and her forthcoming platinum jubilee really is an extraordinary moment in history. When you stand her alongside many of today’s politicians and world leaders, she is even more impressive. We will not see her like again.
To mark this momentous occasion, I intend to do what many others in the blogging world, the media and social media are doing, and picking my favourite books of the last 70 years, one from each decade of the Queen’s reign. I am going to stick to British books, which I know means it risks being a very white male list, but then perhaps that reflects the predominant literary forces in play throughout this time.
Let’s start with the 1950s then.
As a period in modern history I am fascinated by the 1950s. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about popular music, but this was the era of early rock and roll. The second world war was over and in Britain rationing was coming to an end and whilst there was still a great deal of hardship, there was I think a new energy in popular culture that would be fully unleashed in the subsequent decade.
On the flip-side, Britain was still a very buttoned-up country, very deferential, and popular culture reflected, not the truth of how society was, but a version that social and political leaders wanted it to be. Books that have looked back on this era have also shown that British society was deeply flawed, such as Andrea Levy’s Small Island.
Some of the best books I read in my teenage years (probably the books that made me determined to read English literature at university) were written in this decade: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (I was obsessed with Steinbeck!), Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and, one of my all-time favourites, Charlotte’s Web by EB White. They are all American novels, however, so I cannot pick them.
Instead, my pick is not just one book, but a collection – The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, although if pressed I would have to choose The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Lewis is one of my literary heroes, not just because his books are powerful wonderful stories, but also because of his great scholarship, output and influence. I remember at primary school, we were able to choose and buy Puffin books – we’d get a newsletter once a month or so and I would save up my pocket money for these little treasures. I got The Horse and His Boy because I liked horses, having no idea it was part of one of the all-time great literary series! I went on the read the whole series in order (in true child book geek style!) and loved them. At university I learned more of what they were really about and was in even greater awe. I love watching television and film adaptations and I love books that draw on Narnia (like Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and, of course, Harry Potter). The Chronicles of Narnia represent a true literary milestone.
Look out for my 1960s pick tomorrow!