Magazine article The Spectator

Bevis Hillier

Magazine article The Spectator

Bevis Hillier

Article excerpt

A book which didn't get many reviews, perhaps because it was spin-off from a television series, was John Sutherland's Reading the Decades: Fifty Years of the Nation's Bestselling Books (BBC, L16.99). Its stated aim was to present a portrait of Britain through the works that have made us part with our cash, from literary classics to cookery books. Sutherland is an academic who, without ever becoming a smartypants, has the popular touch. A sample from his introduction:

Bestsellers fit their cultural moment as neatly as a well-fitting glove. And, typically, no other moment. Imagine Bridget Jones in a utility dress and rayon stockings in 1948 ... Or Joe Lampton popping Ecstasy on the London club scene.

Treating the bestsellers decade by decade pays off. The kinds of questions Sutherland asks, and answers convincingly, are: `Why are fantasy and tales of the supernatural so phenomenally popular in 2002 and rare birds in the bestseller lists in 1950?' The illustrations, in colour and black and white, are exceptionally well chosen. A full page is given to Hamish Hamilton's dustjacket for the British edition of The Catcher in the Rye, `distinctly unlike New York'. (It represents a fairground carousel - the cliche motif of Fifties graphics.)

In the van of Sutherland's Sixties batch, we find John Betjeman's verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960). Even though it was couched in the metre of Wordsworth's Prelude, that bestseller launched - three years before Larkin's 'seminal' date of 1963 - the let-it-all-hang-- out trait of the swinging decade. Autobiographies have become more flensingly confessional since then. The latest in the Cellini-Rousseau-Frank Harris-Ackerley-Kirkup tradition is Brian Masters' Getting Personal (Constable, 16.99). With unflinching honesty he writes of his difficult childhood, his homosexuality and his Socrates-Plato friendship with Gilbert Harding, and tries to work out why he has been drawn to write about dukes and mass-- murderers. (A ducal serial killer might be his ideal subject. I can't call one to mind, military commanders apart, but there was an 18th-century Earl Ferrers who was hanged for murder with a silken rather than a hempen rope.) Masters' account of his parents is piercingly moving. The pages about the pianist John Ogdon deserve to go into a future anthology of 21st-century prose.

Another great confessor of our age was Alan Clark. This year appeared The Last Diaries: In and Out of the Wilderness, edited by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld, L20). …

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