The day the Queen flew to Scotland for the grouse shooting
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are some books that one reads and re-reads, others that one reads once and discards, and yet others that one re-reads once and reads again after many years. This book is one of the last category.
Sometimes books re-read after a long period are slightly disappointing, not quite as good as one remembered them. Others are better than one remembered them. For me, Jane Austen’s novels fall into the “better on re-reading” category; I think that the first time I read her books I was too young to appreciate them.
And then there are those books, like this one, that are much the same.
I can’t remember exactly when I first read The day the Queen flew to Scotland for the grouse shooting, but it must have been soon after it was published, when I had just returned to South Africa after spending a couple of years studying in England.
Because of the differences between the South African academic year and the English one, I had a few months to fill in before going to the University of Durham, and I spent them driving buses in London, and so learnt something about the South of England.
And though Durham University drew students from all over, there were several from the North, from whom I learnt that wogs came from South of the Trent.
So Wise’s book about a football riot between northern and southern teams escalating into a civil war seemed like a credible scenario. It was about an England that I knew 45 years ago. And one thing that struck me on re-reading it is that little has changed. The book was first published in 1968, and is set a few years into the future, but in the book there is little that might not be equally applicable to the England of 2015, even though much has happened in between.
It could easily have happened in the “winter of discontent” in the mid-1970s, or during the Thatcher years of the 1980s that saw the deindustrialisation of the North.
It could have happened, but it didn’t, so perhaps one can relegate it to the “unfulfilled prophecy” department.
But what prompted me to read the book was something someone wrote in a book discussion newsgroup:
What were the boys celebrating? And why should anyone outside Mali care? That is something I tried to figure out when I read that a group called Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA; Azawad National Liberation Movement) had today, April 6, 2012, declared Azawad (comprising what used to be north-east Mali) to be an independent, sovereign state (so far unrecognized by any other country). It’s not every day that a new sovereign state is declared, after all, even one with a population as small as 1.3 million and one as far away from Europe and the West as Timbuktu (now located in Azawad).
Well, why should anyone outside Mali care? We should care because before we know, it could be happening to us. In the 1950s the Central African Federation was formed; in the 1960s it broke up. In 1960 Nigeria became independent, in 1967 it was wracked by civil war, as Biafra sought to become independent, and this at a time when the dream of some was a United States of Africa.
The European Union has drawn states together, but even today in the UK there are people who wish to see the end of the UK, to undo the ties that bound England and Scotland together for 300 years. Politicians speak of national unity, but local loyalty dies hard. The tensions that Wise writes about are still there, and occasionally make themselves felt.
And so in a sense it has happened. Not in England, perhaps, but in several other countries. One of them is Yugoslavia, which in some ways, in the 1980s, was like England upside down — with rich Slovenia in the north, and poor Kosovo in the south, and both straining to break away, and all the bitterness and hatred that Wise describes raged through the Balkans in the 1990s, though in real life the Americans were not as benevolent as he portrayed them in his book. But Wise died in 1982, and didn’t live to see that fulfilment.
Wise describes the destruction of Nottingham, and I remember when I first read it I thought he was getting carried away with hyperbole. I thought such cruelty and savagery could not happen in real life. But since then we have seen the destruction of Homs and Fallujah. Such things are not only possible, they have actually happened.
So though Wise’s extrapolation of trends of his day into the near future didn’t take place in precisely the way he predicted, they have happened, and will go on happening, and so his book remains fresh and readable.