There is no more important issue in contemporary history, especially in its popular form, than a book’s title. If you can’t summarise it in the title, then WH Smith may well not stock it. Here we have Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979. A well loved song, and a whiff of Second World War gun metal. Perfect.
The first part of this is the title of the Canadian singer/producer Terry Jacks’s 1974 hit, entering the charts at the end of March 1974 when the minority Labour government had been three weeks in office and spending all of April at No. 1 (preceded by Paper Lace’s Billy don’t be a hero, and knocked off by Abba’s Waterloo).
The lines of the lyric that Dominic is interested in, and he reproduces is,
We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun
But the wine , and the song, like the seasons, are all gone
The song was a broad translation of a 1961 song by Jacques Brel, Le Moribund, and is a mawkish piece of sentimentality of a dying man’s words of love for his wife.
So here at least Dominic’s intention is clear. Britain had lived its good time, but now it was over. With a nod to the long hot summer of 1976. So here we have that staple of post-war British history, a decline history. This is a narrative at least as old as post-war history itself, emerging in the late 1950s. So dominant has this theme been that there is now a current in the historiography that examines this ideology of “declinsim” itself (see Jim Tomlinson, The Decline of the Empire and the Economic ‘Decline’ of Britain” in Twentieth Century Brit Hist (2003) 14 (3): 201-221.)
The idea of decline is much older that this though. Use of the idea of Britain’s decline can be found in the late 19th century, and much British history since that time can be understood in terms of Britain’s failure to maintain its pre-eminence as the first industrialised nation in the first half of the nineteenth century. Anyone wishing to understand 20th century Britain could, in my view, do worse than read David Reynolds’s Britannia Overruled which argues that the Victorian height of the British Empire was itself a reaction to this decline.
So Dominic is on very well trodden territory here. The title does beg questions, the seasons are “all gone” by the period of this book, so when was the golden age? And what was the impact of this decline? And is the popular readership only going to be confused thinking the long hot summer of 1976 was the season in the sun, followed by the cold, cold Winter of discontent of 1978/9? We will see.
This leads into the subtitle of the book, the Battle for Britain. This taps into another major current in the historiography, that the specific form that British decline took after 1945 was in the form of the post-war consensus, and this was an orderly management. This consensus was based, in part, on a class compromise of the mixed economy, full employment and the welfare state. By the 1970s this had broken down, and this was expressed in a polarised battle between a Labour Party shifting to the left and a Conservative Party shifting to the right. All soft of themes of class struggle, Britishness, Europe, immigration and identity have been woven into this over the last 30 years.
And of course, this is redolent of Battle of Britain. Maybe looking at this through a lens that immediately conjures up Spitfires and the Third Reich is unhelpful and immediately value laden. So we shall see where this goes.
By the way, the B-side of Summers in the Sun was Put the Bone In.
Tomorrow, I will turn to that all important aspect of popular modern history, the book’s cover.