The past few years have left many of us reeling, with events moving so fast that historians and political writers have been scrambling to catch up. Publishing lead times are months long: at least one biography of Liz Truss was scheduled for Christmas publication and has had to be rapidly rewritten. You can probably skip that. Instead, reach for the tonic of Marina Hyde’s What Just Happened?! Dispatches from Turbulent Times (Guardian Faber). Based on her cult Guardian columns, Hyde’s book takes us from the Brexit referendum of 2016, through the horrors of Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic, to Boris Johnson finally being prised out of 10 Downing Street in 2022 (“Johnson is leaving office with the same dignity he brought to it: none. I’ve seen more elegant prolapses”).
How did we get to this point, though? Among the books trying to make sense of that question is Hannah Rose Woods’s Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain (WH Allen). This indispensable and fascinating cultural history begins in 2021 and works its way back to 1530, revealing that every generation creates its own fantasies harking back to an imaginary golden era. Woods notes that the centre and left are not immune – as she says of Remainers: “Brexit-adjacent social media discussion drew on a seemingly bottomless enthusiasm for faux-archaic swearing: ‘Cockwomble’, ‘Arsebadger’, ‘Wankpuffin’.” Nostalgia may be reassuring and unifying but it can easily become exclusionary and dangerous – for example, when historians and heritage workers who challenge such myths are attacked for telling uncomfortable truths. “It should not feel like an existential threat to explore the complexities of the past, or to find out that things were rarely as straightforward as we had first been told.”
Every nation builds myths and fantasies about itself. The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells (Head of Zeus) by Sarah Churchwell is an urgent, searing analysis of America’s psyche through the lens of Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling 1936 novel, set during and after the Confederacy, and the blockbuster 1939 movie based on it. The book opens with Donald Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol on 6 January 2021, waving Confederate battle flags. As Churchwell shows, the legacy of Gone With the Wind runs deep in US politics. The night before the film’s Atlanta premiere there was a pageant at a plantation, during which a Black children’s choir – dressed up in slave outfits – sang spirituals for an all-white audience that was evidently nostalgic for the 1860s: “One of the little Black children dressed as a slave and bringing a sentimental tear to white America’s eye was a 10-year-old boy named Martin Luther King Jr.”
Looking at how ideas and ideologies can spread beyond borders, and the rebound, Kojo Koram’s Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire (John Murray) takes apart the assumption that former British colonies around the world fell into inequality and insecurity after the British left because of their own innate dysfunctionality. Instead, Koram looks at how British capital, debt and asset-stripping continued to shape those countries’ destinies – and how, in a “boomerang effect”, the same destructive policies have been advanced in Britain itself. His incisive section on Britannia Unchained – the now notorious 2012 book co-authored by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, among others – is a striking example that has only become more relevant since this book was published at the beginning of 2022.
The tumultuous relationship between the global south and the north is a central theme of Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route (4th Estate). Hayden’s extraordinary reporting from migrant routes across north Africa, focusing on individual experiences, has already been justly lauded, winning the 2022 Orwell prize for political writing. The intensely personal stories she tells are a welcome corrective to the often dehumanising discourse that surrounds migration in rich countries. This unforgettable book should be required reading for politicians on all sides.
Anyone interested in the uneasy faultlines running through Europe itself should rush to pick up Timothy Phillips’s The Curtain and the Wall: A Modern Journey Along Europe’s Cold War Border (Granta). It traces the old iron curtain from Kirkenes in the frozen north of Norway, round the Baltic, through Germany and the Balkans, and on to Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan. The result is an enthralling travelogue with jaw-dropping historical stories in every chapter. Though the book is not about Ukraine, which was a long way behind the iron curtain, readers will come away with a deeper understanding of the background to Russia’s (and the Soviet Union’s) often difficult relationships with its neighbours – and enough material for a couple of dozen novels.
With King Charles III now on the throne, we might look back to the days of the first King Charles. The Siege of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story (The Bodley Head) is Jessie Childs’s captivating tale of one royalist house holding out against the Roundheads. Her narrative is atmospheric, unflinching and sometimes exquisitely witty, right down to the author’s note explaining her spelling choices: “During an argument at a London apothecary in 1639, Sarah Wheeler called Samson Sheffield ‘fatt gutts’ (he had called her a whore, and her husband ‘a rogue, a rascal, base fellow, a peasant, an apothecary slave and one that lived by the turds and farts of gentlemen’). It would be a shame, I think, to lose the visual thickening of those double ‘t’s.”
There is plenty to fear in our political future, yet there are also signs of hope. For a dose of both, try Maria Ressa’s How to Stand Up to a Dictator (WH Allen). Ressa, the Filipino journalist who won the Nobel peace prize in 2021 for her reporting in the face of harassment from Rodrigo Duterte’s regime, has written an energetic book that is part memoir, part modern history of the Philippines and part call to arms. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Ressa warns; even so, her clarity of purpose and courage are profoundly inspiring.
Another book that inspires hope – albeit cautiously – is Anand Giridharadas’s The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age (Allen Lane). Giridharadas challenges the idea that there is an unbridgeable divide in the US on subjects such as race and politics. Instead, he looks at stories of how activists and politicians have tried to reach out to people who don’t immediately agree with them, rather than writing them off (he avoids the contentious term “cancel culture”). There are no easy answers, and Giridharadas is frank about the varying degrees of success in his case studies. This is not an instruction manual but a thoughtful exploration of the possibilities and limits of communication and change.
Finally, for pure enjoyment, the history book that has made me laugh most this year is Mallory O’Meara’s Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol (Hurst). O’Meara takes readers on a wild ride from ancient Sumerian beer goddess Ninkasi, via 12th-century Chinese poet and boozehound Li Qingzhao, to the “Bahama Queen”, gunslinging prohibition bootlegger Cleo Lythgoe. Written in a conversational style, this book feels like having cocktails with some of the most fascinating – and dangerous – women in history. Cheers!