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Michael Wood

  • The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
    Viking, 384 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 670 86458 7

In the early Eighties, British novelists worried a lot about history. Where had it gone, why had it left so few traces, why did it still hurt? How could it simultaneously seem so irrelevant and so inescapable? ‘The past is a receding shoreline,’ the narrator says in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), but he was busy replaying a story a hundred years old. In Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), history is being ‘cut back’ as a school subject at the same time as it invades all the lives in the book. But behind these worries was still another one, not yet focused but beginning to loom pretty large. Something was taking the place of history, some hefty compound of nostalgia, propaganda, heritage, sheer imagination, which made it look as if we had always been, until recently, just what we wished we had been – or what some of us wished we had been. History was becoming an Edwardian calendar, the long afternoon of empire, when children obeyed their parents, everyone could spell, there were no drugs, and socialism was something intellectuals played at in the evenings. Free enterprise was sufficient, and entirely amiable – and when it wasn’t amiable, it was still all right, because it knew what was good for us, it didn’t tolerate slackers. Whatever was wrong with the present could be seen as a betrayal of these golden days, a failure to hang onto our glory.

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