Cool Britannia?

Don’t Look Back in Anger by Daniel Rachel

Subtitled ‘An Oral History of the Rise and Fall of Cool Britannia’, I was always going to be interested in this book which charts the changing cultural face of Britain from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and it opened up this era of optimism. Who can forget: British Indie Pop – Blur vs Oasis, Oasis at Knebworth, Pulp’s Common People and Jarvis at the BRITS, Suede, The YBAs, Damien Hirst’s pickled shark and Tracey Emin’s Tent, and Tracey drunk on late night telly, Noel Gallagher and Tony Blair, Chris Evans and TFI Friday, Trainspotting with its iconic poster (below). Remember the Vanity Fair cover with Patsy and Liam in 1997 (right)? London was the centre of the world for a while. The Spice Girls were shaking things up on the pop front, then Princess Diana died and it all began to implode. I was 30 in 1990, so I watched, listened and read it all from the comfort of my sofa basically, I was too lazy to go to Oasis at Knebworth despite only living 3 miles up the road, but I was a fan of the music, TV and movies, (rather more skeptical of the YBAs though), and having been one of ‘Thatcher’s children’ so to speak, I began to move to more centrist ground politically too, so this book was always going to be fascinating…

And it was – in parts. I found it a very frustrating read too. Rachel has interviewed around sixty of the movers and shakers from that time, from Blair and Alastair Campbell to Virginia Bottomley (who reminds us that it was the Bonzos who coined the phrase ‘Cool Britannia’ back in the 1960s – yay!) from politics, loads from the art world including Emin and Sarah Lucas, then Irvine Welsh, Keith Allen who was ubiquitous, Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Brett Anderson, Jarvis Cocker, Alan McGee, David Baddiel, Nick Hornby, Jo Whiley, Will Macdonald (Chris Evans’ sidekick), Mel C, and even Toby Young, just to namecheck a few. There’s no Damien Hirst, Danny Boyle, Liam, Justine Frischmann (who was so influential to Britpop’s beginning), nor Chris Evans himself – but they and others missing are not really missed, being represented talked about by their associates for the most part.

So Rachel has all these interviews, and he has cut and pasted them into chapters to form a roughly chronological and thematic narrative of the period. It both works and doesn’t. There are a few parts, where it’s clear that he interviewed two people together – Blair and Campbell stand out – the political chapters flow with conversation, interspersed with contributions from others. Some chapters just read like a collection of soundbites on a theme, with limited development of the thoughts within, such is the limitation of the strict oral history form here. There is also nothing of Rachel himself in the book after the seven page introduction which is mainly explaining the history of the decade and the structure of his book. There is no other journalistic scene-setting, no descriptions of the interviews/ees, only a cast of characters at the beginning, and a timeline at the end.

There was plenty of thoughtful comment, from Jarvis, Mel C and Will Macd for instance. John Major is rather made fun of however. Some particular contributors did make me laugh though – love ’em or loathe ’em, Keith Allen, Irvine Welsh and Noel Gallagher always have plenty to say – here’s Noel on his brother:

NOEL GALLAGHER: It’s when Britpop turned into this lad fucking thing and started objectifying women. Everybody wanted to be like Liam, the village idiot, who considered himself to be the king of the lads, ergo every other brain-dead fuckwit in England wanted to be like him. ‘Mad for it’ and all that.

This was an endlessly fascinating retrospective book that was equally really irritating to me. But, it brought back so many interesting memories of that time that I can’t dislike it as much as I want to. Others may like the style more. (7.5/10)


Source: Review copy – Thank you. Daniel Rachel, Don’t Look Back in Anger (Trapeze, Sept 2019) Hardback, 528 pages.

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12 thoughts on “Cool Britannia?

  1. Paula Bardell-Hedley says:

    I love that quote from Noel Gallagher! 😂 It really was a period of great fun and great optimism – but I suppose, amid all the current anger, confusion and frustration it’s easy to look back on that time with rose tinted bins. I too consider myself one of Thatcher’s children, btw!

    Anyhow, thank you for all the superb reviews through the year. I hope you enjoy the festive period and get to read lots of new books. 🎄⛄😊

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That quote is a cracker isn’t it! Being born in 1960 though, I see my era as the 1970s and early 1980s – now those were the days! 🙂 .

      All the best to you and yours too. Cheers!

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Oh how I wish I’d worked on the transcriptions for this one – fascinating! I’ve done a few great books this year though so I can cope. A shame the material wasn’t more shaped and controlled, though.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It needed someone to make it flow all the time, instead of some of the time. But gosh, it did bring back memories!

  3. kimbofo says:

    Only very recently I realised that one of my colleagues was born in 1996 and did not understand my Brit pop references! My god I suddenly felt old! Brit pop was one of those things I watched from afar (I was living in Australia) and soaked it all up like a sponge. I couldn’t wait to visit the UK but by the time I moved there in 1998 it was well over. I do remember being slightly in awe of the journalist who created the Blur v Oasis rivalry: his office was on the same floor as mine for many years. He had a signed Parklife poster hanging on his wall I was desperate to steal!

  4. JacquiWine says:

    Another review for which I’m very grateful. The subject matter fascinates me, but the ‘meat’ of the book itself sounds a bit mixed. I suspect I might find it a little frustrating too, in spite (or because of?) my interest in the period!

    As a slight aside, have you read either of Brett Anderson’s books? I’ve been wondering about his new one on his time in Suede.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The ‘in their own words’ only style didn’t always work, but it was fascinating. I have wondered about Anderson’s books, not read any … yet, but would like to.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I was in the depths of child rearing during the 90s, so I didn’t really get into Britpop that much (though I did learn to love the Manics!) I think I would find this a little frustrating to read and like you, the 70s and 80s were more my era! 😀

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Nobody ever writes about the 1980s… but it had no defining movements in the same way as punk and disco in the 70s and Britpop in the 90s (or did it, and I missed them!!!?) 🙂

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