In “Innovation,” the sixth and last volume in Peter Ackroyd's multi-volume history of England, the 20th century in all its calamitous variety finally comes into view, and that presents both distinctive perils and distinctive rewards. Ackroyd himself was born mid-century and therefore lived through many of the events he chronicles in these pages, as did many of his readers. Several of the earlier volumes sported portraits of monarchs on their U.S. covers: Queen Elizabeth I, George III, Victoria – and now this last entry, with a youthful Queen Elizabeth II, who's been on the throne since 1952, the longest reign in English history.
Despite its visual iconography, however, “Innovation” is very refreshingly not a Whig history pageant of monarchs. There are four here: Edward VII, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II—with a possible fifth being King Edward VIII, Elizabeth's uncle, who reigned for less than a year and whose abdication precipitated one of the many high-profile crises that rocked postwar British society.
This book is entertainingly crammed with Ackroyd's pithy, quotable summaries of those crises and the prominent figures who were often their lightning rods. Readers will find everything and everybody here, from the maddeningly clueless politicians who sent a generation of young men to their deaths in the First World War to the political upheavals a generation later under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. “It was precisely the notion that conservatism could be something as vulgar as a crusade that so displeased the patricians of the party,” Ackroyd writes about her, “but it was to be her distinctive contribution to a party that had spent the post-war years in broad agreement with Labour.”
LikewiseTony Blair gets his time in the spotlight as the book's narrative winds down. When Blair broke into greater national prominence in 1994, as Ackroyd sardonically observes, “the early Nineties were ready for him.” Each era is brought alive.
This is the distinctive reward of reading history that comes to dovetail with our own era: there's an immediate connection that's missing from chronicles of more distant eras. Many of Ackroyd's readers will remember watching TV coverage of Princess Diana's death, for instance, or the rise of Tony Blair, or the approach of the millennium. And fortunately, Ackroyd entirely avoids the distinctive peril of relatively contemporary history-writing: he doesn't allow his own memories of events to warp his distillation of what his sources tell him.
“Innovation” has no pretenses to be a history of the 20th century. By its very nature, it's instead a fine-grained portrait of one nation's decline. England entered the century as the nucleus of the greatest empire in the history of humankind, and in the lifetime of one adult, the empire declined into a commonwealth and the power on the world-stage shifted to the United States and the European Union. It's tempting, therefore, to view “Innovation” as a protracted epitaph. Luckily, Ackroyd's writing is much too ebullient for a funeral; this entire series has been a reader's joy.
Innovation (The History of England vol VI)
St. Martin's Press, 2021,