Saturday, 10 January 2009

You Are Here (Rory Bremner, John Bird, John Fortune)

--The blurb--
"'Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against the Americans putting a man on Mars, just as long as it's George Bush.'
Like the most recent critically acclaimed Bremner, Bird and Fortune series on Channel 4, YOU ARE HERE picks away at the scabs of international politics with the voice and credibility of Rory and the two Johns, and will appeal to an audience hungry for a mix of entertainment and information - tough facts made funny. The book lampoons the contradiction at the heart of Britain since Tony Blair became Prime Minister after the landslide General Election result of 1997. Warm beer and skittles, and Fortress Europe. A superpower, yet humane. A sort of America Lite. Same policies, but with all the guilt taken out. In the face of the fog of confusion created by New Labour, it can be difficult to discover the real truth. After all, why spin if you don't want people to get dizzy? But if it all gets a little confusing, then just remember: it all connects. Giant B52 planes flying out of Fairford over the Oxfordshire countryside; the collapse of the railway system; Alistair Campbell and the Hutton Report; the failings, the mess, everything. None of it is in isolation. What the British reader needs is this witty and original map explaining how it all connects, a guide to how we got here. And remember - You Are Here."

--The review--
In 2005, the world was still reeling from the current bellicose world situation, and yet revelling smugly in financial stability, and this presentation of extremes could arguably serve quite well as a microcosm of England politically (both then and 3-4 years later). The United Kingdom: the land where greatness and abject failure collide. And so, in 2005, the perhaps notorious television hosts Bremner, Bird, and Fortune (primarily famous for their eponymous television programme) committed their analysis of this status quo to paper. And, a few years on, has much really changed? A significant proportion of the book still seems close to home, and, worryingly, will probably continue to be so. This is not a historical text, calling time on the mistakes of the past; it is almost a diary of current events, charting predictions of what may follow by holding up the present as examples. This also allows reflection on the duality of the title, which not only reflects the British government's frequent opacity in the style of a top secret military base ('you are here. We are not') but also instils in the reader, by the end of the doomsaying that makes up the book, a feeling of 'Holy Moses...we really are can I get the hell out?' (in the style of dystopian fiction).

And yet the doomsaying is not only mixed with the trio's trademark humour, but is tied together with painful accuracy. The book is well researched, with plenty of references and evidence for its claims. This is balanced by outright insults directed at various members of the English Cabinet, particularly John Prescott, who is the subject of many derogatory broadsheet-style cartoons throughout the book, which mainly describe alternative uses for the man (bouncy castle, traffic-calming measure...). There are also extracts from interviews with various politicians and details of policy, and yet it is in no way unreadable: its depth of knowledge is tempered by its accessibility, allowing it to appeal to political savants, political novices, and to fans of the authors' show alike. The book is also just the right length - entertaining and substantial, but not cumbersome - and is suited to any person interested in current affairs, male or female, probably from about the age of 14/15 upwards.

Unlike many celebrities who choose to express themselves in written form, it is clear from the outset that these three know their stuff, and express it in a manner beset with humour and intelligence in equal measure. It is fairly surely not ghostwritten, and is unlikely to become consigned to the bottom of bookshop bargain bins. These three are famous, but unlike many, they are actually famous for something: their acerbic observations and eminently positive and successful collaboration as a team. This particular output is perhaps best read in chunks, to allow for appropriate digestion of the information and to avoid overclouding with too many facts at once. However, this is not to be taken as a negative: the book is densely layered and covers a wide range of topics, easily meriting multiple reads. Other written output from this trio would be much appreciated as we move out of this decade and (it is to be hoped) into a different government, as a valuable supplement to their usual televisual form of entertainment for the thinking man.

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