Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the history of one?s own times

Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the history of one?s own times
Author: Peter Hennessy
ISBN: 1849542155
Date: June 2012
Price: ?18.99 RRP
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Publisher: Biteback Publishing

Why are historians so often flamboyant characters and some like Peter Hennessy are good multi-media communicators? Why is Hennessy ? a former Whitehall journalist for the first half of his working life and then Atlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, for the second ? one of our leading contemporary historians?

In Hennessy?s Distilling the Frenzy (a quotation from John Maynard Keynes) Peter?s thread of autobiography might answer some of the above questions. Peter and I have a ?generational and faith kinship? in that we were both born in north London ? in March 1947 and 1940 respectively ? and both had happy Catholic lower middle class childhoods. As a fellow trustee of the Tablet Trust, I can vouch for Peter?s rigorous academic research, self-confidence, loquacity (which translates into his writing style), and love of gossip ? particularly the ?weapons grade gossip? that he discovered when he became a cross bencher in the House of Lords. We were both shaped in the post-war years by the Catholic Church, Beveridge Report, Butler Education Act, and the British State.

Like his sixteen other books, this is an accessible book with an excellent bibliography and authoritative quotations. Hennessy looks at Britain?s persistent impulse to punch above its own weight or intervene in the world as a ?pocket superpower?, which has put a strain on the economy of our small country. He describes how the expensive independent nuclear deterrent, which he supports, appears to have been retained to avoid a ?standing alone? contingency. All of this is underpinned by British intelligence operations, that were set up at the beginning of the 20th century and Hennessy goes on to describe the developing architecture of our intelligence structures.

Whitehall?s growing but still deficient horizon-scanning about potential threats to our national security, economy, exchange rates, energy, environment, and so on is discussed. Of course, the Bomb has been a consistent horizon-scanning imperative for Whitehall from August 1945 to the present day. Scholarship and wit are used to assess the contrasting styles and achievements of post-war prime ministers from Clem Atlee (one of Hennessy?s heroes) to David Cameron. According to Hennessy, the premiership is the greatest single parcel of concentrated personal power in our country and he attempts to define 48 functions of the office ? including authorisation of the use of UK nuclear weapons. However after an initial honeymoon, the powerful holder is always vulnerable, for unexpected internal or external reasons, to being decanted by his or her successor into the House of Lords.

Hennessy looks at the contemporary history of House of Lords reform and includes a discussion on the current Coalition proposals, which do not excite him. One of my fellow permanent deacons , who was in the consular service, is in his retirement called in to redact state documents that are being released to the public. He enjoys the work as he can now see what colleagues were writing in their reports. Peter revels in recording the documents where he is mentioned as a threat to government secrecy in his quest as a journalist for inside information on the workings of the British state. As a cross bench peer in the House of Lords Peter now has good relationships with retired mandarins (such as my predecessor as chair of the Tablet Publishing Co.), Lord Hunt of Tanworth, and politicians who were at one time the gamekeepers with whom he tussled as a journalist poacher.

Michael D Phelan, Permanent Deacon, St Teresa?s, Beaconsfield

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