Reading Alwyn Turner’s account of life in the first two decades of the 21st century is a bit like trying to recall a dream from three nights ago. The theme and the mood feel uncannily familiar, but the details are downright implausible. Did George Galloway actually dress up in a red leotard and lap imaginary milk from Rula Lenska’s palms (Celebrity Big Brother 2006)? Was The Vicar of Dibley really considered a national treasure rather than a weak joke (Britain’s Best Sitcom poll, 2004)? And what, for heaven’s sake, did Steven Norris actually do (stand as Conservative candidate for London Mayor in 2000 and again in 2004)?
Just 10 years ago the answers to these question would come trippingly off the tongue, but now it seems as effortful as trying to recall the headline points of the Conference of Vienna of 1815 or explain what the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 was trying to achieve. The rewards, though, are greater. For there is something about recalling the recent-ish past, the one that we have ourselves lived through, that brings up a sweet-sad feeling of nostalgia. There is a sense that it would take nothing more than an effort of will to go back to the day when it seemed as if Robert Kilroy-Silk might have managed a second stab at a political career or when Max Clifford was a charmless PR man rather than a convicted sex offender. You can also start to see the liniments of our present times. To be reminded that before Marcus Rashford there was Jamie Oliver and his war on Turkey Twizzlers, or that prior to Dominic Cummings it was Lynton Crosby pulling the strings and making mischief at Conservative HQ.
Alwyn Turner does much more, though, than dive into the digital newspaper archives to pull out plums from the recent past. His great skill lies in spotting themes that we might have missed the first time around. For instance, he shows how Tony Blair’s bad faith over the Iraq war led to an unprecedented number of dramas and fictions about the man, including Michael Sheen’s uncannily accurate performance in Peter Morgan’s trilogy, The Deal (2003), The Queen (2006), The Special Relationship (2010) and Robert Harris’s masterly novel The Ghost (2007) and, beyond that, a wickedly incisive sketch by Harry and Paul in which a post-power Blair is made to do the coffee run for his new city employers. It was as if the reality of his betrayal was so terrible that the only way to comprehend what had happened was through glimpses, what-ifs and the occasional disbelieving belly laugh. You couldn’t make it up, except you could, over and over again.