Things haven’t changed much since the age which gave us nostalgia

Britain’s love affair with nostalgia may be a century old, but things aren’t that much different 100 years on, historian and national newspaper columnist Simon Heffer will demonstrate at Buxton International Festival’s Book Weekend.

“One thing the Edwardians largely invented was nostalgia,” said Simon, whose new book The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 demonstrates that Britain at the beginning of the 21st Century is facing many of the same problems which beset it at the end of the 19th.

“The Victorians thought nothing about pulling down medieval streets to put up new buildings in a way they couldn’t today, but the Edwardians started preserving things.”

They also encouraged a romantic view of Britain in literature with poems such as A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, but the truth was much different, he says in the book which lifts the lid on the poverty and suffering during the period before the First World War.

Usually remembered as a time when Britain was a powerful, contented and thriving country, it was also an era featuring a mismanaged war against the Boers; acts of public protest verging on terrorism as the Suffragettes fought terrible injustices against women; a gulf between the rich and the poor and a crisis of confidence about Britain’s place in the world, all of which­­ sounds familiar to modern ears.

And yet at the same time, the working and lower middle classes were enjoying greater individual freedoms and a revolution in leisure and entertainment whose legacy can be seen today in buildings such as The London Palladium, Blackpool Tower Ballroom and Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

“We see newsreels of people strolling in parks in their finery, but it was also a time of tremendous social and political conflict,” said Simon, whose political commentary in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have made him a household name.

His book is a timely reminder of how Britain’s sense of identity is rooted in the past as the country faces its new future outside the European Union: “It’s what makes us what we are,” said Simon, who will appear at the Weekend on November 24.

lThe Book Weekend, which runs from November 24 to 26, includes talks by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine, Time Team’s Tony Robinson and The Archers Timothy Bentinck. For more details and to book tickets, go to www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/whats-on/books