“I’ve written four books about Britain since the ’50s, and pop culture always played a big part in those books. So they were always sort of very broad, panoramic political and cultural histories. And I always thought it was a really interesting topic: how Britain went from being a country that really prided itself on its economic and imperial dominance to one that had reinvented itself as a kind of cultural power. So, the fact that I do television informed the book to some extent, as well as the work I’ve done for the newspapers. I’d say it’s made me very conscious of how historians like me write a lot about politics but the reality is that for most people, politics doesn’t play a very important role in their lives, whereas pop culture does. TV is part of our common currency in a way that politics just isn’t. I thought this would be a good way to explore Britain’s national experience in the last century or so, as well is how Britain has been perceived.”
Take an itinerant writer who’s worked as a cemetery plot saleswoman, a factory worker, and a park ranger. Join her for a rollicking ride around the country, around the world. Observe as she mines her fascination with abandoned places, with atomic dread, with the looming apocalypse of which her childhood pastors repeatedly prophesied. Zigzag from a late gun baroness’s mansion to a desert town created expressly so it could be bombed, and from a man-made cave lined with fairy-tale dioramas on to demolition derbies, to shuttered textile mills and farmhouse auctions. Keep going. Settle into a soundtrack featuring the diverse stylings of Buddy Holly, Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Memphis Minnie, and Kansas Joe. Glean some of this writer’s Gandhi-portioned empathy, her sense of awe, her curiosities surrounding faith, decimation, loss, death, and infertility. Prepare to never view the world you live in, the places you go, in quite the same way.
On January 16, 1870, the New York Times published a brief article—no more than a few hundred words—describing a “meteorological phenomena” that occurred above my town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “The night was very clear,” the unattributed reporter wrote, “the stars shining brightly; but the mysterious light came out in a broad circular spot and spread slowly,”—wait for it—“like the moonlight coming through a cloud or the reflection of a prairie fire, putting out the stars nearest to it.”