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Different versions of modern Britain

Island tales


Britain Granta 119 287 pages, Rs 699

Danny Boyle's version of Britain - maypole dances in village greens, Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Queen parachuting into the Olympic stadium with James Bond and Mr Bean in the Chariots of Fire - launched the 2012 Games. For Boyle and many other Britons, it was a fond, nostalgic look at Albion. Others watching the event would have been baffled. Many would have found the whole thing cringe-worthy.

A wholly different riff on Britain is the Spring 2012 issue of Granta called, well, Britain. Its intent is plain in the photograph that makes the cover - a quintessential British teacup-and-saucer fashioned from precious porcelain, gilded at the edges. But the rim of the cup is chipped and the handle has broken off altogether and lies in the foreground.

Granta's riff on Britain has 19 pieces: fiction, remembrance, reportage and two poems. Well-known voices are represented, from Mario Vargas Llosa to Mark Haddon, as are lesser-known talents. As with several recent issues, Granta has gone lavishly visual: all the pieces are accompanied by quirky art. At the heart of the book is a section, called Home, featuring the work of 20 photographers, who give us their personal visions of Britain in oft-startling images.

Writer Gary Younge opens the volume with a gently evocative piece about Stevenage, the neighbourhood he grew up in. In its nostalgic arc, it conflates the tale of the growth of the English middle class with that of government-mediated council housing, and the gradual decline of both. There is also an excerpt from Robert Macfarlane's outstanding new book on his walks through Britain.

Through fiction and reportage, the issue captures many differing versions of modern Britain and for that alone, it deserves to be widely read. But the story of Britain would be nothing if not for its colonies and its internal struggles. An excerpt from Vargas Llosa's new novel tackles the latter. The tale of the colonies is told with evocative and elegant pieces of remembrance and fiction.

Lion and Panther in London, a short story by Tania James, is a sly, fictional account of the first visit to London by the wrestler known as Gama Pehelwan and his brother Imam and manages to convey the shock, in terms of culture and values, felt by the Amritsaris in London. Andrea Stuart's memoir, Sugar in the Blood, superbly traces the arc of the first British settlers in the Caribbean and the journey of their mixed-race offspring back to the violently racist Britain of the 1970s and 1980s.

There is much more to enjoy in this admirably produced - and edited - volume, for folks who know Britain well and those who do not. But to reveal more would be a spoiler.

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