Wright, Patrick. On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xxv + 290 pages. Paper, $19.95.
Oxford University Press makes the bold claim that Patrick Wright's On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain "put 'heritage' on the map" when it was first published by Verso in 1985. The subsequent appearance of specialized academic journals, led by the International Journal of Heritage Studies, indicates that heritage has indeed acquired its own literature. There is little doubt that the so-called heritage and tourism industry has proliferated around not only Britain but many other parts of the world. These facts continue to make Wright's insights extremely valuable.
The updated Oxford edition of Wright's work includes three notable sections. First, there is a new preface in which the author replies to his critics and assesses the current state of heritage studies. Second, is an appendix that reproduces a similar conversation between Wright and fellow heritage scholar Tim Putnam from 1989. Third, is a set of essays, all set in Britain, which comprised the original publication in 1985 and provides an often scathing critique of the Margaret Thatcher era ( 1979-1990).
The reader must be familiar with British history and culture to fully engage this book. The cartoons and illustrations are excellent, but Oxford University Press should have added a glossary of terms for a younger and wider audience. As it stands, non-specialists and undergraduates will likely gravitate to the original essays, especially Wright's analysis of the Proles in 1984 ("Orwell World?") over the preface, introduction, and appendix, all of which draw on the intersection of architecture, art, film, history, literature, and political analysis.
On Living in an Old Country does not deal in formal hypotheses, yet it suggests that social upheaval creates a value and a market for heritage. But what is heritage? Wright hesitates to offer a single definition that could be abused or quantified by social science positivists. Rather, the stock-taking preface links heritage to ideas of the national past, what one likes or hates about history, and the experience of acquiring a personal and national identification. Perhaps of most importance, it seems that no item, regardless of its private meaning to an individual, qualifies as heritage unless it becomes a public matter to be marketed, contested or...