Book Review: Distilling the Frenzy

Written by Joshua Chambers on 13 July 2013 in Culture

If Peter Hennessy didn’t exist, you probably wouldn’t be reading this – and not just because this is a review of one of his books. For without Hennessy, the civil service as an institution might never have felt comfortable with press coverage, even within a newspaper dedicated to serving civil servants.

Hennessy was the pioneering Whitehall correspondent who drilled into areas unknown to the parliamentary lobby. As this book reveals, Harold Wilson’s cabinet secretary once wrote a memorandum demanding that civil servants stop speaking to him (they didn’t). Later, as a historian, he combined a journalist’s instincts and contacts with a desire to write incisive, detailed commentary – and created the standard works on Whitehall.

His latest work, Distilling the Frenzy, is part essay collection, part memoir. It’s a good, if strange, read. Good, because Hennessy covers whatever topic comes to his mind with panache and extensive insight: for example, he writes knowledgeably about how Whitehall tries to grasp at the “thin wisps of tomorrow” to predict the future, whilst this updated paperback also tackles the creation of the Coalition government and the Cabinet Manual. But the scope of this book also makes it a little strange. His other books develop as works of narrative history, but this one is more like a collection of loosely-related essays, and could have benefited from a tighter focus.

Nonetheless, for those interested in Whitehall, this book is recommended – not as a summer holiday blockbuster, but as a useful reference work. Dip in and out of it, and you’ll find yourself nourished by fascinating titbits that make you just as enthusiastic about Whitehall as Lord Hennessy so evidently remains.

Distilling the Frenzy
Peter Hennessy
£10, Biteback Publishing

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