Our Fault

Frank Kermode

  • Our Age: Portrait of a Generation by Noël Annan
    Weidenfeld, 479 pp, £20.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 297 81129 0

The title of this large, attractive book needs explanation. It isn’t to be understood as a claim to deal with the times of all of us who are now alive. First, there is a chronological limitation. ‘Our Age’ is used in a sense defined thus by Maurice Bowra: ‘anyone who came of age and went to the university in the thirty years between 1919, the end of the Great War, and 1949 – or, say, 1951’, by which date all who had served in the war had returned to the university. So constituent members of Our Age need to be over sixty and could be over ninety. Secondly, there is an obvious social or educational restriction, since a very large number of people who would qualify by reason of age fail to get in because they never went to a university. Moreover it is distinctly preferable to have been at Oxbridge, and to have made a mark there, so the number of the eligible is really quite small.

Lord Annan makes it clear that he speaks of, and inevitably to a great extent for, this small élite, into which one got by being exceptionally clever, or well-born, or usefully connected, especially with that intellectual aristocracy which occupied the commanding academic and cultural heights in a previous generation – a class upon whose constitution and habit of intermarriage the present author long ago enlightened us. It is from such a cultural establishment that he himself speaks. He remarks that although there are allusions to his own life and work (and he has governed large institutions, sat on innumerable high-powered committees, and known the great and the good), his book is not a memoir. It is only ‘the impression I as an individual have formed of the part of my own times that I know something about, and it has no other validity’.

Yet he speaks in two voices, one detached, disinterestedly critical, the other attuned to many of the presuppositions of an establishment he now sees as slipping into the past, propelled there by death and by political and cultural changes beyond its control. There are passages where one can’t be sure whether he is voicing his own opinions or reporting those of Our Age in style indirect libre, but that ambiguous degree of identification seems appropriate enough. Fortunately the presuppositions include one that permits or even encourages the commentator to look askance at his peers, and another that requires him to be honest, candid and as lively as the case, sometimes a rather hard case, allows.

The panoramic scope of the book is such as to make one wonder that one man, however various his experience, could know so much about so much. Yet for reasons already hinted at there is a certain narrowness of view. For example, he can be critical about the public schools, especially as they were in his own day, when the syllabuses were so confidently and absurdly archaic, the rules and punishments so arbitrary and severe. (Incidentally, I am glad to learn from Lord Annan that the Latin verb meaning ‘to be beaten’ has an active not a passive form, and discover by follow-up research that vapulare, the verb in question, crossed over into English as the rare ‘vapulate’, though, when used at all, it tends to mean ‘to flog’ rather than ‘to be flogged’, so confirming the hint that there inheres in the process of verberation / vapulation the possibility of a measure of complicity.)

All the same, the author confesses that he was happy at Stowe. After a lifetime of more general experience, and despite his persistent advocacy of broader and more technological approaches to education, he still finds it natural to identify people by public-school typologies that many might consider somewhat privileged, somewhat arcane. Thus Lord Eccles is described as ‘opinionated, self-assured, a Wykehamist with the manner (so Etonians said) of a Harrovian’. Even if you find this account over-subtle you will still grasp that its subject is a very different sort of person from Richard Hoggart, ‘the grammar school extramural lecturer’ who at the Lady Chatterley trial succeeded, to the amazement and amusement of Our Age, in putting down ‘the Treasury counsel from Eton and Cambridge’.

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