News of the World’s End

Peter Jenkins

  • The Seventies by Christopher Booker
    Allen Lane, 349 pp, £7.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1329 0
  • The Seventies by Norman Shrapnel
    Constable, 267 pp, £7.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 09 463280 4

Any conventional account of the last decade would include these among its headlines:

– The decline in American world leadership and the expansion of Soviet power and influence. Vietnam, where war continued until 1973, and Watergate, which convulsed Washington in 1973 and 1974, were both symptoms and causes.

– The energy crisis of 1973-74, which followed upon the fourth war between Israel and the Arabs in October 1973. Both the quadrupled cost of oil (it nearly doubled again in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian revolution), and the insecurity of its supply, undermined the basis of Western prosperity (including Japan’s).

– The collapse of the post-war international economic order which preceded the first energy crisis. For this, August 1971 was the seminal date, the so-called ‘Nixon shock’ which uncoupled the dollar from gold and thereby officially dethroned it. From then on, the world was in a limbo comparable to the long interregnum between the end of British economic dominance, in, say, 1914, and the confirmation of the hegemony of the United States at Bretton Woods in 1944.

Britain, parochially, was caught in the wake of these events. Her decision to seek admission to the European Economic Community belonged to the previous decade, but accession did not come about until 1 January 1973. At that very moment almost, the long period of postwar prosperity, in which Britain had shared insufficiently, came to its end, and with it ended the forward momentum of the process of unification which had developed from the ashes of Hitler’s Europe. That was bad luck.

There was nothing much new about Britain’s economic difficulties. The inflation rate, for example, had in the Sixties run at nearly twice the international average for the industrialised world. When the first energy crisis struck, the rate of inflation peaked in Britain at 24.3 per cent. The same happened in Japan, but in the United States the worst was 11 per cent and in Germany 7 per cent. Imported inflation intensified the conflicts between elected governments and growing trade unions. But there was nothing new about that either. The Unions had seen off the Wilson government in 1969 when it had moved to reform them, and thereby helped to bring it down in the election of the following year. The Heath and the Callaghan governments suffered similar fates in 1974 and 1979. What, perhaps, did happen during the Seventies was that a long-rooted process of relative decline reached, by a process of cumulative causation, a point somewhere near to crisis. Decline became a fashionable subject.

This, in brief, is how I would characterise the chief events which happened to occur within the years from 1970 to 1979. Note how, for purposes of decadology, decades are numbered from nought to nine. Decadologists, however, are obliged to do more than chronicle or explain the occurrences which fall within their slices of time; their calling requires the reification, indeed the personification, of time; decades have to have characters – to be naughty like the Nineties, roaring like the Twenties or swinging like the Sixties. G.M. Trevelyan’s warning is ignored. ‘Unlike dates,’ he pointed out, ‘periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray.’

Nevertheless, playing games with decades is a relatively harmless activity, although best done (as by Norman Shrapnel) chiefly for amusement. An eccentric eye will always spot the eccentricities of the times, and Shrapnel possesses also a sharp pair of scissors for the newspaper cutting. Snip and you have, for example, the violent spirit of the time:

Bath Theatre Royal bar manager Mr Peter Coe is being treated for back injuries after being attacked by two Brownies. The girls, aged about nine, lost their tempers because he had run out of ice cream. They kicked and kneed him and he was hurt when he fell over ... Other members of Mr Coe’s staff refuse to serve refreshments there during the pantomime as it is too rough.

For this kind of social historian skirts are always the favourite indicator. We all know (or do we?) that between the wars they rose and fell with Wall Street. After seeing Visconti’s The Damned the fashion-writer Alison Adburgham commented (and Shrapnel’s scissors were ready): ‘The film leaves one with a sense of foreboding. If we are to wear the decadent clothes of the 1930s, what else of that doomed decade will history repeat?’ Shrapnel does his best: ‘Clothes styles reflected the hardening social mood. Gone, by the end of the decade, were the frivolity and youthful bounce carried over from the Sixties ... The fall of the miniskirt led to a frenzy of uncertainty about how much (if any) leg to show, a midi and maxi mix-up relieved by desperate forays into hot pants and other extreme styles varying from the aggressively “butch” to the coyly sexy.’ So there you have it. Christopher Booker, to whom I shall come in a moment, goes further, and means it more seriously: ‘Two unfailing barometers of cultural optimism in our century have been the height of buildings and the height of girls’ hemlines.’ This is not only rubbish but untrue. When the Sears, Roebuck Building went up in 1891 skirts were dragging on the sidewalks of Chicago, and when Christian Dior introduced his New Look in 1946 (hem-lines 12 inches from the ground) this was taken, because of the extravagant use of material involved, to inaugurate a craze of defiant optimism. Sir Stafford Cripps was against it.

You can find most anything you look for in a decade. For example, if you are looking for cults (with Gibbon and decline in mind) you will find cults. Shrapnel remarks on the spread of Transcendental Meditation and takes this to be another sign of the retreat from the high material and technological hopes of the Sixties. Maybe it was. But in the Sixties, when Transcendental Meditation was also spreading (the Beatles made their pilgrimage to India, remember), it was taken to be a part of the counter-culture, and the counter-culture, remember, was taken to represent the more hopeful aspirations of youth as well as another form of protest against the war in Vietnam.

Jogging is even more difficult to interpret. One of his chapters is headed ‘Streakers into joggers’. In America in the Twenties, athletic excesses of one kind or another – long-distance walking, marathon dancing, pole-squatting and the like – were associated, by the instant social historians, with the Dow-Jones and the acquisitive excitements of the times. In Germany, however, hiking and food-faddism, the escape from the city and the movement back to nature, are now seen as symptomatic progenitors of anti-semitism and fascism. Shrapnel is cautious, agnostic even, about the meaning of jogging; streaking, on the other hand, he puts down to ‘neurotic refugees from the Sixties ... acting out naked dream-fantasies in waking life’.

From these and other entrails of society – its viewing and its screwing habits, pot-smoking and pot-holing – Shrapnel drags a kind of conclusion, which is that dark clouds were gathering, or, as he puts it, ‘bigger and darker birds had come home to roost by the turn of the decade – and with an ominously settled air as though, like the Tower ravens, they intended to stay with us longer than just overnight.’ In effect, back to the Thirties. It had to be so, if you think about it. The Thirties followed the Twenties. Skirts fell. The Sixties were like the Twenties. Skirts rose. Ergo ...

Booker is a more serious matter. His book The Seventies isn’t really about the Seventies at all but is a collection of his essay – Mr Booker writes essays, not newspaper articles – which happened to appear during the decade, mostly in the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph. The subjects dealt with are mostly those which happened to arouse his moral indignation, or which lent themselves to the a priori vapouring in which he has come to specialise. In a preface, and in what at first looks like a modest disclaimer, he explains how he is not intending to give a detailed history of the Seventies. ‘Anyone looking for such an overall picture would instantly notice a great many glaring omissions.’ He is right about that. They would also notice some strange inclusions: for example, essays on David Frost, Kenneth Clark, Tom Wolfe and Germaine Greer – Sixties figures to a man. Booker’s earlier book, The Neophiliacs, he tells us, was ‘a detailed, analytical account of the astonishing changes which had come over Britain in the Fifties and Sixties’. This time he has bigger fish to fillet: he is going to ‘penetrate rather more deeply into what the Seventies were about; to pick out the underlying themes which shaped our thoughts and our lives in those years, and to show how an understanding of the Seventies in this historical context may help us to see where we are going next.’

The decade was, he tells us, ‘in fact the most important decade of the 20th century’. Later he qualifies this and calls the Seventies ‘arguably the most important decade of the 20th century’. He uses the formulation ‘in fact’ when he has no facts to offer and the word ‘arguably’ where he intends to produce no arguments. He also begins sentences with ‘The truth is ...’ and derives some of his firmest conclusions from ‘fairly general rules’. He has also, by the way, a nice line in Booker-balls, befitting a former editor of Private Eye. A threat of catastrophe ‘finally, for the time being, receded’; people look forward to ‘an as yet unrealised future’; he remarks on how ‘Almost without it being noticed, a tremendous change had come over the world’s mood.’ However, it is his serious nonsense which concerns me. For Booker sees the need for ‘as gigantic and profound a shift in our psychological perspective as that which marked the four centuries after the ending of the Middle Ages and the coming of the Renaissance’. Booker thinks there will have to be ‘an entirely new view of human nature’, and hopes, for his part, to make ‘some tiny contribution’ to that ‘immense task’.

‘The truth is’, he writes, ‘that in the past ten years the old sources of optimism which have sustained the human race through the 20th century ... have begun to collapse on an unprecedented scale.’ This is so, he assures us, ‘even if most people are as yet only dimly aware of it’. Indeed, he will go further (he usually does) and say that the decade he is writing about is ‘one of the most profound significance, not just in the context of the 20th century, but over a perspective stretching back many hundreds of years’. Why? What does Booker see? Booker sees that everything since the Renaissance which man has called progress has carried him down the road to perdition. The very notion of material advancement contains the seed of spiritual destruction. All scientific and technological strivings are in vain. The idea of human progress is a defiance of nature and man should be aspiring to wholeness, as the Greeks did. To this end, he must abandon reason. He must set out with Jung to explore the depths of his psyche. There he may find ‘the knowledge that all is one, that love is all, and that life here on earth is a truly sacred adventure. So sacred, indeed, that the very idea of “life on earth” becomes limited and meaningless, because we are already living life eternal.’ Thus spake Christopher Booker.

He explicitly preaches anti-rationalism, although in one of the essays he has the wit to attempt a distinction between that and unreason. He grandly congratulates Professor Stuart Hampshire for ‘beginning to get an alarmed glimmer’ of the truth, namely that man’s endeavours to triumph over nature, the whole humanistic drive, is irrational and futile. But then he goes on to attack Hampshire’s lecture ‘The Future of Knowledge’ as no better than an ‘eloquent parody of the bankruptcy of our conventional wisdom’ ... a ‘mish-mash of rationalism, materialism, utilitarianism, and finally crazy Utopianism’.

But enough of all that. In order to have us believe that the Seventies marked the end of civilisation’s road Booker would first have us believe that the Sixties marked the climax, not only of 20th-century optimism, but of the entire humanist era which began with the Renaissance. Perhaps that is how it looked amid the ruins of Carnaby Street. A more historical view would be of the 20th century dealing successive and fatal blows to the political and social optimism which began with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The war of 1914-18 was the first hefty blow. Even then it may be objected that the pessimism of Arnold and Carlyle, and before them the disillusion of Wordsworth, had undermined the hopeful spirit of man. God was already said to be dead. However, I think it is right to see the hope of salvation, now on earth rather than in heaven, as persisting into the 20th century. Socialism was its quintessential form but Stalin soon put an end to that kind of millennialism. Two world wars, the concentration camps and the Gulag, millions upon millions dead, brought their brutish end to man’s fond hopes for humanity.

Nietzsche had died in 1900 and yet already had predicted the coming nihilism, which he defined as ‘the most extreme form of pessimism’. Spengler’s Decline of the West was an instant best-seller in 1918, selling 100,000 copies within a year of publication. Jaspers in 1935 was saying the same sort of thing as Booker (or rather, Booker in 1980 is saying the same sort of thing as Jaspers), namely that ‘something enormous has happened in the reality of western man; a destruction of old authority, a radical disillusionment in an over-confident reason, and a dissolution of bonds have made anything, absolutely everything, seem possible.’ And possible it was, for it happened; and if it is still true today, or true again, it certainly isn’t new: it is the condition of 20th-century man.

Booker’s claim to be a prophet is, happily, unconvincing; luckily, he mostly gets it wrong. Of course, you can never be sure with prophets. As he says pointedly in an epigraph, taken from Jung, ‘as long as one is within a certain phenomenology one is not astonished, and nobody wonders what it is all about. Such philosophical doubt only comes to the man who is outside the game.’ Remember The Outsider? But Booker is no Spengler, not even a Colin Wilson. Wilson made a similar killing from cultural pessimism back in the Fifties – the angry Fifties, were they, or the affluent Fifties? Some of Booker’s targets, I am afraid to say, are the same as those of the earlier German pessimists – the corruption of the urban environment, the pollution of modernist culture, and the like: but as far as I know he is not a vegetarian or a nudist and has not taken to organising youth movements in Somerset.

Poor Booker. Insight has blinded him, gloom like damp has seeped into his paperback mind. His material is flimsier than Nietzsche’s. He links Kenneth Clark’s lectures on civilisation with the American landing on the Moon – unconnected events, I would say, except in that they were both to be seen on television. In place of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, itself not entirely helpful, Booker puts forward a dichotomy of the sexes in which, confusingly, he sees the end of the ‘age of mother’ as marked by the advent of Mrs Thatcher as a new father figure. Superman or superwoman? Nor does Booker have a Nietzschian grasp of art history. He makes much of the death of the Modern Movement, which he takes, conveniently, to have occurred during the Seventies. He bases this autopsy on the deaths between 1965 and 1975 of Braque and Picasso, Le Corbusier and Gropius, Eliot and Pound, Stravinsky and Shostakovitch. Remarkable, he says: but it isn’t in the least remarkable, as any man from the Pru could show by an actuarial calculation on the back of an envelope. In any case, Apollinaire died in 1918, Kafka in 1924, Rilke in 1926, Malevich in 1935, Joyce in 1941, Mondrian in 1955, Gide in 1957, Derain and Matisse in 1954, and Brecht in 1956. So what? So, says Booker, by 1975, ‘after tens of thousands of years of seemingly endless fertility, the artistic imagination of humanity had at last reached, for the time being at least, a more or less gaping void. It was perhaps the most profound reflection of all on the strange plight of late-20th-century man.’

I am afraid that The Seventies is an atrocious book both in the quality of its writing and the quality of its thought. No publisher ought to have permitted a sentence like ‘It has been a fairly general rule in this century that each decade in turn has turned out very differently from what was generally predicted at its outset.’ Indeed, I don’t think the publisher ought to have permitted the book at all. This is arguably one of the worst books I have read since Caxton, who generally invented printing and who, as is fairly widely recognised, is responsible for television and Lord Clark. Perhaps the publisher thought that Booker’s essays would, as Hesse said of Nietzsche’s writings, reflect ‘the sickness of the times themselves’. That, I think, would be to attach to them too great a significance, although they do perhaps illustrate the tendency towards an autonomous pessimism of a cultural kind which has little or nothing to do with the East-West balance, the price of oil, the collapse of the international monetary system or the phenomena of inflation and slow growth. Booker knows little of these matters and, it seems, cares nothing for them. He is better on the Modern Movement than the Labour Movement, and is more at home with the psyche than with the OPEC.

So why take him seriously at all? Because all irrationalism is to be deplored, because obscurantism is one of the paths to authoritarianism, because exaggeration is a form of lying, and because filling people’s heads with juvenile rubbish is a form of anti-social activity. What happened in the Seventies – the energy shortage, the slowing of growth, Watergate, the fall of a couple of British governments, and so on – consisted of crises within the managing-reach of man’s reason, and it is demeaning of the human suffering which the 20th century has brought, and in many parts of the world continues to bring, to equate them with vastly larger and more tragic events, just as it is cruel to spread despair when there are no new grounds for it.