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’.

The single most irritating thing about this book is the constant prosopopoeic repetition of the expression ‘Our Age’, which is always saying this or that, being found guilty of that and the other, contributing one thing, spoiling another, virtually running the show and having a lot of fun while doing so, being powerful yet negligent. However, all this does add up to a fairly full portrait of the imaginary person.

Our Age, who has so much to say in this book, was a gentleman, with the virtues and vices of that condition; if there was Schlegel in him there was also Wilcox. One thinks of Margaret Schlegel’s naive resolve, under Wilcoxian influence, to be less polite to the servants: but although Annan reports many gentlemanly activities with an air of detachment or even disapproval, he does not find it necessary to use the word ‘selfish’, and there are no cads in his book, at least nobody is so described, as some are in Forster’s.

Thus we are told dispassionately about the Oxford set, the Children of the Sun, the Brideshead generation, especially Brian Howard and Evelyn Waugh, who is given special status as an important Deviant from Our Age; and also about Cambridge – about the Spies, of course, who escape being described as Deviant, but also about certain slightly less notorious gentlemen. There was, for instance, ‘the absurd, insanely touchy Oscar Browning’, a member of Our Age, though old enough to have been famously snubbed by Tennyson. Browning was, for quite usual reasons, forced to leave Eton and retire to King’s, ‘where he entertained the undergraduates and helped dozens of young sailors, soldiers, errand boys and others down on their luck.’ The correspondence of Browning, preserved in the modern archive at King’s, shows rather a strong if vicarious preference for the Navy. His habit was to send off his young proletarian friends to enlist in that service as Boys. Many of them wrote him interesting and on the whole affectionate letters from various remote stations, sometimes asking for money or for a new guitar to replace one broken in a storm, but sometimes saying they had frankly had enough of the service he had got them into, and would he kindly buy them out. There seem to be no letters thanking him for doing so.

If Browning and Guy Burgess, who ‘had the appearance of a man who had just stepped off the Golden Arrow after a night in the Rue de Lappe’, were gentlemen, there was a difficult Cambridge figure, another Deviant, who wasn’t, perhaps because his father sold pianos. This Was F.R. Leavis, for whom, not for the first time, Annan expresses an acute distaste, well-documented and in my view entirely understandable, though there no longer seems to be good reason to carry on about it at such length.

Still, it is natural enough for a Kingsman of Our Age, and so having an inevitable touch of Bloomsbury, to talk unsparingly about relationships and persons; and one of the strengths of this book is that the author’s career and his alert, receptive personality are such that he has known lots of interesting people, most in their way rather important, whether because they were clever, or powerful or merely charming. There is a parade of dons, civil servants and politicians, all taking some part in the running of Our Age’s great show, which included the introduction of Modernism, innovations in philosophy, sociology, anthropology and of course science. There was also the fighting and conduct of two wars, with a bout of pacifism in between; there were repeated disastrous failures to modernise the economy and the educational system. There was, moreover, the loss of empire; and the general if fairly gentle decline of Britain.

Although Our Age was obliged to take part in, even to manage, all this important business, it is here described as an age of ignorance – sexual ignorance especially, which is known to be productive of disaster. Homosexuals, rather numerous in Our Age, suffered partly from the ignorance of others, but also from their own: for public schoolboys, having been deprived of feminine society in their adolescent years, were the less able to enjoy it later, and were therefore prone to fall into what were still guilty courses. This can hardly be the whole picture, and anyway the whole picture changed in the Sixties, a decade Annan rightly though unfashionably thinks rather well of. In recent years he detects a new puritanism, not wholly bad. The official line on Aids is not that we should be chaste, merely that we should be prudent. Of course not all official lines are quite so permissive. Three years ago I spent a couple of months in Geneva and was impressed by the posters which said, Soyez prudent: STOP SIDA, the space in the O of STOP being filled by a condom. However, before I left they had been replaced by very similar posters saying, Soyez fidèle, STOP SIDA, with a wedding ring in the hole instead of a condom. Annan, one supposes, would approve the earlier version, but maybe the later one also, for, inveterately liberal as he is on such matters, he shows some concern about the way things are going, and expressly approves of Bernard Williams’s neo-Aristotelian ethics; temperance, and for that matter fidelity, might be called, in Williams’s terminology, ‘thick concepts’, like mercy and honour.

The prevailing tone of the book is genial, but there are occasional severities in its treatment of persons. Among its heroes are Isaiah Berlin and, with a good deal of qualification, Michael Oakeshott; on the Left there is the author’s contemporary Eric Hobsbawm. Others’ heroes – Raymond Williams, for instance – are sometimes harshly dismissed (‘a nonconformist spellbinder, rhetorical, evasive and vacuous’). These judgments are made by an author whose discipline is the history of ideas. Like Berlin, he is ‘hostile to the pretensions of technocrats and revolutionaries’, and he borrows Berlin’s favourite quotation from Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ Consequently a natural geniality is tempered by a slightly morose anti-utopianism, as if the experience of Our Age had shown that most initiatives go awry and come to rather little in the end. Like that of wild horses, Our Age’s is a record of failure.

The most depressing part of that record is the political. Annan thinks of politics as having very little to do with ideas or morality; unlike some of their opponents, the Conservatives, though some genuinely if vaguely wanted to do something about unemployment and poverty, were sophisticated enough to know this. There is, regrettably, a knee-jerk reference to knee-jerk ‘progressives’. The Left is credited with an unacceptable mythology, enshrining such errors as the belief that in the Thirties virtually all intelligent men and women leaned to the left. Left-wing politicians and trade-unionists generally get fairly rough treatment. In the interests of balance, the author remembers, and continues to feel, his youthful disgust at Chamberlain’s ‘insolent self-righteousness’, for which not even his interest in the arts could compensate.

Some readers, who harbour quite similar feelings about the present prime minister, may be surprised by the closing chapters of this book, in which she emerges as on the whole an admirable figure with some venial shortcomings, such as a lack of concern for the arts. She was, we gather, much needed. Britain was, in 1979, even more evidently in decline, and if it was Our fault, we have paid the price: ‘Our Vision of Life Rejected’ is the title of a late chapter. Not getting into Europe at the very beginning is the worst mistake of all, and that seems to have been Our fault. There were others: all the educational muddles of the epoch are here expertly described, including Crosland’s fatal spending spree on polytechnics, the refusal of the UGC to behave sensibly when dealing between the cutting government and the wailing universities, the dimness, indolence and selfishness of dons, now at last forced to learn ‘Bitter Realities’ from the Education Act of 1988 – one dismal failure after another of organisation and imagination. Clearly by 1979 it was time somebody should take things in hand, and, to adapt what Marvell said apocalyptically about Cromwell, ‘if these the times, then she must be the man.’

So the Thatcher administrations come quite well out of this enquiry. Since there had to be a Falklands war it was as well that somebody competent was around to run it (‘no man could have handled the war better than she did’). ‘The most remarkable leader Our Age produced’ sought remedies for the decline Our Age had helped to produce. Her methods were not truly congenial to Our Age; now a little weary and ready to comply, it was still too hedonistic to sympathise totally with her spirit. Yet it could not but admire her resolution. She was subjected to criticisms Annan regards as inept and puzzlingly violent; he tries to explain them as due to her personality, to her manner and style, perhaps to her lack of ‘magnanimity’ – but that, he thinks, may be an exclusively masculine quality anyway. She preaches self-reliance and some of her critics seem unable to distinguish that virtue from greed.

Thatcher, as well as being fairly sound on education, was also right about the miners, right about the GLC, right about the poll tax, right about the bias of the BBC, wrong only on some minor issues such as Cheltenham. Eventually, after a roll-call of her intellectual supporters we at last hear the question: ‘But had Margaret Thatcher turned the country round?’ Well, possibly not, it seems. Crime, unemployment, miserly administration of social benefits, cardboard cities in filthy streets, disordered schools, high inflation, unprecedented deficit, wanton privatisation, low manufacturing capacity, prohibitive bank rate, the oil wasted, the police suspect, the health service jeopardised, the ... All this rapidly in a page or so, and not firmly attributed to any failure of will or performance on the part of government.

This partiality, however qualified, is surprising in an author who surveys the rest of his immense field with such independence of judgment. Nothing escapes his interest: achievements and failures in economics, philosophy, anthropology, history, literature, are knowledgeably and briskly surveyed. There are inevitably some off-the-cuff judgments that provoke disagreement, even some misunderstandings – for instance, an apparent failure, or lack of space, to distinguish structuralism from post-structuralism. There is, on page 89, a sentence of twenty or so words that contains three factual errors: but to borrow a quotation from Forster, they arise from ‘inattention rather than arrogance’.

A few more niggling points: if it is true that Our Age behaved sensibly in 1939 by giving intellectuals more suitable jobs than fighting, it was presumably true only of those who were accredited members of Our Age; perhaps it could not be helped that the unknowns evaded consideration. Can it be right to say that ‘when the Crown failed to indict Inside Linda Lovelace it became clear that literary censorship ... had gasped its last’? Rather did it find other and simpler means than the 1959 Obscenity Act when it proved too fair to defendants. Oddest of all, because uncharacteristically provincial, is the statement that ‘there had been no butchery in the battles of the Second World War’; also pretty weird is the remark that ‘people welcomed the extension of rationing’ in the post-war years because they saw it as ‘a way to dish the rich for eating in restaurants and getting preference in shops’. Apart from the fact that the rich continued, undished, to eat in restaurants, the rest were too busy getting preference for themselves, in their own shops, to bother much about the eating practices of their betters.

Still, these may have been the reactions the gentlemen of Our Age attributed to the People who were its contemporaries but didn’t belong to it. An impression one retains from this covertly sad but vigorous and highly-coloured book is that Our Age had a pretty good time during the half-century or so when our world was in their charge; that despite remarkable achievements in science, technology and even art, they failed because, as Annan puts it, they were more interested in knowing what than in knowing how. In the end their burden had to be assumed by a deviant from their manners and standards, one who really seemed to care about how as well as what, and had a go at turning the country round. Almost their last act must be to approve of this person, even though they cannot help noticing that the country quite soon (if it had ever really turned) faced about once more and continued on what they now know to have been all along the primrose path, the road to ruin.