The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Dianaby Peter Hitchens
A surprise best seller in England, The Abolition of Britain is bitingly witty and fiercely argued, yet also filled with somber appreciation for what “the idea of England” has always meant to the West and to the world at large. One English critic called The Abolition of Britain “an elegant jeremiad” in which Peter Hitchens identifies
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
A surprise best seller in England, The Abolition of Britain is bitingly witty and fiercely argued, yet also filled with somber appreciation for what “the idea of England” has always meant to the West and to the world at large. One English critic called The Abolition of Britain “an elegant jeremiad” in which Peter Hitchens identifies everything that has gone wrong with Britain since World War II and makes the case for “those many millions who feel that they have become foreigners in their own land and wish with each succeeding day that they could turn the clock back.” Writing with passion and flair, Hitchens targets the pernicious effects of TV culture, the “corruption and decay” of the English language, the loss of politeness, and the “syrupy confessional mood” brought on by the death of Diana, which Hitchens contrasts with the somber national response to the death of Winston Churchill. If there is a term that summarizes everything that has gone wrong in Britain, it is “Tony Blairism,” which Hitchens sees as having rewritten England’s history, trivialized its journalism, subverted its educational system and cultural standards, and overthrown accepted notions of patriotism, faith, and morality. The New Britain is government by focus group in which people are told what to feel as a way of preventing them from asking how they want to be governed. Looking at the changed face of his country, Hitchens finds a “politically correct zeal for the new” whose impact on daily life has been “as devastating in effect, if not in violence, as Mao tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution in China.”
- Encounter Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 8.96(h) x (d)
Read an Excerpt
The Warrior and the Victim
The final days of imperial Britain are bracketedappropriately enoughby the funerals of an old man and of a beautiful young woman. The first, of Sir Winston Churchill, reached into a past of grandeur and certainty, while the second, of Diana, Princess of Wales, foreshadowed a future of doubt and decline. The two events were different in every possible way, except that both were unmistakably British. The dead warrior was almost ninety, full of years and ready to die. He represented the virtues of courage, fortitude and endurance; he was picturesque rather than glamorous; and his death was expected. The lost princess was snatched from life in the midst of youth, beauty and glamour. Her disputed virtues were founded on suffering (real or imagined) and appealed more to the outcasts and the wounded than to the dutiful plain heart of England. Yet the funerals of such people, however different they may be from each other, are specially good moments at which to take the temperature of the nation, far better than general elections. If Britain was a little frigid according to the Fahrenheit thermometer of 1965, she was seriously feverish by the Celsius measure in the late summer of 1997.
Had Winston Churchill's cortège rolled through the London of 1997, it would have been met by puzzlement and even indifference by millions who were almost completely ignorant of his life and his era. If, by some magic process, the British people of 1965 had been shown the events surrounding the Princess's death, they would have been shockedandin many casesactually disgusted. There is no clearer measure of the change which has overtaken the culture of this country in a matter of thirty-five years, the sort of change which in past times might have come about over a matter of centuries.
Imagine for a moment that a young woman, tearfully placing flowers against the gates of Kensington Palace in the autumn of 1997, has been plucked out of her time and allowed to wander at will through the London of thirty-two years before. Imagine how much would amaze her, and how little she would find that was well known to her by sight, touch, sound, taste or smell. Joining the shuffling line of mourners waiting to file past Churchill's coffin in Westminster Hall, she would be astonished by how strongly men outnumbered women, and by the dowdy and conservative fashions they wore. She would be surprised to see so many overcoats and hats and headscarves, so many carefully polished and much-mended leather shoes, so many tightly tied ties on the men, so many schoolboys wearing shorts and caps. Overhearing their conversation, she would notice the absence of swear-words, the edgy, plummy accents of the middle-class and the earthy tongue of the working-class Londoner, much richer, slower and gamier than the thin Estuary English of her own time.
She would be pulled up short to find public lavatories labelled Ladies and Gentlemen, by the absence of heavy traffic, the smallness of lorries, the cumbersome designs of vans, by the slowness and the bulbous shape of most cars, by the speed and frequency of buses, which would seem unnaturally red because of the general absence of bright colour from the streetscape. The conductors with their buttoned-up uniforms, peaked caps and hand-cranked ticket machines would seem to be escapees from a folklore museum. She would be puzzled to find large, irregular paving stones at her feet even in the suburbs, instead of tarmac. She would be pleased to find the walls clear of the scribblings of graffiti artists. The streetlamps would appear oddly small, infrequent and dim. There would be less litter, less dog-muck and much less chewing gum stuck to the pavement than she was used to.
She would turn up her nose at the number of people smoking, and at the amazing variety of places where they were allowed to do it. She might be shocked to hear homosexuals openly referred to as `queers', though she would be unlikely to experience any indelicate conversations except by accident, unless she wandered into very avant-garde circles. She would find the newspapers grey, thin and mostly stodgy, many of them still using double- and triple-decker headlines. The Times, with advertisements on its front page, would baffle her, as would the Sun, a rather grave left-leaning newspaper. The Express and the Mail would remind her of today's Daily Telegraph, while the high seriousness of the Daily Mirror would leave her wondering what had happened to taste and education in the lost years between. The banknotes would seem oddly large, the coinage heavy and complicated, with many pennies old and worn, dating back to the last century and claiming imperial ownership of India in their long Latin inscriptions. Yet shopkeepers and their assistants would manipulate their heavy, ringing, mechanical cash registers with confidence, perfectly able to make the complicated calculations in their heads without the aid of calculators.
She would find the generally accepted level of hygiene rather low, the slogans on the advertising billboards blatant and naïve, the policemen astonishingly numerous yet far less menacing, without their modern armoury of billy-club, dangling handcuffs and squawking radio, but buttoned into dull-but-disciplined tunics. She would search long and hard for a public telephone, and be amused by its whirring black boxes, chrome buttons marked A and B and its dial. She would be wonderfully surprised to discover a complete rack of telephone directories containing, in four not-very-thick volumes, the name and number of every subscriber in London. She would be confused by the purr of the dialling tone, and surprised to find that she needed the operator to call her home town, a mere forty miles away, if, that is, her home town even existed. She might find that it was as yet unbuilt, a stretch of brambly heath, fields, hedges and woods, perhaps of elm trees destined to die in the approaching epidemic.
London itself would seem extraordinarily dark and dirty even by daylight, with Nelson's Column, the great frontages of Whitehall and Westminster Abbey, not to mention the Houses of Parliament, all sombre black, and most of the rest dingily brown or grey. The colour brown, in fact, would seem to crop up in almost every aspect of urban life, from food to furniture. If she had time to venture into the provinces, she would perhaps feel oppressed by the survival of so many Victorian buildings, so much Gothic architecture, perhaps cheered by the absence of inner ring-roads, one-way systems, pedestrian precincts and multistorey carparks. The sight, sound and smell of steam engines pulling regular scheduled trains, and of racks of milk churns awaiting collection at wayside stations (in defiance of yet-to-be-invented health regulations) would convince her that she had wandered back further in time than she actually had done. She would rapidly notice that the past was smellier than the present, the air often reeking of breweries, cattlemarkets, cabbage and hot grease.
She would feel entirely safe as she travelled late at night on the London Underground, but irritated by the way that male travellers automatically offered her their seats and made way for her. Yet she would be pleased to see dozens of uniformed staff, wearing peaked caps like the conductors on the buses. Changing onto a suburban train, she would grapple with many unfamiliar sightsconcertina steel barriers barring her way to the platform unless she showed a ticket, the ticket itself, a thick but tiny piece of pasteboard, the unfamiliar livery of the carriages and the compartments marked Ladies Only which offended her feminist instincts with their name, while soothing them with their sensible purpose. Placing her feet upon the seat opposite, she would be hurt and chastened when her shocked travelling companionswith one voiceurged her to take them down again. She would marvel at the flimsy locks on people's front doors.
After a while, she would observe that drivers in cars were not wearing seat belts, and did not even seem to have them fitted, while few motorcyclists wore helmets. She might be perturbed to see that most drivers, and most people working in jobs above the level of secretary, cleaner and shop assistant, were male. She would be struck by the numbers of people walking. She would be puzzled at the large numbers of women accompanying their own children. At her hotel, she would be struck by the way the staff had never heard of credit cards, by the fact that her room lacked its own bathroom or television, and by the strange radio, slow to warm up and apparently broadcasting through a screen of blankets, that seemed capable of receiving only three stations, none of them transmitting anything recognizable as popular music to her. If she visited anyone at home, she would be very likely to shiver at the absence of central heating, and to toss and turn beneath the unfamiliar weight of sheets and blankets instead of a familiar duvet.
Wherever she stayed, she would gape in disappointment at the tiny black-and-white television set, wobbling on its stalky legs, and equipped with but twopossibly threechannels. Turning it on during the afternoon, she would experience the test card rather than a talk show. Later, she would be slightly outraged to see several commercials for cigarettes, and terse news programmes entirely anchored by men. She would realize that she had hardly seen a black or brown face all day. Those she did see had been dressed, if anything, more conventionally than everyone else. Her travels would be undisturbed by the one-sided braying conversations of mobile phone users, or the leaking whisper of personal stereo players. She would, however, have been surprised by the number of people whistling as they walked. She would see no joggers. Cyclists, though more numerous, would be wearing trouser-clips rather than crash helmets or lycra shorts.
If she went out in search of food, she would look in vain for a late-night supermarket or even a corner shop, though she might be able to buy milk in an awkward waxy carton from a machine. An off-licence would surprise her with its small selection of beer, cider (sweet or dry, in a thick brown bottle corked with a rubber stopper), uninspiring wine, gin and whisky. The pub it was usually attached to would not be welcoming, and its range of tepid bitter ales would seem drearily narrow. Lager, as recently as this, was a fairly exotic drink brewed abroad and served in special tall glasses, if at all. Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola might be available, but usually in bottles. Children still drank ginger beer or dandelion and burdock as a treat. Sandwiches, in pubs and cafes, would be unwrapped. Bread would usually be white and sliced. In grocers' shops she would see white hen's eggs on sale, bearing the Lion stamp of the Egg Marketing Board. If she tried to buy beer in a can rather than a bottle, she would discover that she needed to use a special tool to punch holes in it. Restaurants would listen in polite incomprehension to her requests for a pizza or a hamburger. If she entered one of the rare Wimpy Bars, she would wince in disappointment at the tasteless brown disc clamped between two slices of unfresh bun. Perhaps moving on to a café, she would gag at the thick gravy, push aside the watery murdered vegetables, refuse the stodgy pudding and reject the washy unrecognizable coffee in favour of strong brown tea thickened with copious white sugar, and full of leaves that clung to her gums. She would notice that older people often had bad teeth of their own or ill-fitting, obviously false ones, and that she was strikingly taller than them.
As she made her way back to her hotel, she would be disturbed by the silence and emptiness of the streets after the pubs closed at 10.30, and the absence of traffic. She would notice for the first time the unfamiliar, literate traffic signs `Halt at Major Road Ahead' or `Children Crossing', with their red cast-iron triangles and discs. She would hesitate at zebra crossings, protected by nothing more than stripes in the road and yellow Belisha beacons. And she would think how different the shopping streets looked without yellow lines painted along every gutter, and how pleasant the side streets looked without cars parked nose to tail along them. She might observe that many more houses had little front gardens instead of concrete car-parking bays. The clanging bell of a passing ambulance would make her jump, as no siren ever could have done. If she found herself trapped in the past during a Sunday, she would fully understand the despairing comment of the French visitor Hyppolite Taine, who said of Victorian London that on the sabbath it resembled nothing so much as a `large and well-ordered cemetery.' The British Sunday was still very much in force, and almost everything would have been closed very firmly indeed.
On the morning of Churchill's funeral, the crowds, friendly and considerate, united by a common loss, would reassure her that the world had not changed quite as much as she feared. Or had it? For the family feeling that genuinely united Britain on 31 January 1965 was entirely different from the largely manufactured and partly stage-managed sentiment that bewitched it on 6 September 1997. It was also much less dependent upon television for its atmosphere.
Churchill's death, at the age of ninety, was peaceful and came as no surprise. The grief, therefore, was the gentle sorrow of farewell, rather than the fierce and partisan mourning of sudden and seemingly unjust bereavement. Churchill was certainly not universally loved. In 1965 there were people, probably numbered in tens of thousands, for whom his long-ago role as a class warrior and Tory politician still seemed more important than his part in saving the whole world from tyranny. Yet they would have respected him, and acknowledged that national mourning was fitting and proper. But even these mild malcontents were a minority of a minority.
In 1997 there were uncounted millions who felt that the mourning for Princess Diana was overblown and unjustified, and who feared that the crowds weeping for the Princess could easily have been turned into a republican mob. They did not welcome the unending coverage on TV and radio, they did not rejoice at the Prime Minister's role in the obsequies, they did not want to sign any book of condolence or take flowers to Kensington, they strongly disapproved of Earl Spencer's funeral speech, they had doubts about the taste of Elton John's performance in the Abbey, they disliked the applause and the flash of cameras which marked the passing of the Princess's coffin. Great numbers of such people, for the most part those who could remember 1965, were, however, silent.
The society they now lived in, where the word of television was law, suddenly allowed only one point of view to be expressed openly, and it was not theirs. They suspected that they were far from alone, but could not be sure, and as a result lacked confidence. Their feelings were not being expressed through the only medium that counted, and they were therefore reduced to mere individuals, powerless atoms. This dictatorship of grief, wielded by a powerful media élite, was an extreme version of what had been taking place for some time. More astute social conservatives realized that the lens of television was sending society a picture of itself that was simultaneously flattering, dishonest and designed to encourage only one set of ideas about what was goodin politics, humour, architecture, foreign affairs, charity, fashion, education and morals.
But the new conformists who had captured the cultural high ground neededas they had from the firstthe illusion that they were rebels against something, that they were in fact a brave guerrilla band still fighting for the cause in some remote sierra. Just as the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro still called his government-controlled radio station `Rebel Radio', and dressed in beautifully tailored jungle fatigues long after he was past pensionable age, they liked to think they were still revolutionaries. So that they could believe this, they had invented the image of an all-powerful establishment, made up of hanging judges, public school headmasters, hereditary peers, biblical bishops, militarists, Fleet Street barons, Royal Academicians who still liked proper pictures, the Lord Chamberlain, poets who rhymed and scanned, and of course the monarchy. Most of these sorts of people were already trembling on the edge of the grave by the middle 1950s. In fact, it was just at the moment when their influence was turning to dust and ashes that they suddenly became famous. They were required, or at least their images were, to make the younger generation feel as if they were true, bold revolutionaries, marching against a wicked foe with bandoliers romantically slung across their manly (or womanly) chests. It is no wonder that the famous portrait of Ernesto `Che' Guevara, beret atop untamed hair and beard, became a sort of religious icon for the suburban revolutionaries who protested in the 1960s and 1970s, but occupied the corner offices in the 1990s.
Thus, as the surviving representatives of the older way of life hobbled towards the obituary columns, their lives were artificially prolonged by the satire industry and the `anti-establishment' tendencies in politics, academe, broadcasting and the press. Their supposed influence gave the glory of revolutionary struggle to what would otherwise have been little more than the triumph of ambition. Everyone needs an ethical justification for his or her life, and revolution is a better justification than most.
The convenient fiction of a stuffy and obstructive establishment was never more blatantly and falsely employed than during the miserable few days when the Queen and her family were urged to snivel in public over the death of Diana, and Buckingham Palace was forced to fly the wrong flag at half-mast to placate a supposedly enraged populace. How widely this enraged view was truly held it is now impossible to say. The education system and years of television had seriously reduced the ability of the British people to think for themselves, and television's conformist power had never been so strong. It is hard to believe that a real majority of British citizens were thirsting to humiliate their Queen in this fashion, but it appeared to be so on television. Many media people hoped that it was so, and by reflecting thispossibly falseimage into people's homes, they brought it to life. Opinion on such things is extraordinarily hard to measure, and we may never know what views dominated in the British population at that time. What is well known now is that many people did feel they were somehow separated from the mainstream of thought, because they personally did not hold the views which were being trumpeted from the studios and the outside broadcast compounds at the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Those who queued to see Churchill lying in state were a loyal, restrained and self-controlled people, not much given to mass hysteria despite a sentimentality that today seems cloying. They were also better equipped, through experience and education, to think for themselves. Thanks to recent war, the fathers of millions of families had seen the face of battle. Thanks to the empire, every corner-boy had seen the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids, or the jungles of Burma. In 1965, even the radicals were loyal patriots. Republicanism was a tiny strand of opinion in a nation which accepted that it was a monarchy in much the same way that it accepted that air was for breathing and water for drinking. Most unhesitatingly believed that British institutions and inventions were the best in the world. The throne represented not so much authority as continuity, respectability and the family, characteristics specially valued by the lower middle and working class, who also clung fiercely to good manners and proper behaviour. British soldiers, ships, aeroplanes, policemen and justice were all the best in the world. Hadn't we beaten the Germans? We knew how to behave, we were fair in our dealings and, if a thing was British-made, it was unrivalled.
This feeling had been beautifully expressed by the thriller writer Eric Ambler in a 1937 book, Uncommon Danger. These are the sentiments he places in the mouth of a travelling salesman:
Fifteen years I've been trailing about this blasted Continent now, and I've hated every moment of it. I hate their grub. I hate their drinks, I hate their way of going on and I hate them. They say the British are all stuck up about foreigners, that we're all men and women just the same, and they've got a lot of good points that we haven't. It's all lies, and when you've been away from home as long as I have, you'll know it too. They're not like us, not at all. People come over here for a fortnight's holiday and see a lot of pretty chalets and chateaux and schloesser and say what a fine place it is to live in. They don't know what they're talking about. They only see the top coat. They don't see the real differences. They don't see behind the scenes. They don't see them when their blood's up. I've seen them all right. I was in sunny Italy when the fascisti went for the freemasons in twenty-five. Florence it was. Night after night of it with shooting and beating and screams, till you felt like vomiting. I was in Vienna in thirty-four when they turned the guns on the municipal flats with the women and children inside them. A lot of the men they strung up afterwards had to be lifted on to the gallows because of their wounds. I saw the Paris riots with the garde mobile shooting down the crowd like flies and everyone howling `mort au vaches' like lunatics. I saw the Nazis in Frankfurt kick a man to death in his front garden. After the first he never made a sound. I was arrested that night because I'd seen it but they had to let me go. In Spain, they tell me, they doused men with petrol and set light to them.
Nice chaps, aren't they? Picturesque, gay, cleverer, more logical than silly us.
This is a fair if rather politically aware summary of the prejudices (and postjudices) of an unexceptional and reasonably well-educated Englishman well into the post-war era. It is followed by some pretty scathing remarks on the business practices of our European partners-to-be, and on their attitudes towards trade unions. People brought up in post-cultural-revolution Britain would dismiss this passionate speech as right-wing, and typical of the so-called `snobbery with violence' school of writing. This merely shows how little they know of the past. When he wrote this book, Ambler was flirting with the communist-inspired popular front. The most attractive characters in the story are a pair of Soviet agents, who manage to save stolen Kremlin secrets from falling into fascist hands, with the aid of a British journalist. In the 1950s and early 1960s, just as in the 1930s, almost all British people still mistrusted `abroad' and felt superior to foreigners, whether they were of the Left or the Right. Communists did not care about racial or sexual politics. It was less than half a century since the South African Communist Party had tried to rally that nation's wageslaves with the cry `Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa!'
More modern divisions over social or sexual attitudes were simply not reflected in the left-right split. Working-class socialists were likely to be less sympathetic to homosexuality, more opposed to abortion, more likely to support stiff alcohol licensing laws (and even to have been brought up believing in temperance) than middle-class Conservatives. Two of the most dogged opponents of abortion law reform were the Mahon brothers, Labour MPs from Merseyside. Nobody saw anything strange about this. Labour's working-class base was also its conservative foundation. Working-class socialists of the time were at one with the middle class on the need for good behaviour. All were also intensely law abiding, orderly and respectable. They would have been dismayed by the casual clothing and habits of many of those who waited to sign books of condolence for the Princess on the long warm evenings before the funeral. In 1965, there were no picnics, no bottles of wine or cans of beer (eating in the street, except for a holiday ice cream or a homebound parcel of fish and chips, was practically unknown, and drinking in the street quite unthinkable for most people), no gaudy casual clothes to be seen as they waited to pass through Westminster Hall. Such things simply were not done.
Yet they were not an unemotional people, simply highly restrained in their emotion. Rene MacColl wrote in the Daily Express that `for a British crowd, the tears were surprisingly copious. People dashed at their eyes with handkerchiefs, gripped by what was clearly a sharp and personal sense of grief.' Yet there was utter silence, so that `even a whisper would have sounded shrill'.
It may have been because of the freezing, sleety weather, or because in 1965 people worked more rigid hours for less flexible employers, but the crowds were not so large as those who flowed through central London in the warm, relaxed days and nights of Diana Week. Yet at the time, the 321,360 who filed through Westminster Hall seemed to be an astonishingly large number. In those days, people had not been fed television images of gigantic crowds in turbulent foreign countries, and London was not used to large demonstrations of public feeling. There had been nothing like this since the Coronation, though that was a relatively recent event, only twelve years before. In any case, this was still the world capital of restraint. The habit of heaping flowers was as yet unborn. Lady Churchill had requested that there be no flowers, and had been obeyed by everyone except the schoolchildren of Sir Winston's old parliamentary seat at Woodford, who laid modest posies around the village cross.
The event was not experienced wholly through television. There was no rolling news service, and the broadcasters contented themselves with unearthing a few old episodes of Churchill's TV biography, The Valiant Years. Flags were flown at half-mast for only two days, theatres respectfully dimmed their outside lights and sporting events went ahead as normal, though footballers playing on the day of the burial were asked to wear black armbands. Many others did the same, or wore black ties. The traditions of mourning, including the doffing of hats and the drawing down of blinds, were still well-known parts of life. The idea of applause at a funeral, or the throwing of flowers at a hearse, would have caused amazement.
So would the suggestion that, say, Vera Lynn might sing a popular song in St Paul's Cathedral during the obsequies. It would just not have been done, and that would have been that. The language of the service was the sonorous and beautiful liturgy of the sixteenth century. New translations of the Bible were available, but nobody would have thought of using them in St Paul's Cathedral on such a day. `Go-ahead' clergymen, as they were then humorously called, might have been practising modernized prayers and hymns in a few churches, and Anglicans were still trying to digest the `South Bank' religion expressed in John Robinson's Honest to God two years before. But the language of faith was still the language of Thomas Cranmer. The hymns, `Fight the Good Fight' and Bunyan's `Who Would True Valour See' were still well known to almost everybody, and could be sung heartily without embarrassment or fear that the singer would be accused of militarism.
Most people of all classes were still familiar with the basic texts of the Christian faith, its words, music, traditions and seasons. They would have known what the Beatitudes were, known what was meant by the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Eye of the Needle. The Church's terminology and its calendar were still part of normal speech. `Whitsun' was a national spring holiday, a traditional time to get married, as recalled in Philip Larkin's poem `The Whitsun Weddings', then modern, now an evocation of an England of steam engines and small fields that is impossibly distant from today. People went to `Communion' or perhaps `Mass', but seldom if ever to `Eucharists'. The faithful of the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for the most part, went to services where communion was not taken. Children sang hymns in school, and would have been amazed to see, as we did in the aftermath of the Diana funeral, teachers singing them solo, while the school looked on in silence as if witnessing the performance of an obscure and forgotten folktune.
Yet even as Earl Attlee stumbled on the cathedral steps (he was attending his old rival's funeral in defiance of doctor's orders), many of the things which appeared set and secure that day were already ceasing to be. The vast and busy London docks, which had dipped their cranes as the ex-Prime Minister's coffin was borne past them by boat, were doomed to be put out of business by new container ports free of ancient union practices, and then to be turned into costly zones of new offices, apartment blocks and wine bars. The soldiers, sailors and airmen who escorted the procession all knew or suspected that their great imperial age was over. In less than two years, a pitiless series of spending cuts would abolish or merge ancient regiments, condemn dozens of ships to the scrapyard and close a string of hard-won (and recently recaptured) bases east of Suez.
As the Spitfires, survivors of the war, flew overhead in salute, the air marshals knew that Britain would never again build her own fighting aircraft. The TSR-2, a final attempt by the British aircraft industry to produce a home-grown strike plane, was about to be cancelled amid jeers that it was `the world's first white elephant with folding wings'. The entire fleet of 1950s vintage Valiant nuclear bombers had just been grounded and scrapped because of metal fatigue. An approaching defence review would sink the Navy's hopes of a new aircraft carrier, dooming its ability to act as a global force, though it would stilljustbe capable of mounting the Falklands operation seventeen years later. In one of the last colonial wars, British troops were fighting to keep Indonesia out of Malaya. Three decades later, we would be selling weapons to Malaysia and Indonesia.
For the observant there were many other signs and portents of change to come. The leaders who came from the old dominions, Menzies, Holyoake and Diefenbaker, were all themselves old and grey, survivors of the time when the people of these countries automatically thought of Britain as `home', and saw it as their duty to defend her when she was in trouble. General de Gaulle was the last French leader to believe passionately in a `Europe of Nations' rather than the federal superstate that was already taking shape.
In and around London, the old security and safety were passing. There was alarm at the increase in the number of burglaries in the capital. The Home Office had just revealed that 20,000 London homes had been broken into in 1964, compared with 5,500 in 1938. (The current total is something like 165,000 a year.) During the funeral, robbers ransacked the home of Churchill's private secretary, Montague Brown, demolishing the illusions of those who believed that there was honour among British thieves.
The last hangings in Britain had recently taken place, and criminals had stopped searching each other for weapons before setting off on bank raids, for they no longer feared being executed as accomplices to murder. Something called `Beat Music' was being broadcast by `pirate' offshore radio stations, by people known as disc jockeys, who spoke a new, slangy, informal and Americanized version of English, quite unlike the BBC, whose `popular' programmes owed much more to the Britain of the 1940s than to the America of the 1950s. The new, disturbing sound and the first stirrings of a new crime wave seemed to be linked in some way. As Churchill lay dying, there had been a fatal stabbing in Southend after a `Beat' dance. Two policemen were shot during a car chase in the London outskirts. A `Beat' star's brother was tried for the crime of loitering with intent, since abolished.
A play called Divorce Me, Darling respectfully delayed its West End opening until the funeral was over. The subject was a little daring at a time when 93 per cent of marriages, including Churchill's own, endured to the grave. Few anticipated then how swiftly that would change, and how much. The entire sexual revolution, outside a small and supposedly educated élite, had yet to begin. As late as 1965, the child of divorced parents was an exception at any school, illegitimate children were a shameful rarity, homosexual acts were illegal, and contraception and abortion were taboo subjects in most homes, though `avant-garde' broadcasters were already pushing hard at the limits of public taste, especially on the newly opened BBC2 channel, available only in limited areas, and also in the then-famous Wednesday Plays on BBC1, and on the original satire programme That Was The Week That Was (TW3). There was resistance. Mrs Mary Whitehouse had already founded her campaign to clean up television at a meeting in Birmingham which was far bigger than sheor the BBChad expected.
Though many changes had begun to gather pace in 1963, the year of Philip Larkin's great divide, when sexual intercourse began, just after the Lady Chatterley trial and the issue of the Beatles' first LP, they had not gone deep or reached into the lives of the cautious suburban millions. Just as a time-traveller from 1997 would have found 1965 London alien and unfamiliar, a similar voyager from 1937 would have felt very much at home. As George Orwell wrote in his lyrical The Lion and the Unicorn in 1941, it would take more than a mere world war to change the deep character of Britain:
Nor need we fear that as the pattern changes life in England will lose its peculiar flavour. The new red cities of Greater London are crude enough, but these things are only the rash that accompanies a change. In whatever shape England emerges from the war it will be deeply tinged with the characteristics that I have spoken of earlier. The intellectuals who hope to see it Russianized or Germanized will be disappointed. The gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the reverence for law and the hatred of uniforms will remain, along with the suet puddings and the misty skies. It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children's holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.
However, Orwell had not reckoned with a change still more shocking than any of these (and his predictions were uncannily accurate, though he did not foresee the death of the suet pudding, an item of diet which came close to an obsession for him). In the same essay, he derided the English intelligentsia for their isolation from the common people:
In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during `God Save the King' than of stealing from a poor box.
To a great extent this, too, was still true in 1965. But within two or three years, this once-laughable strand of thought and feeling would break out of its little bookish world and storm the cultural centres of the country, making patriotism, monarchy and Englishness in general unfashionable andworst of allcomical. Intellectual London, in George Orwell's use of the world, had already seen and laughed at Alan Bennett's Beyond the Fringe. This play's little jokes about the war now seem incredibly mild, but they truly shocked those who heard themeven those who took pleasure in the debunking of war-worshipwhen it was first staged. The much bolder mockery of Forty Years On would not follow until 1968, though the satire of That Was The Week That Was was already a cult among the southern middle class.
However, this sort of humour, political, deliberately subversive of common beliefs and institutions, would take many years to force out the other kinds, mildly bawdy, affectionate, a little camp but essentially non-political. But it would triumph. When the well-loved comedy writer Frank Muir died in 1997, his friend and collaborator Denis Norden sadly remarked that Muir's humour had been rooted in a rich British shared culture, as had that of the incomparable P. G. Wodehouse. He damned what had replaced it as being based on nothing more than `lager, football and bodily functions'.
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Peter Hitchens is a conservative British author, broadcaster, and journalist, and is currently a regular columnist for the London Mail on Sunday. Born in the British colony of Malta in the closing years of the British Empire, he says he was brought up for a world that no longer exists. A former revolutionary, he attributes his return to faith largely to his experience of socialism in practice, in many years spent reporting in Eastern Europe and nearly three years as a resident correspondent in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews