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Stephen Lowman…a sharp-tongued elegy to what Wilson considers a vanished country…the author's often unconventional and funny takes on even the most familiar of subjects keep the pages turning.
—The Washington Post
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, many proclaimed the start of a new Elizabethan Age. Few had any inkling, however, of the stupendous changes that would occur over the next fifty years, both in Britain and around the world. In Our Times, A. N. Wilson takes the reader on an exhilarating journey through postwar Britain. With his acute eye not just for the broad social and cultural sweep but also for the telling detail, he brilliantly distills half a century of unprecedented social and political change. ...
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, many proclaimed the start of a new Elizabethan Age. Few had any inkling, however, of the stupendous changes that would occur over the next fifty years, both in Britain and around the world. In Our Times, A. N. Wilson takes the reader on an exhilarating journey through postwar Britain. With his acute eye not just for the broad social and cultural sweep but also for the telling detail, he brilliantly distills half a century of unprecedented social and political change. With Our Times, Wilson triumphantly concludes the acclaimed trilogy that opened with The Victorians and was followed by After the Victorians. Our Times makes compelling reading for anyone interested in the forces that have shaped our world.
“[An] idiosyncratic history of modern Britain . . . In The Victorians and After the Victorians, Mr. Wilson showed an uncanny capacity for getting at the heart of past ages. In Our Times, the trilogy’s concluding volume . . .The author once again gives us a multifaceted portrait of an era. Like its predecessors, the book is enlivened by Mr. Wilson’s gift for anecdote [and] character analysis . . . His discussion of the time is infused with a directly personal memory of people, places and events. The result is a piquant refraction of an era of enormous change through a prism that is highly individualistic, even at times eccentric, but in the end deeply rooted and fundamentally true . . . The enthusiasms expressed in Our Times are enjoyable to encounter, but it is Mr. Wilson’s wicked wit that carries the reader along.” —Martin Rubin, The Wall Street Journal
“Delightfully sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, and always controversial and ironic.” —Publishers Weekly
“Like Gibbon, Wilson uses a style of storytelling that’s deeply opinionated, assertive, and enlivened by a keen sense of theater. This is history told not with cool textbook neutrality, but in the voice of a wry uncle holding forth from his armchair.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“[Our Times] shows the author as a deeply committed watcher of our time, offering even American readers a great deal to ruminate over. By turns sardonic, rueful, engaging and cantankerous.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Wilson produces a history that even those not familiar with Great Britain will find fascinating.” —Library Journal
“A. N. Wilson’s Our Times is a scholarly, dark, and at times mordantly funny view of Britain’s recent history.” —Michael D. Langan, The Buffalo News
“The caustic humor is persuasive, articulate, funny, and provocative. Our Times is written for the Brits, but Americans will appreciate Wilson’s passionate voice and his nostalgia for the West’s lost exuberance and pride.” —Providence Journal-Bulletin
Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father George VI on 6 February 1952. This story is not about her, but it covers the years of her reign which, at the time of writing, looks as if it might well rival that of Queen Victoria in longevity. (Victoria reigned for more than sixty-three years.) Already, the reign of Elizabeth II has encompassed so much change and has witnessed so many remarkable achievements that it makes her seem almost like a time traveller, spanning not just six decades, but whole centuries. The Britain of the early 1950s is so utterly different from Britain in 2008, when I lay down my pen, that it is bizarre to think that we have had the same Head of State as we did when rationing was still in force, and when Churchill was still Prime Minister.
But was this Queen’s reign, like that of Victoria, a time of British success, or of failure? Will this, the second Elizabethan era, compare favourably with that of her great-great grandmother’s or not? The Age of Victoria was one in which Britain became the greatest world power. At the beginning of Victoria’s reign, the first waves of industrial and technological revolution had put Britain into a position in which she had no rivals in the fields of invention and industrial productivity. It only needed free trade which came about as a result of repealing tariffs on imported grain, the so-called Corn Laws for an amazing bonanza to take place.
Thereafter, for half a century, until Germany was united and began to catch up, there was no country on earth to match Britain’s wealthproducing capacity. At the same time, thanks to a combination of commercial enterprise, and a genuine desire to help the peoples of Asia and Africa, the British Empire came into being.
Nearly all this prowess, in terms of riches and political power, had evaporated by the time our own Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. Britain was not the true victor in the Second World War it was the Soviet Union and America that emerged as the superpowers in the new global order. Indeed, the war (193945) against Hitler ruined Britain financially. At the time of Elizabeth II’s accession, there was a housing crisis with many people living in slums, and others housed in prefabs which were an enterprising, and surprisingly comfortable, response to the shortage, but which look to the eyes of hindsight like huts in a Toy Town. There were fuel shortages. The nationalisation of coal and steel industries by the post-war Labour government guaranteed that industrial expansion in Britain would fall catastrophically behind her international competitors, and labour relations were deplorable for the first quarter century of the reign until Margaret Thatcher did the cruel but necessary thing and hammered the trades unions. When one considers the cold, the poverty, the sheer misery of post-war austerity Britain and compares it with the Britain of today, it is hard not to believe that an improvement has been accomplished which, in its way, is as amazing as anything the Victorians brought about. The standard of living of the average British family in 1952, when a twenty-five-year-old Princess Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, would seem harsh today even to Romanians or the poorest of the East Germans. Few families could afford to drink alcohol except on special occasions. Wine was unheard of except on Christmas Day.
Elizabeth David had not yet revolutionised the British palate and most of the food on offer in restaurants and hotels assuming you were lucky enough to be able to afford it was unpalatable. Foreign holidays were for the few, and even they were restricted in the amount of money that could be taken abroad, so that it was all but impossible to travel abroad for more than ten days without running out of cash. A quarter of British homes had inadequate sanitary arrangements, outdoor lavatories, and bathrooms shared with neighbours.
Over half the adult population over the age of thirty had no teeth it was the received wisdom among dentists that it was better for your health to have dentures. The unhappily married stayed unhappy, unless they wished to go through the considerable expense and humiliation of a divorce, in which there always had to be a guilty party, and farcical scenes had to be enacted in hotel rooms with retired prostitutes, witnessed by private detectives, in order to provide the evidence of adultery.
Homosexuals were treated as diseased beings, and until the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report were passed into law which did not happen fully until 1967 two men over the age of twenty-one were in breach of the law even if they shared a bed in complete privacy.
The Lord Chamberlain still exercised censorship over the stage, and until the pantomimic Lady Chatterley trial of 1960, the law made no distinction between works of literature which dealt frankly with sexual matters and sordid pornography.
So, when we look back at the reign of Elizabeth II, and recognise the improvements in living standards, and the enormous increase in national prosperity, and in sexual liberty, it would be perverse not to rejoice.
Consider also the change in the position of women. For the first twenty-five years of the Queen’s reign, it was perfectly permissible for employers to pay women markedly less for doing the same jobs as men, and there were many jobs to which only very privileged women could aspire.
Before 1967, the only abortionists a woman was likely to meet were Vera Drakes with knitting needles, and before the advent of the Pill many women felt enslaved by marriage and family life. By the beginning of the twenty-first century there existed a Britain which did not persecute unmarried mothers, did not hang those who may (or may not) have committed a murder, and did not compel the poor to live in slums. Though its overburdened health service was badly run and there were newspaper stories every week of dirty, badly run hospitals, this should not blind us to the extraordinary advances in medical science and the standards of medical care, which enabled many cancer patients to be cured, which can offer life-saving heart surgery which would have been undreamed of in 1953, and which allowed the ageing population to replace hips and knee joints at the taxpayers’ expense.
The second Elizabethan Age was a period in which the majority of the British basked in comfort, security and luxury. And if from time to time security was threatened by IRA bombs, by the Brixton riots, or by Islamist terror what was this compared to the wars which previous generations endured, with the British cities, and London especially, being nightly bombarded in the Blitz, and two generations, 191418 and 193945, seeing hundreds of thousands of civilians and service men and women killed in monstrous acts of war?
And yet, it would be a bold person who stood up and said that the reign of Elizabeth had been Britain’s most glorious period. For the reign of Elizabeth is the one in which Britain effectively stopped being British. The chief reason for this is mass immigration on a scale that has utterly transformed our nation. Governments needed cheap labour, and the first immigrants from the West Indies helped the expanding health service, the improved transport system and burgeoning industry.
Horrified by the older generation’s racialism, the next generation built up a race relations industry in which discrimination on grounds of skin pigmentation became illegal. But meanwhile, for fear of being thought racist, successive governments allowed thousands of immigrants and their innumerable dependants, most of whom, far from bringing necessary skills, were a drain on the welfare system, or took jobs which could have been done by those already living here. That is particularly true of the past decade, in which immigration to Britain has taken place on a scale unprecedented in our nation’s history. According to the government’s own figures, hastily revised in 2007, 1.1 million have migrated to the UK since New Labour came to power though according to former minister Frank Field the true figure may be as high as 1.6 million.
Though it is certainly true that some of these immigrants have helped Britain prosper, it is equally inescapable that they have changed the character and composition of whole areas of Britain and not always for the better. Eager to be tolerant, governments did not insist that these immigrants learn the language or integrate properly.
Because the bulk of primary schools were Church of England, it seemed only fair didn’t it? to have Muslim schools, too. This folly ignored the fact that Church of England did not mean narrowly Christian, it meant schools for all, which historically had been run by the Church. And by creating Muslim schools, governments allowed for the growth of a disaffected, 'radicalised’ young Islamist population, many of whom are intent on destroying Britain itself.
But even if we set aside immigration for one moment, there have been many other ways in which Britain has not simply changed, but has radically undermined its very essence and nature during the course of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
Some would point to the way that Britain has sacrificed its national sovereignty to Europe. Others would highlight New Labour’s tinkering with the constitution, the attempted abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor, and the mutilation of the House of Lords. That’s before we even consider the virtual dissolution of the Church of England.
All these things are symptoms, rather than causes of a palpable fact: that the Britain of 6 February 1952 is not merely different from the Britain of today. It has ceased to exist.
If you list the austerities endured by our grandparents and parents in 1952, many would cheer the disappearance of their Britain. But with the collective nervous breakdown which followed the Suez debacle in 1956, and the end of Empire, the British gradually lost any sense of what it meant to be together as a nation.
That spirit of national identity which was so quickened by the Second World War dissipated itself during the 1960s and 1970s. Comprehensive education was meant to destroy the class system; instead it deepened class division by making anyone who could afford to and many who scarcely can afford it educate their children privately.
It was symptomatic of the times that so many of the best scientists and recent writers went abroad. The poet Geoffrey Hill lived much of his creative life out of England. From the late 1980s until 2006 he was at Boston University. Hill’s crabbed, sometimes difficult verse, catches (he borrowed the phrase from one of his mentors, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) Platonic England.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.
The Britain he evokes, which is in part the West Midlands of his childhood (his father was a policeman in Worcestershire) and in part the Mercia of King Offa, is morally damaged, aesthetically marred, historically adrift. In some of the most successful of his poems, we feel him only just escaping the overpowering influence of Yeats. Sometimes, the breaks away are into obscurity too dense to be unprised. There is, however, a definite and palpable quality in his music, a sense of desolation, a voice of authority and greatness. It is a quality which has all but left us. At the beginning of our times, when T. S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh were still alive, when Benjamin Britten had still to compose his greatest work, when Churchill, even in his decrepitude, was still Prime Minister, it was still possible to hope that the culture would cast up a few great ones from the general melee. As our times moved on, however, an infallible sign of the death of the culture was that no such figures emerged. For T. S. Eliot, we had Andrew Motion, for Winston Churchill, Jacqui Smith. When we consider the figures of the Victorian past in Britain, it is to evoke in the mind’s eye figures who easily stand comparison with their world contemporaries. Tolstoy commended Ruskin, for example. Though the two men never met, there would have been no sense, had Tolstoy made the haj to the Lake District to meet Ruskin, of a giant meeting a pigmy, but of two giants, one distinctively Russian, the other wholly British.
Yet when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to Britain in 1976, there was a bleak sense that there was no one in the entire island who could match the profundity of his achievement, or the sheer awfulness of his life experience. Solzhenitsyn’s literary merits have been disputed by those with political axes to grind. The three best books One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle are simply toweringly bigger achievements than anything which British writers of our times have managed to piddle forth. 'A great writer is, so to speak, a second government. That’s why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers, only its minor ones,’ remarks one of the characters in The First Circle. When he came to Britain, he broadcast on BBC radio on 23 March 1976. It was three years before Margaret Thatcher came to power. It was a while before Ronald Reagan had denounced the 'evil empire’ of Soviet Communism, whose evil Solzhenitsyn had done so much to expose. He feared that the West was weakening and not resisting the still considerable might of the Kremlin’s political influence. To that extent, his words quickly, and happily, became out of date. But in another sense, they remain just as apposite thirty and more years after he spoke them. For he was not simply speaking of the West’s capacity to resist the Soviets. He was talking about the West losing its soul.
'And Great Britain the kernel of the Western world as we have already called it has experienced this sapping of its strength and will to an even greater degree, perhaps, than any other country. For some twenty years Britain’s voice has not been heard in our planet; its character has gone, its freshness has faded. And Britain’s position in the world today is of less significance than that of Romania, or even . . .
Uganda.’ The great Russian believed that the West had become 'enmeshed in our slavish worship of all that is pleasant, all that is comfortable, all that is material we worship things, we worship products. Will we ever succeed in shaking off this burden, in giving free rein to the spirit that was breathed into us at birth, that spirit that distinguishes us from the animal world?’
Some of the weaknesses of the West to which Solzhenitsyn drew attention were what disgusted the Islamic world when it contemplated the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of Europe and America. The resurgence of a violent Islam, not merely in the urban battlefields of Basra and Baghdad, but in the weaving towns of Yorkshire and on the London buses, can hardly be ignored. When terrorists strike, the indigenous population can feel justifiable anger, not only against the perpetrators but also against a political class which allowed the situation to come about in which such suicide-bombing fanatics could exist.
Then, however, a little time passes, as we begin to hear the voices of liberal commentary upon such tragic events. Then, we begin to see how far the culture has dissipated, how little, in fact, it any longer coheres, or even exists. Politicians, anxiously trying to make good the devastating folly of their predecessors, suggest ways in which we could force 'British values’ upon disaffected young Muslims, while a former Lord Chief Justice thinks that things might be helped if all new immigrants, upon reaching the age of majority, were asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
The roots of what has happened to us go much deeper than individual mistakes made by administrators within the last half-century. Solzhenitsyn made himself the butt of cynical abuse by asserting the belief that our troubles go back to the Enlightenment, and the eighteenth-century abandonment of religion. From the moment he came out of Russia, he expressed the belief that he would one day return. Political commentators smiled politely but believed that the monolith of Soviet Communism would never be shaken. His prophecy, however, came true, and he did go home. But though he returned, as an old Slavophile, who believed, with Dostoyevsky, that Mother Russia could find her soul by kneeling at the feet of Jesus, most Russians turned a deaf ear to him. His own culture was dissipating, under the influence of spiv capitalists, even more rapidly than it had done under the brutal atheist Stalinist and post-Stalinist state.
Our problems have been different in the West, but we have witnessed the same dissolution and dissipation of a common culture. Solzhenitsyn could hope for a revival in religious belief which would act as a cultural glue. Such ideas had been abandoned in Britain as long ago as the 1840s. What united Britain was not so much religion as a shared sense of identity and purpose, a shared sense which had been quickened and strengthened by the experience of the Second World War. It was part of the national myth that during the heroic summer of 1940 Britain had stood alone against the rest of the world, but it was a myth which also happened to be true. When it did so, it had intact an Empire, a vast industrial base at home, an unwrecked landscape, unspoilt townscapes, a rail network, a national Church, a class system, almost all of which, within a decade of the war coming to an end, would have faded, or actually been forcibly removed.
Today, my Britain, the England of my mother and my father, no longer exists. This is a sentence which means something quite different, when written down in 2008, than it would have meant when written down half a century ago. Of course, history always moves on; and of course there is a tendency for an older generation to think that change has been for the worse.
In our times, however, something much more radical has happened. This book is certainly not advancing the proposition that all changes in the last fifty years have been for the worse. In terms of physical wellbeing, of medical and dental care, of opportunities for travel and cultural enrichment, the changes in the last half-century for the great majority in Britain, and in the West generally, have been material improvements. But nearly all the major changes have been destructive of the common culture. One obvious example, taken from the very middle of our times, is the so-called Big Bang on 27 October 1986. Thereafter, more money came into London than at any period in its history. But, almost overnight, the City of London, that institution which had been central to the wealth of Britain as a nation from the late seventeenth century until our time, was no longer in the hands of British institutions or British families. Geographically, the Square Mile was still in the same place. The Thames still ran softly, but the song was no longer sung in English.
The great dome of St Paul’s, emblem not only of Sir Christopher Wren’s belief in a rational, as well as a national Church, but also (from the famous photographs of its remaining through the smoke of the Blitz) an emblem of national solidity in the face of destructive threats from outside, this great dome itself was to be dwarfed by the huge American-style blocks and slabs which soared above the City’s skyline, to the dismay of the Prince of Wales and others. Within its walls, the cathedral church of the Diocese of London had become the chief meeting place of a sect, rather than the seat of a national Church. The liturgy of 1662, which had been part of the inner music of English heads and English ears since it was first authorised, was discarded in the late 1960s, as was any claim by the Church to utter the Common Prayer of the nation. No longer answerable to Parliament, the Church had an assembly of its own, the General Synod, in which it could conduct divisive discussions from which there appeared to be no retreat gay bishops? women priests? The delay of the disestablishment of the Church did not mean that disestablishment was not inevitable. And with disestablishment would come a further weakening of any bond which might hold the nation in an imaginative and cultural knot.
The Union between Scotland and England had been the beginning of the story of British Imperial greatness. Together, with occasional dramatic spats, the two nations had achieved remarkable feats of statecraft, of philosophy, of engineering, of empire-building. In our times, like a married pair who wondered whether they had ever liked each other, they drift almost heedlessly towards separation, with a series of devolutionary measures which few of the electorate actually asked for, and probably even fewer actively desired.
Here, then, are three areas the ownership of the wealth in the City of London, the status of the Established Church, and the very Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland whose status is palpably different at the end of our times from what it was at the beginning. These factors make Britain less British, even before you have begun to consider the influence of mass immigration and membership of the European Union, or of the more nebulous but no less observable isolation of groups, classes, ethnicities, within our borders. During the Second World War, and in the times of economic austerity thereafter, we were yes, it made sense to use the first person plural we were an entity. The young men, of whatever social class, did National Service together. Rich and poor had received identical rations, fairly shared. With the coming of prosperity prosperity which almost everyone must surely have welcomed the problems began. The inhabitants of the British archipelago became a collection of classes and races and individuals, living side by side and for the most part trying to ignore one another. The only thing, in fact, which the indigenous population still had in common with all their fellow aliens on the strange little archipelago was the Queen herself. And one suspects, as she continued to go about Britain meeting her subjects and shaking their hands, that she had come to feel a stranger there, too. What had happened was that Britain, having undergone a series of stupendous changes, most of them, if measured in purely economic terms, improvements, had ceased to be anybody’s home.
Excerpted from Our Times by A. N. Wilson.
Copyright © 2009 by A. N. Wilson.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
List of Illustrations vii
Part 1 Churchill and Eden
1 Old Western Man 13
2 Space and Spies 21
3 Other Gods 34
4 A Portrait of Decay 49
5 Suez 59
Part 2 Macmillan
6 Supermac 73
7 Mental Health and Suicides 101
8 Lady Chatterley and Honest to God 113
9 Profumo and After 125
Part 3 A Fourteenth Earl and a Fourteenth Mr Wilson
10 Enemies of Promise 139
11 The 14th Mr Wilson 150
12 Ireland 170
13 The 1960s 181
Part 4 The 1970s
14 HeathCo 205
15 Women's Liberation 219
16 The Decline of the Roman Catholic Church 228
17 The End of Harold Wilson 242
18 Lucky Jim 249
Part 5 The Lady
19 'This Was a Terrific Battle' 271
20 Thatcher as Prime Minister 280
Part 6 Mr Major's Britain
21 Nice Mr Major 307
22 Prince Charles and Lady Di 319
23 The Union 331
24 Stephen Lawrence 340
Part 7 The Project
25 New Labour 351
26 Tony's Wars 367
27 Islamists 379
28 The Return of God 392
29 Gordon Brown 409