Monday, February 25, 2013

Our Times by A N Wilson

Our Times is the third volume of A N Wilson's look at recent British history, completing the story of the last 175 years that he began with The Victorians and After The Victorians. All good histories are narratives and Wilson tells the tale of Britain since World War II in an enjoyable, breezy, gossipy style that relishes the seamier sides of UK life and culture. Wilson is also quite funny at times and he doesn't hold back when describing Prime Ministerial incompetence. He seems to have developed a real antipathy towards those non entity PM's Harold Wilson and James Callaghan whereas he merely pities Churchill, Heath, Eden, Douglas-Home, Major and Brown. He admires Attlee and Macmillan although has no affection for either man. The real meat of Our Times  however is the Prime Ministerships of Thatcher and Blair which Wilson believes changed Britain forever for good and ill (mostly ill). Wilson's view of Thatcher and Blair is not iconoclastic: the former made some necessary changes but was taken down by hubris, the latter alternated between power hungry cynicism and crypto-Catholic missionary zeal. 
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This is mostly a political history and there are excellent chapters on Northern Ireland, the Suez Crisis and a very interesting dissection of Enoch Powell's fall from grace. (Wilson rather cleverly points out that the renowned classical scholar Enoch Powell actually got the infamous "rivers of blood" quotation from Virgil wrong.)
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Our Times got on my good side early as it began with a long quotation from The Lord of the Rings and it ended with a quote from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Wilson however is much fonder of Tolkien than I am and seems to believe that he was one of the best British novelists of the post war era. This is not as crazy as it sounds, however, because Wilson's contention is that post war England produced very few great writers (he likes Le Carre and Rushdie and that's about it). Wilson's Britain of 1945-2010 is a scandal prone, cultural wasteland that pales in significance with the UK of earlier decades. When he compares the most famous novelists of Blair's Britain to those of 100 years earlier you can see his point, although I don't think he does justice to Philip Larkin, England's greatest poet of the twentieth century. Wilson seems to be a One Nation Tory (although his politics are never that obvious) and throughout Our Times there is an elegiac decline and fall tone. In particular the destruction of England and Wales's grammar schools is, for Wilson, the pedagogic crime of the century. Once selection for grammar schools was ended, Wilson argues, parents who could afford it educated their children privately while the bright boys and girls who previously would have been encouraged and pushed onto university were instead educated to the lowest common denominator at the local comprehensive. Then, Wilson says, as the entire ruling class began to educate their children privately there became no real incentive among the establishment to improve comprehensive education and thus the vicious circle continued as comprehensives declined and private education expanded... Wilson names the guilty men and women who killed grammar schools: Anthony Crossland, Shirley Williams and, perhaps a little surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher (education secretary under Heath). 
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Our Times is by no means perfect. I could have done without Wilson's strange need to point out all the Jews, Brummies and homosexuals in his story which might seem vitally important to someone with 1950's values but seems creepy to the rest of us. I also think he rather dismisses the cultural importance of British post war popular music and he barely mentions TV and film at all. In sum, this is definitely the slightest of Wilson's three big British histories but an overall enjoyable read none the less.