AN Wilson is a literary phenomenon – novelist, biographer, essayist, journalist – polemical, prolific, erudite and entertaining. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of both high and low culture – as familiar with Simone Weil as he is with Fawlty Towers.
Wilson’s survey of Britannia triumphant, The Victorians, led on to After the Victorians, and now he gives us Our Times. The Age of Elizabeth II – a brilliant panorama of the past 55 years. For older readers it is good to be reminded of what they have lived through and what life was like in their youth; while younger readers will be incredulous that in their parents’ lifetime murderers were hanged, homosexuals were imprisoned, plays were censored and olive oil was only sold in tiny bottles as a remedy for earache.
The Suez fiasco brought home the post-war weakness of Britain’s position in the world. The old imperialists, Churchill and Eden, were succeeded by the pragmatic Harold Macmillan (“Supermac”) who trimmed his sails to the wind of change. His premiership “was a period of quite extraordinarily rapid change, both in Britain and abroad”. A new generation happily dropped the white man’s burden and everything that went with it, turning from the worship of Apollo to that of Dionysus.
Was the baby thrown out with the bathwater? On the whole Wilson thinks not. He seems in two minds about the changes brought about by mass immigration but approves of the abolition of the death penalty, the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexual sex (he describes the opposition to female or gay bishops in the Church of England as “bigotry”). He recognises the danger represented by indiscriminate anti-authoritarianism and some of the battier theorists of the period such as the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, but commends the scatter-gun anti-establishment salvos of Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye: Richard Ingrams is a hero of our age.Yet one senses that inside the Rabelaisian Fay ce que vouldras Wilson there is a Savanorola crying to be let out. His waspish epithets are often sexual. Callaghan’s daughter is “the well-known adulteress, the Baroness Jay.” Michael Portillo is “a blubber-lipped bisexual with rigorously combed-back hair?.?.?.” Wilson seems to have doubts about feminism. “Read at the time, The Female Eunuch felt like a liberation manual. Read with hindsight, its contextual and historical importance did not diminish but its message seemed a little more blurred.”
The same ambivalence is found in Wilson’s attitude towards Christianity. Fourteen years ago, in How Can We Know, he described his switch from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, then back to Anglicanism on his marriage to Katherine Duncan-Jones. “I am not a particularly rational person, and I am easily swayed by my emotions.” Later he lost his faith and wrote debunking books on Jesus and St Paul based on the scholarly conjecture of writers such as Geza Vermes and Hyam Maccoby. Is he now veering back to Christian belief? He exposes the flaws in Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s aggressive atheism and, though he laments that the Church of England has declined into an “Anglican sect”, it clearly retains his affection.
Wilson’s chapter “The Decline of the Roman Catholic Church” is the weakest in the book. There has certainly been a falling-off in Catholic practice but it was not caused by the clerical abuse scandals which came some time after the decline had set in (see Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain). The Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of masturbation, homosexuality and the contraceptive pill is not “posited on the idea that male masturbators, or homosexuals, for example, were wasting potential human souls”. And to say that a vociferous and numerous minority among English Catholics believe that “the new mass is a sacrilegious parody of the true mass” is nonsense.
Where Wilson excels is in the mix of fact, gossip and waspish thumbnail character sketches. He mocks “Woy” Jenkins who as Home Secretary under Harold Wilson pushed through Parliament so many of the mores-changing “reforms” (though one has to turn to Noel Annan’s excellent Our Age to get a fuller understanding of the permissive liberalism that replaced the Christian consensus). Wilson’s greatest admiration is for Margaret Thatcher. Her political adversaries within the Conservative Party, the so–called “wets”, are “oafish” “vegetables”. Michael Heseltine is a spiv whose house in Oxfordshire is done up “like a country house hotel”.
Overall, Wilson’s analysis of our age is inspired, but there are lacunae – there is little on the effect of technological changes such as the personal computer, the internet or mobile phones – and not much on literature, which is surprising, or music or the visual arts. For all the changes for the better, Wilson does not seem wholly at home in modern Britain. Philip Larkin knew that the end of England had come when croissants reached Beverley in Yorkshire. The British may be happier, Wilson concludes, but “Britannia had at some point during our times, ceased to exist”.