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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Britain in ‘Our Times’

A.N. Wilson measures the changes

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A.N. Wilson has always been a hard one to pin down politically, at least if the pins and boards come off the shelf at the Wal-Mart of ready-made ideas. In recent years the award-winning British biographer has turned his attention to interpreting the history of his island kingdom from the post-Napoleonic through the post-modern. His latest installment, Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) will probably be his last. After all, the thesis of Our Times is that Britain has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. The empire has been reduced to a compact political entity, poised uncertainly between its role as client of the United States and the prospect of becoming a province of Europe.

As Wilson shows throughout Our Times, the United Kingdom of 1952 when Elizabeth assumed the throne and the nation of nowadays are “utterly different.” The Britain of 1952 was damp and without central heating. Poverty was widespread, indoor toilets rare in many neighborhoods, food was rationed and the country was bankrupted by the deliberate policy of the United States—practically a condition for America’s aid in World War II, according to Wilson. Since those gray years, living standards have climbed skyward, homosexuality has been legalized, unhappy marriages can be ended without the humiliating charade of private detectives documenting adultery, censorship of literature has been lifted, capital punishment abolished and equal wages for women guaranteed.

Wilson records all this and calls it good, and yet anxiety gnaws at the sinews of his optimism. “It would be a bold person who stood up and said that the reign of Elizabeth has been Britain’s most glorious period,” he writes. “During those years, Britain effectively stopped being British.”

Like Ray Davies in countless Kinks songs, Wilson bemoans the wave of immigration that threatens to subsume the British, the Americanization that has chipped away at the island’s distinct culture and the nationalist movements that threaten to peel the Celtic outlands away from London’s control. He bemoans the weakened power of the House of Lords, the one body to thwart Margaret Thatcher, and the virtual disestablishment of the Church of England, a dubious institution that nevertheless provided the nation with a portion of its self-identity. In writing and music, Evelyn Waugh and Benjamin Britten have given way to the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Posh Spice. The tabloid exposure of the private lives of public figures meant that only glib nonentities such as Tony Blair would dare enter politics.

Wilson attacks Labour, Tory and Liberal alike, and don’t get him started on such fashionable thinkers as Michel Foucault. While always engaging, he isn’t always on target. Decrying the cultural homogenization spurred by rock music, he fails to hear the extent to which the British reinvented this most American form of music in the ’60s. Occasionally his facts are wrong. The Beatles didn’t “pompously” return their MBEs—John Lennon was the lone anti-establishmentarian among them. Wilson nurtures a curious hatred of the Beatles and much prefers the Rolling Stones, considering them “way more English” and Jagger’s persona as “all reversions to Lord Byron.”

Integral to his theme that England is no more is an examination of the many consequences of pluralism in a society that was once largely monolithic. Wilson can only conclude that the changes that overtook the increasingly disunited kingdom have been a mixed lot, leaving him at once nostalgic and happy to say goodbye to all that was wrong.

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