BOOK REVIEW / Isn't modern life just terrible?: Eric Christiansen considers David Selbourne's disgruntled attempt to analyse the faults and failings of the modern world - 'The Spirit of The Age' - David Selbourne Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20
Saturday 20 February 1993
Of course, there is a scale of exasperation, running from a lower end, where you suffer from Misuse of the Mother Tongue, and letters to the newspapers about the same misuse and, in fact, from all letters to the newspapers whatsoever, but especially those meant to impress (We, the undersigned . . .) or amuse (I wonder if anyone can tell me whether . . .), up to the higher registers: where there are wars, cruelties, barbarities and crimes which have all happened before, but go on and on like the Agatha Christie play, because somebody is making a profit somewhere.
All these phenomena, and millions in between, are pasted into the imaginary album, and half-forgotten. But not by David Selbourne. As King George V to the postage stamp, so Selbourne to the things that distress him.
Once, he was a socialist. Then he decided that this was a false and pernicious doctrine, which led people to do and say terrible things, contrary to reason and civilisation. Then socialism collapsed, and people went on doing and saying terrible things, in the name of freedom and capitalism. Or, to put it his way: 'in the wake of the communist collapse, many a slumbering beast, dulled for decades by containment in its fetid compound, stirred once more.'
This is a very recognisable style of English: rich, stately, musical, almost incantatory. It is mannered and majestic, grand and gracious, vatic and valedictory, robust and repetitive; contagious, apparently. That was how they used to write about Bosnian affairs in the old Encounter, before anyone was interested. At its worst, it approaches the We-the-undersigned school of epistle. At its best, it rises to eloquence.
This is worth noting, because Selbourne has a good ear for the dirty linguistic tricks of his former socialist comrades, and their persistence among the nationalists and free-marketeers of Eastern Europe. He is particularly good on the devious lingo of the British left: the attempts at egalitarian speech by Tom Nairn and Eric Hobsbawm in particular. 'Such play-acting involved - I know it since I did it myself - the crossing of a Rubicon, from an instinct for fastidiousness of intellectual manner, to a more carefree, and careless ease of address . . .' and he argues that slovenly language went with dishonest thinking.
One example of the latter was certainly worth recording. It seems that in 1988, Hobsbawm told a Guardian interviewer that for the Marxist historian 'the real problem is to write in such a way as to make it all hang together in your own mind or at any rate, if it doesn't hang together in your own mind, to try to pretend to readers that it looks as though it hangs together, so that they feel maybe that something has been explained'. This abject declaration of intellectual duplicity by one of England's very few not altogether ludicrous leftist historians is perhaps not as widely known as it should be, if it is an accurate report of what was said.
We are reminded too, of Lord Dacre's insult to the laws of this kingdom when he encouraged British Muslims to teach Salman Rushdie better manners by 'waylaying him in a dark street'. Dacre should certainly have been barred from the House of Lords for this offence; the punishment Selbourne inflicts is to accuse him of speaking 'with a genteel Scots accent', but that is too harsh. If he aims to show how abusive language corrupts the mind, he should be nicer with his vitriol.
These are easy targets. The range of the polemic is much wider, amounting to a general indictment of all contemporary vileness in word and deed, of the victory of plebeian over liberal culture, of license over morality, of fanaticism over reason and order. It adds up, he claims, to a situation in which no Jew can feel safe, since the Jew is the test-case of Western civilisation. When he packs, it packs up.
And since Selbourne is Jewish, he is very sensitive to this impending crisis, and sees evidence of it in an extraordinary mixture of ominous things: modern architecture, Europeanism, over-population, the premature loss of virginity among South-west English schoolchildren, the ayatollahs, vandalism, too much television, pornography, sadism, child abuse, and mis-spellings in the newspapers - for it is written, all these things shall come to pass, and thou shalt quote De Tocqueville every 20 pages or so, because he knew.
After 388 pages, the reader may feel that Seven, or Twelve, is the right number for Last Things, and 99 rather too many. An equation so crowded with ambiguous terms cannot be resolved.
However, the author cannot be accused of peddling remedies. He seems to believe that some merit resides in some part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, just as in some featureless proletarian housing estates a few brave souls will add little porticoes to their front doors. But he claims that 'the stiff-necked refusal of both Jews and Christians to acknowledge and act upon' the common tradition prevents their joining forces
to uphold morality and civic decency; and even if they did, it would be 'too late'.
The sadists, the plebeians, the criminals, the warmongers, and the bad spellers are now so strong that they can only be contained by illiberal measures. So we are in a mess. If we should ask Mr Selbourne the way out of it, we can only guess what skull-like laugh would break. He won't say. Nevertheless, somebody should say something, even if it's only poor old overworked De Tocqueville, who set as much store by liberty, morality and decency as does Selbourne, and believed that they would survive anything, at least in France and the United States. There are many logical weaknesses in The Spirit of the Age, and one of the most benign is this: to assume that decency, morality and civility must be dominant to be effective.
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