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

EVERYONE OVER the age of 45 keeps an oy-vay scrapbook. I mean a mental register of that drizzle-to-sleet of mildly- to-intensely maddening things that comes pelting at the windscreen of life more frequently and insistently now that time is running out and the wipers groan and the engine coughs and there are NO SERVICES ON MOTORWAY.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone