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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
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
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on