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.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?