WHERE TO begin? Peter Conrad is a very left-wingy type of modern-day academic, the sort who might well contribute to the arts pages of the New Statesman or the Guardian. Not for him traditional tweeds - oh no, that would be far too conventional. Instead, I imagine him sloping around Oxford in "jeans" and "open-necked shirt", no doubt carrying an ill-fitting bundle of dog-eared books beneath his arm.
He is, his bulky new book suggests, a self-proclaimed "reader", one of those overtly bookish individuals who have haunted our universities for some time now, all too ready to dip into a learned tome for the answer to a problem rather than to apply his own common sense, if any, to the task.
So what have we here? A book of 750 pages, purporting to be a cultural history of the 20th century. It is not systematic and comprehensive because - oh mercy me! - that might risk being dull, and Conrad, like so many wearers of "jeans" and, no doubt, "trainers", is anxious to be "bright" and "intelligent" at all times. Conrad tends to focus on certain places: Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and - predictably - America. As far as I can see, there is no mention whatsoever in the index to Much Hadham, where I live, and through which Charles Dickens is said to have passed on his way to Wales in early 1865. But this is all too indicative of Conrad's scattergun approach, an approach that concentrates on the fashionable icons of the 20th century - Freud, Marx, Sartre, etc - while neglecting less fashionable figures who are to my mind far more important. Where, for instance, is AA Milne?
Yet few outside the enclosed, stuffy, often putrid world of ivory towers that is Oxford would seek to argue that Milne is not a more important 20th-century figure than the discredited Marx. Every night, I drift off to sleep holding a precious stuffed dolly of the delightful Eeyore between my clenched fists. Is Mr Conrad really claiming that the same could possibly be said of Sigmund Freud? Apart from anything else, a stuffed dolly of Freud would be very prickly to the skin, for the man was awash with facial hair.
Pablo Picasso is mentioned but Gwen John is not. Jean-Paul Sartre rates a number of paragraphs, while Dr Roger Scruton is totally ignored. I could find no reference to such major 20th-century philosophers and artists as Alfred Sherman, Christopher Cazenove, Barbara Amiel, Lloyd-Webber, Bruce Anderson, Woodrow Wyatt or Julie Andrews, yet Conrad finds more than enough space to include the wordy Auden, the gloomy Eliot, the homosexual Proust and a sizeable portion of the dread Bloomsbury Group.
Typically, he has a great deal to say about Vienna, but little if anything to say about Carshalton, a much nicer town, with far more homely architecture, and with an annual agricultural fair renowned for its fresh air, friendliness (and that's a word that doesn't crop up too often in Conrad's book!) and excellent dairy produce. It also has a first-class golf course within easy reach, something that Vienna, for all its quackery and jiggery-pokery, cannot boast.
Evidently, Conrad has no very high regard for intellectuals and happily married family men, for he includes many mentions of the confirmed bachelor Wittgenstein while strenuously ignoring Enoch Powell, who, among all his other myriad accomplishments, was a born linguist, able to speak Portuguese in three different languages, including Spanish. And, if he had to mention the cinema at all, why did he find no room for that notable work of art, My Fair Lady? Instead, he rattles on and on about Battleship Potemkin (dread sea-faring vessel!), as though in some way suggesting that the tale of a faulty pram's ill-fated voyage down unswept steps is a fair substitute for attractive people singing a breezy selection of first-rate musical numbers?
I'm afraid the overall wordiness of this book encourages a fair bit of skipping. Of its 750 pages, I suppose I managed 22. The low score-rate tells us a lot about the world of letters today, I fear. And, on the final note, why no mention anywhere of Dame Vera Lynn?Reuse content