Our Age: Portrait of a Generation
by Noel Annan
Random House, 479 pp., $30.00
When Maurice Bowra, don and master of the Oxford Wits, was asked about the age of some clever, young boy, he would often answer “our age,” thus inspiring, without knowing it the title of the book at hand. By our age, so Noel Annan explains, the witty don meant “anyone who came of age and went to the university in the thirty years between 1919, the end of the Great War, and 1949—or, say, 1951….” But not just anyone, of course: “Bowra meant those who make their times significant and form opinion.”
He might well have meant that. But from other accounts of Bowra one detects a whiff of camp about all this, too; the wish of a confirmed bachelor for undergraduates “to assume that he was their coeval,” as Humphrey Carpenter, the chronicler of The Brideshead Generation, put it. Bowra may not have been quite so interested in the prettiness of boys as “Sligger” Urquhart, that eminent man whom Evelyn Waugh used to serenade in the quad with the words, “The Dean of Balliol sleeps with men, sleeps with men, sleeps with men,” to the tune of “Here we go gathering nuts in May,” but he did like them to be amusing and mischievous, as well as significant.
Noel Annan is often as amusing as he is significant, and not totally devoid of a certain camp sensibility himself. He is often at his most amusing in cultivated asides, uttered sotto voce, as it were, as the port goes round. Thus we are treated to a scholarly discourse on the etymology of spanking:
The Latin for “I beat” is verbero: but the passive “I am beaten” is a different verb in the active voice “vapulo” (Lewis and Short make the learned conjecture that the word comes from vappo, butterfly, and evokes the image of the flittering and twitching of a trapped insect).
I’m not sure what this tells us about Our Age, but one assumes there is some significance, so far as those who form opinions in England are concerned.
As a camp aside, then, Our Age makes some sense. To stretch it as far as Annan does in his book is, as academics like to say, problematic. For Our Age is made to include such disparate figures as F.R. Leavis, Isaiah Berlin, John Osborne, Edward Heath, Evelyn Waugh, Kenneth Tynan, Rab Butler, Enoch Powell, Cyril Connolly, and Margaret Thatcher. No wonder Annan has some trouble finding his aim. His book is not simply a portrait of a generation, since the ages differ too much. Nor is it a portrait of a class, since his subjects range from the lowest to the highest levels of the middle class. All one can say on this score is that few famous members of Our Age—however one defines it—were aristocrats, though some affected aristocratic behavior. To sharpen his focus, Annan decided to concentrate on intellectuals and opinion makers. I am not convinced Edward Heath can be described as …