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The ‘We’ Generation

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 an intellectual, and I am pretty sure Mrs. Thatcher cannot. But they are, undoubtedly, among those who formed opinion.

In fact, I think the real subject of this history of mentalities is neither a generation, nor a class, but Noel Annan himself. It is an intellectual self-portrait of a man who describes himself through what over time has influenced, amused, and exercised his mind. Although we learn little about Annan’s personal life, we learn quite a lot about his mentality, which is that of a patrician liberal. He is cautious, skeptical, reasonable, civilized, tolerant, balanced, concerned, compassionate, and cultivated. Mrs. Thatcher would call him “wet.” Leftists would dislike him just as much, the epitome perhaps of what used to be called “repressive tolerance.” Annan’s liberalism is maddening to radicals who are usually in pursuit of only one truth. Annan prefers to put several possible truths in the balance, and cannot always entirely make up his mind which one should prevail. There is an elegant, self-deprecating stutter in the way he voices his views, rather like that polite little addendum, “I could be quite wrong of course,” which self-confident gentlemen often use to put their listeners at ease.

He makes a good case that his brand of liberalism, or, if you prefer, that of Our Age, as in “Our Age was disposed to agree with [Cyril] Connolly that social controls should be undermined,” began with rebellion. Rebellion and betrayal are indeed constant themes in the discourse of this generation. Rebellion against the amateur complacency of Edwardian England, against the philistinism of late Empire, against the gentlemen who governed Britain “with such a deep scepticism of ‘ideals’ [that] they had no criterion of action other than abiding by time-honoured practices that were becoming obsolete in their fathers’ time.” The symbol of this obsolete, complacent, amateurish, philistine old order was, as Annan points out, the public school, an institution which preoccupied the minds of rebels to the point of obsession. But the rebellion was bittersweet, tinged with nostalgia, as well as rage. Think of Auden and Isherwood communicating in schoolboy slang, even as they cruised Berlin. Think of Cyril Connolly, who wrote more than once that Eton had been the crowning experience of his life. Think of Graham Greene’s remark that his school was “the first mould of which the shape was to be endlessly reproduced.”

The other source of rebellion was the slaughter of World War I, which wiped out so many elder brothers of Annan’s contemporaries. For this those same complacent, philistine, Edwardian gentlemen have often been blamed: the outdated generals with their absurd mustaches, who sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths, not so much out of cynicism or ill will, as out of sheer ignorance of modern warfare; or the politicians, war profiteers, and newspaper proprietors sitting in their London clubs, muttering about pluck and loyalty and honor, as they lifted the claret to their lips. The trauma of the Great War, it is commonly assumed, explains the mentalities of the Twenties and Thirties: the escapism of the Bright Young Things, the cult of the Homintern in Oxbridge and London, the pacifism, even as Hitler began to gobble up chunks of central Europe. “The left among Our Age,” writes Annan, “were in the grip of an obsession that they would be tricked into another war.”

The post-1919 generation, Annan tells us, were often cynical and disillusioned. And guilty, too, if Christopher Isherwood is to be believed, guilty of having failed the test of courage, which the elder brothers had to pass on the battlefield. The intellectuals “wanted to be amused and to be amusing.” The hearties “wanted to regard life as a rag in order to forget the Great War.” The liberal intellectuals were “only too ready for the captains and the kings to depart: we had seen far too much of Great Men.” Our Age, one is led to believe, distrusted heroes. Instead they followed E. M. Forster’s advice to “only connect” and to betray one’s country before one betrays one’s friends, and to say to God: “Lord I disbelieve, help thou my unbelief.” Annan adds to this quote that “Our Age were often sceptics, but self-confident sceptics.” After the carnage of Passchendaele and the Somme, such lofty terms as “honor,” “loyalty,” and “patriotic duty,” had become suspect, even obscene. Instead, one had worship of the Mediterranean sun, the pleasing urge to kick authority, and the phenomenon, as Annan puts it, of “public school boys consciously emancipating themselves from their philistine schoolfellows when they set sail on the vast sea of European literature.” The ideal cocktail of Our Age, it would seem, was Harold Acton mixed with Cyril Connolly, with a dash of Christopher Isherwood.

There is a problem, however, with the idea of the Great War spawning a generation of skeptical, anti-establishment hedonists, who turned their back on the pious morality of obsolete gentlemen. Although it is possible, with the right selection of examples, to juxtapose postwar pleasure-loving, artistic secularism with prewar religious, patriotic moralism, one can also turn it into something more like its opposite. For was not the Edwardian era, so far as the elite was concerned, more hedonistic than the austere times that followed the war? And did Annan himself not make the point that the prewar gentlemen were paralyzed by their distrust of ideals? Was not the Great War itself the product of a heavy dose of cynicism? And did not the disillusion of the postwar young as often as not result in a search for absolutes, certainties, dogmas, religion? Hence the Cambridge spies, hence Waugh’s Catholicism, hence Graham Greene’s conviction that it is better to have faith in the wrong god than not to have faith at all. Greene, in fact, should be added to the combination of Acton, Connolly, and Isherwood, for his tortured journey through church, brothel, and tropical revolution symbolized his age quite as much as the easy-going liberalism that Annan himself favors.

Since Annan stresses tolerance and pluralism, he sees Evelyn Waugh as a deviant. But was he really? As a reactionary among liberals and leftists, Waugh certainly seems to have been odd. And Annan brilliantly captures this oddness in his character sketch of Waugh, whose dark, Augustinian obsessions with hell and original sin coincided with the rot he sensed in Britain and its decaying empire. But perhaps Waugh was much closer to many of his contemporaries than he himself might have thought.

Many English writers and intellectuals of Waugh’s age hated the dispiriting drabness of postwar England, with its absurd drinking laws, its drafty tube stations, its stink of dirty raincoats. In Coming Up for Air, George Orwell describes, through one of his characters, the taste of a frankfurter bought in a London milk bar: “It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of…. Rotten fish in a rubber skin.” Christopher Isherwood, in All the Conspirators, contrasted a travel poster of a foreign beach with “the greasy filth of Paddington goods siding” and wanted to set off for Abroad now. Cyril Connolly moved to Devon with his wife because it was the furthest place from London and the nearest to Plymouth, from where he could escape to the Continent at a moment’s notice. The historian A.J.P. Taylor, another member of Our Age, expressed dismay about these English writers, who behaved as though “the barbarians were breaking in,” despite the fact that Britain was blessed “with more welfare for the mass of people packed into a few years than into the whole of history.” Paul Fussell, from whose book Abroad I have borrowed these quotations, gets to the core of the matter: “Taylor’s wet comment (dim-witted, Orwell would say) provides its own explanation of the phenomenon he cannot understand.”1

Exactly. It was not so much the war itself, traumatic though it undoubtedly had been, as its aftermath, its wake, that troubled sensitive and artistic souls. The great twentieth-century wars didn’t just lead to the most horrible slaughter man had ever seen; but they also accelerated the pace of modern technology, leveled cultural differences, emancipated classes, and women; by destroying so much, they caused a new world to emerge. And by and large the intellectuals did not like the new world, including its greater democracy. Waugh loathed mass society with a passion. But then so did Connolly, Greene, and T.S. Eliot. Artistic modernists were often at odds with the modern world. Waugh thought the distinction between left and right, communism and fascism, was false. What he hated was the “single proletarian movement aimed at the destruction of traditional culture.” Members of the Continental branch of Our Age, such as Drieu de la Rochelle and Ernst Jünger, who wallowed, like Waugh, in the Occidental doom, would have agreed. Although Waugh probably didn’t have these two aesthetes in mind, it is significant that both considered themselves as men of the left, even if the world saw them as fascists.

  1. 1

    Paul Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 23.

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