Noel Annan
Noel Annan; drawing by David Levine

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.

If one deals mainly with writers and artists, as Annan has done, it is not surprising to discover a largely aesthetic view of politics. Annan, perhaps because of his eagerness to highlight the liberalism of his age, or Age, does not stress this point. He writes a great deal about the arts, and their liberating qualities, but pays less attention to the problems that occur when arts and politics meet. Even though artists, and aesthetes, from Wilde to the Bloomsbury group to the Angry Young Men, were forces of liberation, sexually, socially, artistically, they were rarely liberals in the way Annan is. Those who seek to form the world in their own image rarely found the vulgarity of democracy appealing. Nor, for that matter, did many intellectuals, who despised the incoherence and meaninglessness of our commercialized age. This made many of them vulnerable to the promises of strong leaders with coherent and meaningful visions of brave new worlds. So, yes, it is true that Annan’s Age was marked by a surge of democracy and liberalism, but Waugh was far from a deviant, among his confreres, in detesting his age for that very reason.

If Waugh’s supposed deviation from his Age manifested itself in social snobbery and religious dogmatism, his antithesis would seem to be the other deviant in Annan’s list of characters: F.R. Leavis. When discussing Leavis, Annan’s usual self-deprecating, hesitant stutter entirely disappears; he tries as usual to be fair but he clearly cannot stand the man and what he stood for. Leavis, far from aspiring to the society of English aristocrats, created a coterie of his own. The Leavisites were anti-Bloomsbury, anti-upper class, anti-Oxford wits. Graceful prose and fluency of any kind were suspect, since they disguised the deep mind at work. Leavis’s own style reminds Annan “of the priest at Nemi in Frazer’s Golden Bough—a man creeping through the forest with a knife in his hand ready to spring on his foe, and all the time glancing this way and that, terrified of himself being knifed.”

Leavis, then, was the grammar school boy having his revenge on the generations of public school boys who had shaped the tastes of England for far too long. He was the Protestant protesting the decadence of Rome; the Puritan fighting the Cavaliers; the critic as heroic priest. He offended eveything Annan believes in: grace, pluralism, tolerance. Yet his deviance was motivated in some part by the same Romantic distaste for the modern, industrial world as Waugh’s. As Annan rightly puts it: “It is the familiar tale of a golden age destroyed by science, industrialism, advertising and mindless vulgarity.” Again, far from being deviant or even eccentric, this tale runs like a constant stream throughout the 1930s. Not only in Britain, of course.

Does this explain the behavior of the Cambridge spies, to whom Annan, rightly, devotes a whole chapter? Rightly, because the spies exemplified in an extreme manner many of the things that shaped their age: the search for absolutes, the despair about a rotting England, the distrust of parliamentary democracy, the cliquish aestheticism, the cult of homosexuality, the fascination with betrayal. The Cambridge spies committed that unpardonable English sin: they betrayed their class. But why? Annan mentions several possibilities, weighs them carefully, concludes that the spies behaved dishonorably, and in the best liberal tradition refuses to be pinned down to a single explanation. This doesn’t preclude him from indulging in some generalizations, however. On the cult of homosexuality, for example:

It was in the late nineteenth century that homosexuality first showed signs of becoming a cult. At first the cult was celebrated clandestinely: only later in the mid-twentieth-century was it practised openly. The cult was European. It flourished in Proust’s Paris, Freud’s Vienna and in the Berlin of Sacher-Masoch.

There is something to this, of course. The nineteenth-century cult of Hellenism also left its traces. But the cult was not exclusively European, or unique to its time, nor did the majority of homosexuals make a cult of their sexuality. Besides, there are different kinds of homosexual cults. One kind flourished in societies that celebrated warriorhood (premodern Japan, Sparta), the last thing, one would have thought, that inspired boy love in Wilde, Forster, or “Sligger” Urquhart. But what about Burgess or Blunt? Annan mentions homosexuality in the Thirties as “a way of jolting respectable opinion and mocking the Establishment.” And also,

To belong to a fraternity enjoying the same jokes, at once secret and illicit, courting danger of prosecution, and able to believe if they so wanted that they engaged in a conspiracy against the rest of society, were reasons why the cult became so fashionable.

He goes on to discuss Isherwood’s crusading homosexuality, which “fitted in with Isherwood’s detestation of the Establishment…. The growth of the movement of Gay Liberation rejoiced his heart. He liked to imagine a time when heterosexuals would be on the run. ‘On to victory’ became his motto.” In his flair for high drama, Annan might be taking Isherwood’s later exclamations too literally. Isherwood may have sounded militant at times, but was actually a gentle, pacifistminded follower of a West Coast Indian guru.

But perhaps some of the celebrated Thirties homosexuals thought of themselves as warriors, after all, comrades in arms pitted against the straight world. Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, showed how much military jargon infested the language of the postwar generation, and to make his point, quotes Isherwood’s autobiographical novel Lions and Shadows, in which his friend Chalmers (Edward Upward in real life) talks about the unending struggle against the university establishment:

The whole establishment seemed to offer an enormous tacit bribe. We fortified ourselves against it as best we could, in the privacy of our rooms, swearing never to betray each other, never to forget the existence of “the two sides” and their eternal, necessary state of war.

Annan is not immune to military language himself: “Crowther and Anderson mortared the enemy’s trenches.” Or: “Like a general who has seen seven divisions moved from his army to another front, Weaver planned to hijack the next lot of reinforcements.” Or: “Like Napoleon after 1813, the universities displayed great skill in fighting a vastly superior enemy.” But in fact these words describe nothing more bloody than bureaucratic battles at Oxbridge and Whitehall, in which Annan, as a great committee man, has been a lifelong warrior.

To be an active homosexual in Britain in the 1930s could give one a casus belli against society. Whether one wanted to be or not, one was beyond the pale. As Annan says: “To be convicted then of picking up rough trade in pubs or public lavatories spelled social ruin and dismissal from one’s job.” But not all the spies and communist rebels were homosexuals, nor were all homosexuals rebels. The question is why so many of that age wanted to go beyond the pale.

Politics—appeasement of fascism—illegal sex, and moral despair all had a part in it. But so did that peculiar blend of politics and aesthetics, expressed so clearly by Graham Greene, who was neither a communist nor a homosexual. On his Catholic faith: “Even if it were all untrue and there was no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfilment, the tiny pension, and the machine-made furniture.”2 Anything to escape from the banality of mass society, with its middle-class, suburban values. Roger Scruton, whose opinions I rarely share, got it right for once, I believe, in his obituary piece on Greene:

Sin, for Greene, is the main qualification for salvation. Provided we enter consciously into evil, go forward unflinchingly to the final agonising point of it, we may be saved…. This, perhaps, is Greene’s lesson for the world—and it is a lesson repeated by many writers of his generation. Is it an exaggeration to find this philosophy also in their willingness to connive at the great communist illusion?3

One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s flights of religious fancy, which were highly aesthetic; religion as a form of l’art pour l’art. There is, indeed, something of the late Victorian dandies in the Cambridge spies. Dandyism, as Baudelaire said, is a revolt of heroic individuals against the anonymous mass, “the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages.” But, alas, wrote Baudelaire, “the rising tide of democracy, which spreads everywhere and reduces everything to the same level, is daily carrying away these last champions of human pride.” What is interesting about the dandy rebels in leveling ages is that they are rarely of the highest class that stands to lose most. They are, on the contrary, closer to the class which stands to gain, but from which they recoil in horror; in the case of the Regency dandies, the haute bourgeoisie; in Annan’s Age, the middle class. Waugh, Betjeman, Isherwood, Blunt, were all solidly middle class, and all, in their own way, sought to escape from it: Waugh by aping the manners of the landed aristocracy, Isherwood by smoking Woodbines in rough Berlin bars, Blunt by hovering between the Queen’s collection and the Homintern.

It was not only during the Nineties or Thirties that artists and intellectuals felt they were under siege by respectable society. By the very nature of their work artists and thinkers are close to the edge in most societies, and especially in those which do not value highly the creators of beauty and ideas. England has traditionally valued them less than, say, France. As a result members of the British intelligentsia (if we can call them by such a middle-European name) have tended to go in one of two ways, rather like German Jews before the war: cliquish rejection or active assimilation. Wilde, Strachey, and Isherwood rejected, Betjeman, Larkin, and Kingsley Amis assimilated. Annan is very good on Our Age in the 1950s: the Grammar School boys, who drank beer, bullied girls, vowed never to go Abroad, and despised foreign food, America, pansies, and intellectuals, though not necessarily in that order. I have only met Kingsley Amis once, but my impression of him was of a man whose determined philistinism was as much of a pose as the precious aestheticism of the young Oscar Wilde. Perhaps the position of artists in English society always will be a precarious one, whatever the Age.

Fifty years after Auden’s low decade, aesthetes, artists, and intellectuals recoiled in horror once again, when the banal ethos of the suburbs struck another blow, this time in the formidable shape of Mrs. Thatcher. Annan, whose journey from the respectable middle class into the cultivated end of the upper class seems to have been effortless, can have little in common with Mrs. Thatcher and her circle, and he criticizes some of her policies. But he has little patience with the snobbish silliness displayed by some of Britain’s brightest intellectuals, who hated her for being philistine, crude, and lower-middle-class. The playwright Alan Bennett, from precisely that background himself, sniffed that she was a typical Chichester Festival Theatre attender (the type who comes for the occasion rather than the show). They hated her for her middlebrow tastes, her absurd accent honed on hours of elocution classes, her great golfer of a husband, her contempt for liberal causes—not least, they hated her for hating them.

Although Annan springs to Mrs. Thatcher’s defense against some of these attacks, he feels rather beleaguered himself in this populist decade. As the last members of Our Age made way for younger generations, they began, as Annan puts it, “to hear a chorus of opinion-makers challenging their ideals.” By this he means the neoconservative critique of liberal ideals. True enough, such neo- and not-so-neoconservatives as Paul Johnson, Jonathan Clark, and Roger Scruton are hardly liberals, but then neither were many members of Our Age. To picture conservatives who made Peterhouse College, Cambridge, their headquarters during the 1980s as the first main challengers of Our Age liberalism does not seem quite right. Liberal ideals always have been challenged, by Waugh’s reactionary Catholicism and the Cambridge communists no less than by Scruton or The New Left Review. The enemies of reason will always be among us; liberal democracy will never be without its challengers (nor, perhaps, should it be).

I agree with Noel Annan that humor, reason, and irreverence are indispensable ingredients in liberal thought; I also agree that there is something sinister in Roger Scruton’s criticism of liberals for lacking “experience of the sacred and the erotic, of mourning and of holy dread.” Annan answered this perfectly: “Our Age thought they had done rather well by the erotic, but were prepared to admit they were a bit short on holy dread. Like Heine they thought, Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier.”

It is so perfect that I wish he had left it at that. But he had to go on for a page and a half, with a rather intemperate outburst about the Japanese threat to Western civilization, a warning about the possible return of puritanism, and oddest of all, the remark that Our Age, whatever their weaknesses and mistakes, “were a generation who lived through poetry.” When the inner life is harnessed for the defense of democracy it is a sign of deep unease. The ideas of liberal democracy are strong enough to withstand attackers from right or left without needing help from the poets. Or is Noel Annan, the patrician liberal, primarily an aesthete after all? In this, if not in all things, a true child of Our Age.

This Issue

May 30, 1991