AN Wilson is a literary phenomenon – novelist, biographer, essayist, journalist – polemical, prolific, erudite and entertaining. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of both high and low culture - as familiar with Simone Weil as he is with Fawlty Towers.
Wilson’s survey of Britannia triumphant, The Victorians, led on to After the Victorians, and now he gives us Our Times. The Age of Elizabeth II – a brilliant panorama of the past 55 years. For older readers it is good to be reminded of what they have lived through and what life was like in their youth; while younger readers will be incredulous that in their parents’ lifetime murderers were hanged, homosexuals were imprisoned, plays were censored and olive oil was only sold in tiny bottles as a remedy for earache.
The Suez fiasco brought home the post-war weakness of Britain’s position in the world. The old imperialists, Churchill and Eden, were succeeded by the pragmatic Harold Macmillan (“Supermac”) who trimmed his sails to the wind of change. His premiership “was a period of quite extraordinarily rapid change, both in Britain and abroad”. A new generation happily dropped the white man’s burden and everything that went with it, turning from the worship of Apollo to that of Dionysus.
Was the baby thrown out with the bathwater? On the whole Wilson thinks not. He seems in two minds about the changes brought about by mass immigration but approves of the abolition of the death penalty, the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexual sex (he describes the opposition to female or gay bishops in the Church of England as “bigotry”). He recognises the danger represented by indiscriminate anti-authoritarianism and some of the battier theorists of the period such as the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, but commends the scatter-gun anti-establishment salvos of Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye: Richard Ingrams is a hero of our age.