For better or worse, there is no American counterpart to Noel Annan: a professor turned academic administrator who moves back and forth between the campus and the world of public affairs; a historian of ideas with a real knack (on display in this country from time to time in The New York Review of Books) for intellectual journalism; an invet erate sitter on boards and committees and commissions; a member in good standing of fashionable society who knows all the gossip worth knowing, and much that isn’t, about everyone in virtually every field of endeavor. To get some sense of his position within British culture, one has to imagine a combina tion of McGeorge Bundy, Jacques Barzun, Father Theodore Hesburgh, and Truman Capote.
In short, Lord (of course: what else would he be but a life peer?) Annan is the quintessen tial Establishment figure, and the reason we cannot look upon his like in this country is that, for all the loose talk about an American Establishment, there is no such thing here. It is also possible that England will never look upon his like again. Indeed, Annan seems to see himself and his contemporaries as a dying breed. He calls them “Our Age,” meaning everyone who went to Oxford, Cambridge, or the London School of Economics “be tween 1919, the end of the Great War, and... 1951, the last year in which those who had served in the armed forces during the Second World War returned to study.” His new book is offered as a portrait of that gen eration, smack into the middle of which he, now in his early seventies, was born, and with almost every member of which he seems to have been personally acquainted.
Yet Our Age is not a portrait in the usual sense. To be sure, it contains a fair number of thumbnail sketches of key characters and a generous spicing of anecdotes. But what Annan mainly provides here is a chatty and highly informal history of the ideas and at titudes that shaped and then animated his own generation of academics, intellectuals, and politicians. The story begins with the ef forts of that generation—which were to prove so successful in so many ways—to turn England into a more egalitarian, more tol erant, and less philistine society than it was in the days of their fathers and grandfathers, and it ends elegiacally with the rejection of “our vision of life” in the England of Mar garet Thatcher.
In telling this story, Annan exhibits a breathtaking mastery of subjects ranging from the arts to philosophy to science to economics to politics to public administra tion. Equally impressive is his ability to digest and summarize all this material. There are, however, limits to Annan’s expository skills, and they emerge in sharp focus when we compare Our Age to Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, a book covering much the same period though not confined to England.
Unlike Johnson, the lucidity of whose prose never dims, not for a page, not for a paragraph, not for a sentence, not for a phrase, Annan is often so allusive that follow ing him becomes almost impossible. Unlike Johnson, too, Annan is afflicted with the mad dening English vice (the real vice anglais) of cozy insularity. People of whom one has never heard are called in Our Age by their sur names or, worse still, by their schoolboy nick names, and not further identified; events are casually referred to without being explained; and most irritating of all, English slang, some of it also deriving from schoolboy days and much of it totally unintelligible to an Amer ican reader, keeps popping up among the flowery metaphors to which the book is in any case excessively given.
To mention Paul Johnson is to become aware of yet another limit to Annan’s con siderable abilities—this one in the realm of substance rather than style. For Johnson, whose existence is recognized here only in a couple of cameo appearances, is among the very few members of “Our Age” about whom Annan can scarcely find a good word to say. Toward almost everyone else, he is relentlessly fair, fair almost to a fault. Always he makes a great point of seeing every side of every issue and in being ready to grant the ele ment of truth in any position with which he disagrees. Even in dealing with F. R. Leavis, whom he detests as a man and disapproves of as a literary critic, Annan is capable of recog nizing and acknowledging a great achieve ment. But where Paul Johnson is concerned, he is not only uncharacteristically venomous but ridiculous in dismissing the author of such contemporary classics as Modem Times and A History of the Jews as a mere “pub licist.”
What bothers Annan, I suspect, is not that Johnson is a conservative—or, as Annan prefers to describe him, “a paladin of the crusading knights of the right in the eighties.” After all, Annan is capable of ex pressing a high regard for such conservatives as Evelyn Waugh and Michael Oakeshott (who, together with Leavis, he sees as the three main “deviants” of “Our Age”). Nor does he have any trouble praising a number of conservative politicians, including even Margaret Thatcher. But in contrast to Waugh and Oakeshott, Johnson is a neoconservative—that is, a former leftist who has converted to conservatism—and apostasy of that kind is simply beyond the range of a tolerance that Annan easily extends to aris tocratic ladies like Unity Mitford, who ad mired Hitler, and her sister Jessica Mitford (referred to, naturally, as “Decca”), who admired Stalin, and, for that matter, to Soviet agents like Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. Annan by no means justifies these people, and he can even wax indignant at mo ments in talking, in one of his most interest ing chapters, about the Cambridge spies. But they certainly seem to make him less angry than Paul Johnson does.
If Johnson represents for Annan the very worst of “Our Age,” the very best is em bodied for him in Isaiah Berlin, everyone’s favorite Oxford sage. Of Berlin he writes: “. . . even when set against the most dedi cated and pure socialists of Our Age, he seems to me to have written the truest and the most moving of all interpretations of life that my own generation made.” Now leaving aside the amazing tribute here to the socialists—and it is all the more amazing in that it omits any trace whatsoever of the awareness shown elsewhere in the book of the great damage they did to the economy and the educational system of his coun try—there is something wildly out of propor tion in this rapturous canonization of Isaiah Berlin.
Granted that Berlin can be an infinitely charming and amusing companion; granted that he is a brilliant conversationalist and a vir tuoso lecturer (a very Paganini of ideas, as Oakeshott once wickedly called him); grant ed that he has written a number of stimulat ing essays about the minor thinkers (Herder, Herzen, de Maistre, etc.) to whom he seems so strongly drawn; granted that he has to his credit the authorship of the useful distinction between the hedgehog and the fox. Granted all that, the fact remains that Berlin has neither an original mind nor even a par ticularly unconventional one; and if the English philosopher Roger Scruton goes too far in characterizing him as shallow, Scruton is entirely justified in attacking this famous defender of liberty for maintaining a discreet silence since liberty has come under assault in the universities from the Left and for falling to take on such “polluters” of scholarship as the Marxist historians E. J. Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and E. H. Carr.
Citing these charges by Scruton, Annan evidently considers them so absurd that he never deigns to offer an answer. Or perhaps he refuses to answer not because he thinks Scruton’s attack on Berlin’s failure “to stand up and be counted” in the fight against the leftist threat to intellectual freedom is self-evidently wrong but because he knows there is no answer. In that case his inflated estimate of Berlin becomes not only intellectually but also morally hollow.
Anod here we come to the most important dif ference between, on the one side, Annan and the people of his own generation he admires and resembles and, on the other side, neoconservatives like Paul Johnson. In the beginning all of them were certain that they knew what was wrong with England: the society was class-ridden, the economy was un fair, the culture was repressive. In the begin ning, too, all of them were certain that they knew what the solutions were: some form of socialism (“fair shares”) combined with a revamped system of education, greater public support for the arts, and a liberaliza tion of the laws and mores governing sexual conduct, especially homosexuality and abor tion. And finally, all of them lived to become disillusioned with at least some of these confidently offered solutions as they worked themselves out in practice. Annan himself even goes so far as to speak of “reaping the whirlwind” in the shape of increased crime, violence, drugs, and promiscuity, and to raise the question of whether “Our Age” was to blame for the economic decline of Britain in the pre-Thatcher period.
Discussing these painful issues, moreover, Annan is prepared to accept a share of respon sibility on behalf of his own generation and its ideas. (In this, incidentally, he is far more honest, and honorable, than most American liberals have been in similar circumstances: can one imagine Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. or John Kenneth Galbraith admitting that liberalism may have had some connection with the social pathologies which have been afflicting us since the late Sixties?) Never theless, the share of responsibility Annan is willing to acknowledge is not nearly big enough to force him into asking whether something may have been radically wrong with the assumptions on the basis of which actions were taken whose consequences he dislikes and deplores. And this is precisely where he and his friends part company with Paul Johnson and his fellow neocon servatives, who have had the intellectual and moral courage to rethink those assumptions in the light of their ugly practical conse quences. Lacking that degree of courage, Our Age, for all its fair-minded openness to opposing views, remains in the deepest sense uncritical of its own—so much so that in the end it leaves one feeling that England may be better off with the passing of the generation of which Annan offers this ultimately self-regarding and complacent portrait.
Norman Podhoretz is