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One View Of "The Management Of Decline"
on 15 November 2010
I enjoyed this book of the history of our times. I say "our times" because Wilson was born in 1951 (5 years before me). As a read it is great almost all the way through. As history, it has some flaws, as other reviewers have noticed.
Wilson is unafraid to express very personal and very pointed opinions: Mountbatten as a rather stupid "elderly popinjay" with a taste for naval ratings; Nehru as the lover of not only Mountbatten's Jewish wife, Edwina, but Mountbatten himself; (Michael) Portillo as "a blubber-lipped bisexual" etc. His views are expressed in a way that might be called Swiftian, not often seen today.
I agreed with much of what he wrote, though certainly not all. That is not the point. The point surely is that here we have a sweep of contemporary history running notionally from 1953 though mostly from 1956 (the year of Khrushchev's Secret Speech, The Hungarian Uprising, Suez and, co-incidentally, my own year of birth).
There are huge gaps in Wilson's narrative, certainly. I saw little or nothing of the non-mainstream political parties (National Front, British National Party, nor even Militant, the CPGB or the WRP etc). There is nothing (though actually I applaud that, really) of sporting events, which may be the new "opiate of the people", along with pop/rock "music" and TV shows such as "the X Factor" etc.
Wilson makes a lot of points about the changes to political life and quite a few personal comments and observations about the various prime ministers.
Wilson devotes quite a lot of space to the Royal Family, of most of whom he thoroughly disapproves, because of their famed philistinism and boorishness. It might have been more honest for a footnote to have explained that Wilson was once (and probably remains) blacklisted by the royals because of innocuous remarks of the Queen made to him at dinner at Windsor Castle in the 1980's, which remarks he retailed in his (I think Evening Standard) newspaper column. A protocol no-no.
The author is kinder to Prince Charles than to the other royals, though he (surely rightly?) does note that Charles' useful work in areas like organic farming and animal welfare has been largely discounted by the public because he, Charles, is so very very spoiled and, well, petty. Wilson notes Charles' complaint about having had to lower himself to go Business Class (free of charge, of course...) from Hong Kong to London once. Well I had to go Economy from Hong Kong to Paris about four years ago and it was Hell with a capital "H" AND I had to pay for it. I think that many members of the public just shake their heads when they read about how Charles has 7 eggs boiled and chooses the one with the best consistency. A pity, because Charles also has a lot of useful things to say, albeit rarely original (Wilson is quite wrong to say that Charles made organic farming known. That is a joke. It has been quite mainstream since the 1960's and fully mainstream since about 1990).
I did learn quite a few facts hitherto unknown to me and was therefore quite shocked to read that many of the "policemen" employed at flashpoints during the Miners' Strike of the early 1980's were not police at all but notionally enrolled military personnel from the Military Police, Special Air Service and Green Jackets. That really did surprise me.
There are a number of what I would like to think are typographical and/or editorial rather than author's errors in this book. Among others, that Jomo Kenyatta's policy in the Kenya of the 1960's was one of "Americanization" (it was "Africanization"), that a sentence was "squashed" (the correct term is "quashed") and that the case against Jeremy Thorpe was pursued to trial by the Crown Prosecution Service (not so, the trial was held in 1979, whereas the CPS was only founded in 1985 and started operating in 1986).
One point Wilson made which is obviously spiteful (albeit understandable perhaps) is his statement that "Lord" Jeffrey Archer went to school not at Wellington College, as he had claimed for years, but in a village called Wellington in Somerset. That is true, but Wellington School in the eponymous village is a respected school, I believe, in that county. The comment is too catty for my taste.
I do agree with Wilson that one feature of the often-ghastly punk-rock people was their Englishness and I do also concur with his view that, far from hating England, they loved it (even if only subconsciously). As Rebecca West said (The Meaning Of Treason) of "Lord Haw Haw", "it was his love of England, slanting across Time, that made him a traitor", which may well have been true: "The great despisers are also the great reverers" (Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra).
Despite the numerous errors and plainly personal and/or "old maiden aunt" nature of some of the writing, I did like the book. It brought at least much of the past half century or so to life. Above all, I do think that Wilson is right to say that "Britannia is dead". He believes, in other words, that the Britain of 1953 has not so much evolved into a different but the same entity today (in the manner suggested by George Orwell in one of his essays) but has been supplanted by another, different, nation (which is scarcely a nation at all). I have some sympathy with both views. My own would be a synthesis though Wilson would no doubt say that that is impossible. My own view of the world situation as a whole as a "dead end" (thus requiring a quantum leap or "revaluation of all values") was expressed in my own (unpublished) early 1990's book The End Of The Millenium And The New Age Of Alexander.
In the end, a good read, with much useful and interesting material; keeps the interest, too. So, overall, recommended.