on 12 February 2013
Those familiar with the diatribe Dalrymplian may find the Hitchens whinge a bit of a comedown. Not that one would quarrel with him in the least; though he doesn't question very hard why other countries have taken, to varying degrees, similar routes, and naturally even he tiptoes around that dusky elephant in the room, race, he certainly knows how to hit a nerve. What is it about these awful liberal women - Margaret Cole, Bridget Plowden, probably Shirley Williams too (though I suppose a sense of moral superiority is better than no morals at all) - and why are they nearly always women - do-gooders, as they were once known. The line is fine between reformer and simple busybody. I count myself a feminist (women are human too - I should know, reader, I married one) but it used to be they who kept the show on the road; now, like cows given the freedom of the china shop, they rival us in arrogance. But the 'brilliance' of Hitch's writing (back cover) can result in a sentence like 'Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had provided a popular scientific theory..' whose construction is as worrying as its purport; and it's one thing to diss John Lennon's inoffensive 'Imagine', but he might at least get the words right. It says something about the blandness of Hitchens' invective that this limp little ditty, no doubt sung round campfires across the land, should be a target of his ire. He suffers a spectacular sense of humour failure in respect of the still peerless Beyond the Fringe* and is tone-deaf to the note of Betjemanesque regret in that closet conservative Alan Bennett. Criticism is also a form of love. Here it's a case of 'What else can I rail against?' or Hitchens regretting his youth. He's lucky to have had a youth he regrets. Whom exactly is he addressing? Americans? Children? Martians? The chapter on our green and pleasant land, and what became of it, reads like a textbook for the latter. The excerpts from the egregious Hamish Macdonald's 1995 history textbook are indeed hilarious (and I thought the comments held up for ridicule from a standard textbook of the 50s about Italy, Spain and Greece eminently sensible, indeed prescient) but one wants to ask both him and Dalrymple 'What, then, would you do?' If one suspects both would bring back the birch (or at least affect a wish to), 'Ted' can at least both evoke pity and above all amuse. What am I saying, at least?? Compassion and detachment are all! The only amusing thing here, apart from the dose of hilarity provided by Nelson's poor sailors out 'in all weathers with no safety net' ('what, no life jacket?', cried the children piteously, all doubtless familiar with Pirates of the Caribbean, or equivalent) which contrasts notably with the tact of Isidore Tenen writing in 1944, is the spectacle of Peter Hitchens foaming at the mouth. So, Peter, would you really go back to the Fifties - Mondo Plomley? (Desert Island Discs is one of the few things to have improved in the past 50 or 60 years.) Or maybe the 1500s? When *was* that Golden Age?
* Ten years after which, he tells us, there was no longer an 'establishment' or conspiracy of 'snobbery, church, monarchy, clubland and old-school-tie links'. If there ever had been such a thing (it is at the least debatable; wasn't it just a lot of boring men with loud voices?) and if it really vanished in ten years, (a) do we lament its passing and (b) could Beyond the Fringe honestly be held responsible? (I've news for Hitchens: snobbery isn't dead, it just got more vulgar. The passing of the class system as a whole, with its built-in postwar fluidity (aspiration as the flip side of deference) is something else again; it's noblesse oblige I miss most, and manners (maybe we'll come to them?), and the concept of service - though the establishment Hitchens mourns was as much or more about entitlement.) But Fringe was symptom as much as cause, and I think Hitchens is forgetting a little thing called rock and roll, by this stage channelled by TV+ into the heart of pretty well every home in the land with kids. Hitchens, bless him, even throws up his hands in horror at Fringe's cod Shakespeare, for me both the funniest and the most innocent part of the evening. (The most transgressive (as well as truest)? Miller's 'Jew-ish' remark.) If Hitchens does not choose also to attack the puerile, nihilistic and in my view far more toxic Pythons, it is simply because they are too popular, including in America, whose conservative masses Hitchens has in his sights. If Fringe knocked over the Aunt Sally, Python stamped on it; the Fringe quartet seem, by comparison, like ancient Athenians, or at least grown up. Yes, they were a solvent - but a necessary one. Like the Beatles just a little later they were four different individuals, with four different takes which miraculously fused and - well, maybe Hitchens has a point - spawned an era
+ TV: the real culprit. If you resisted its siren song you are entitled to mourn a vanished world, Peter - but it would have gone anyway. When it got out that the Queen watched Coronation Street (lèse majesté) class distinction was fatally holed