Let us now praise, and pity, famous men who did their thankless, almost unacknowledged best for the common weal. Let us begin by parsing ‘Our Age’, and by considering one instance of its operation as a historical concept and a literary device:

Where to commence? Let us admit, first, that this agreeable, free-hand style has a charm of its own and that despite an inclination to cliché (‘forces of reason’; ‘landed on his desk’) it can still resonate successfully in parts. ‘Mad and bad’, which would have been more to the point if it were ‘not only bad but mad’, is rendered as it is in order to evoke the shade of Brian Howard out of Lord Byron. And could one have a name more exquisitely apt, for the circumstances, than Playfair of King’s?

And yet, and yet. Henry Morgenthau’s plan was actually defeated at the Quebec Conference between Churchill and Roosevelt in September 1944. It was defeated, having gained the assent of Churchill (who himself wrote in the word ‘pastoral’) by the combined opposition of Cordell Hull and Henry Stimson. (Neither in 1944 nor in 1945, nor for many years thereafter, were any serious Washington plans being defeated by British civil servants of any college.) It was in the first instance a plan based on the racial theories of Sir Robert, later Lord, Vansittart, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, who had declared that German culture, not National Socialism, was the essential enemy. Vansittart’s concept, the adoption of which by the British Social Democracy prompted a protest from Arthur Koestler, was refashioned after the war to make Russia, not Germany, into the natural, ancestral enemy. And yet Vansittart does not once appear in Lord Annan’s text,footnote despite fitting at only a slight angle into his definition—appropriated from Maurice Bowra—of ‘Our Age’ as: ‘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, the last year in which those who had served in the armed forces in the Second World War returned to study.’ At least, by breaking with custom and by correctly giving the closing year of the Great War as 1919, Bowra and Annan concede the Anglo–American war of intervention in Soviet Russia (an episode which goes otherwise unmentioned in this and most other narratives). But in general the hinge events of recent times, such as the postwar emergence of Germany into what Norman Stone has proudly called ‘the successful modern European state’—and thus, clearly, the standing reproach to the British Establishment—are scanted unless they touch on the doings of a certain layer of the educated class. In other words, it must be doubted whether Annan would have dealt even as misleadingly as he has with something as momentous as the Morgenthau plan if it did not allow him to deploy Playfair of King’s.

There is also, to conclude our parsing of this randomly selected passage, that suggestive word ‘comprehensible’ in the penultimate sentence. It is, in its context, a rather weak compromise between the forgivable and the merely understandable: between comprendre and pardonner. This difficulty will recur.

Of course, Annan’s text is self-limiting by definition. But it does attempt to use its subject as a prism for the study of politics and society. Which raises the intriguing question: can one have such a thing as collective solipsism? The placing of ‘Our Age’ at the centre of our age, the actual identification of a group or coterie with an epoch, and the use of the identical term to mean both things at different times, is evidence of a more than Hegelian or Weberian vanity. Clusters of persons within English society have always had protective resort to private vernaculars such as ‘plu’ (‘People like us’) or the more cumbersome nqocd (‘Not quite our class, dear’), but these at least come to acquire, like the last prime minister’s ‘One of Us’, an element of self-satire. Annan’s usage of ‘Our Age’ is more like a concertina than a portmanteau, at once too capacious and too restrictive to serve in the nuanced, sophisticated sense that Bowra presumably desired. On one page, ‘Our Age saw hundreds of thousands of people come to exhibitions of abstract art’, and on another ‘To Our Age Henry Moore was the artist of international fame.’ The first statement could be made uncontroversially in the lower case, by any social historian or journalist of the period. The second, whether given in upper or lower case, is simply the expression of group taste. This deft switch of subject, object and predicate recurs throughout, and bears watching as it alternates between the active and the passive voice.