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:
Our Age was to see a reprise of the irrationality which Keynes so detested. In 1945 when the American and British governments were pondering what to do when they occupied Germany, there arrived in Whitehall the plan put forward by Morgenthau, the secretary to the us Treasury. It proposed Germany should be pastoralised and everyone in official and economic life down to the middle executive rank of, say, bank manager, should be expelled from their posts for having supported or connived at Nazism. Among the officials at the British Treasury was Edward Playfair who had been at King’s. He saw at once that the proposals which had landed on his desk were like the settlement at Versailles, not only mad but bad. Why should Britain pay vast sums to feed the unemployable population of a deindustrialised and destabilised Germany in order to satisfy a demand, however comprehensible, for revenge? This time the forces of reason prevailed.
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
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
In his introductory passages, which are written with rather more brio than their successors, Lord Annan seems to set out to prove that Anthony Powell is a social realist: