Downhill All the Way

An adroit new history of the British Empire in the post-Victorian era

In counterpoint, then, to the grandiose general globalizing of "telegrams and anger," ultimatums and campaigns, wars and alarms, Wilson stresses the quiet, discreet, private, faintly annoying way in which many of the British so often managed to find the situation desperate but not serious. He spends time in the company of reform-minded rural vicars of the Church of England (one or two of them satisfyingly deranged), and with those charitable and voluntary associations that began to repair the damage inflicted by Victorian slums and the Victorian factory system. Perhaps too much aware that the usual model for this habit of "decency" and modesty is the austere figure of George Orwell, he tries too hard to be different from the norm and makes the amazing claim that The Road to Wigan Pier was a "treasured text" of the Blackshirts. (A swift glance at the relevant footnote reveals this weird notion to be based on a private conversation with Sir Oswald Mosley's widow—an unrepentant blue-blooded Nazi bitch who most probably had not read the book and who certainly had not noticed Orwell's despair, in its pages, at the way in which some workers were stupid enough to be gulled by her husband.) Still, and at a time when Sir Oswald Mosley was being taken seriously, about 70,000 European Jews managed to make an emergency home by crossing the Channel. Wilson mentions Popper, Pevsner, Solti, Freud, Menuhin, and Elton (and could have added Koestler and Deutscher, and also have mentioned how many were interned and maltreated), but probably captures the awkwardness best by relating the story of Eva Neurach in the clutches of a hostess.

"Where are you from?"
"Ah, well, never mind."

It is almost certain that the questioner in the above case was wondering how to be civil to a German, not a Jew. But the insistent politeness and the tradition of uncomfortable hospitality still count for something. (I am told that the great hostess Sybil Colefax, finding Albert Einstein among her guests at one such soiree, was instructed to put him at his ease and began by asking, "Did you hear that mad old Woofles has left Pug-Wug completely flat—and run off with Binky-poo?" There is a reason why Evelyn Waugh can be regarded as a social historian of this epoch.)

The cover of the book shows the chiaroscuro photograph, ineffaceable from modern memory, of Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's, as it was enshrouded by smoke and flame during a Nazi bombing raid. But in his discussion of the Second World War—still regarded by many British people and by even more Americans as the crisis that justified and legitimized everything—Wilson adopts a tone of skepticism that approaches sourness. In the first place, the war could have been avoided by a less selfish and supine policy during the preceding decades. In the second place, its conduct was often very close to criminal, in particular as regards the immolation of German cities and civilians. In the third place, having begun with the appeasement of Nazis and Fascists, it closed with a capitulation to Stalinism and a sellout to the nascent American empire. There have been several growling ultra-Tory voices raised among British historians in the past decade to the same effect. Some of these voices are reactionary in the strict sense of the term, and nostalgic for both Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. Wilson takes the view that Britain is well shot of the colonies and believes that the social reforms of the postwar Labour government were noble in both intention and effect. That makes a nice change.

The late John Muggeridge, son of Malcolm, described to me once how he had been dispatched to Kenya in the early 1950s, and had voyaged there by way of Malta, Cyprus, and the Suez Canal zone without ever having to carry a British passport. It is amazing to reflect both how recent all this was and how long ago it all seems. Wilson has the ability to evoke the past without condescension, and to measure its passing without sentimentality. Where this will take him with what seems like the necessary succeeding volume, I cannot easily tell. Just ahead lies the Britain of Margaret Thatcher—who had a soft spot, if not indeed a hard spot, for what she termed "Victorian values." And this must give place to the Britain of Tony Blair, who re-created social democracy by fusing it with post-Thatcherism. Both of them, in their different ways, disproved Dean Acheson, by showing that Britain had the ability to act as a medium between Washington and Brussels. Both of them also showed that some shells were left in the British post-colonial arsenal. And then there is the question—oddly unaddressed by Wilson—of the English language as a lingua franca for everything from air-traffic control to the Internet. I believe I can guess that Wilson is no friend to the American global mission. (In a rare concession to sheer or mere euphemism, he describes Chirac's and Schröder's reaction to the Iraq operation as one of "skeptical alarm.") But then, it may be Barbara Hutton who has the last word. When the Titanic, that triumph of British shipbuilding, was first launched, it was shown as being greater in length than even the Woolworth Building in New York—then the tallest skyscraper in the world. Within a few decades Hutton had given her mansion in London to the American embassy for use as an ambassadorial residence, easily outdoing in magnificence anything that could be offered by Carlton House Terrace. And within a few years of that my friends' parents were abandoning the traditional corner shop and country store to do what they used to despise: shop at Woolworth's. Britishness suffered great battlefield and market reverses, but it was also five-and-dimed away, and perhaps that's the detail that makes it interesting.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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