Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 18 News List

The end of the British Empire was terribly sensible, you see

A.N. Wilson writes beautifully and with panache - qualities that carry the reader swiftly through his strong narrative on the decline of the British Empire

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

A.N. Wilson is becoming an ever more interesting writer. That he was prepared to be independent-minded has been clear since at least 1998 when he published a novel called Dream Children that centered on a pedophile relationship between a man and a young girl that was portrayed as doing no harm to either party. In 2003 he published a book on novelist Iris Murdoch and her critic husband John Bayley, both of whom he knew well, which ended with explicit sexual speculations. He's written controversial books on both Jesus and St. Paul, and in 2002 published The Victorian, a massive and highly successful over-view of 19th-century Britain.

Now he has come up with a sequel, After the Victorians. If it isn't quite as fascinating as its predecessor, this is only because the period it covers — 1901 to 1953 — was largely one of decline for the British, whereas the Victorian era saw them at an all-time peak, dominating the world in trade, and yet at the same time pioneering democracy in Europe, and creating an ever-more reform-minded and liberal state.

This new work is a brilliant book, nonetheless, because it takes you by surprise on almost every page. It's so well-written I was kept reading it one long night recently until the sun rose. Its chapter on Churchill is so breath-takingly original — simultaneously a eulogy and a catalogue of faults — that you feel it should be published separately, with flowers round the edge, and framed.

Asia features, though it was never going to be very significantly. Japan is described as the only country in the world that has ever succeeded in industrializing without dismantling its traditional culture in the process, and the presence of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) at the Tehran Conference in 1943 is shown to have been a ploy by Stalin and Roosevelt that totally wrong-footed Churchill, someone who looked on Asia as material for the British Empire for another 1,000 years (it didn't last another 1,000 weeks, says Wilson).

Publication Notes

After the Victorians

By A.N. Wilson

609 pages

Hutchinson


More particularly, Wilson has a very distinctive view of the English. Paradox lies at the heart of his analysis. They avoided the violent social collapse and revolution that befell the other major European powers, yet were far from being free of fault. They relentlessly bombed civilian targets in Germany and interned totally innocent foreigners during World War II. What became almost individual combat between Hitler and Churchill (both painters, as he remarks) ended up destroying what both men held dear, the Third Reich and the British Empire respectively. Wilson is also notably opposed to the influence of the US on British affairs, pointing out that US aid in World War II was specifically and deliberately given on the understanding that neither the UK, Germany or France would ever again return to being world-powers.

Quirky, odd, idiosyncratic, self-obsessed, nostalgic — this, in Wilson's picture, is what the English are like. The English artists he chooses to celebrate — and any book such as this must be selective — are backward-looking eulogizers of a lost, often rural, way of life — the novelist John Cowper Powys, the painters Stanley Spencer and John Piper, the composer Edward Elgar and the popular satirist Noel Coward (though little cow dung was likely to be found on this last).

What Wilson fails to note is that he too is just like the typical Englishmen he describes. He records his belief, for instance, that the British railway system need not have been pruned in the mid-1950s — technically outside his period — as savagely as in the event it was. Yet he has great sympathy for Irish figures who came to detest the English, men like Roger Casement. As for the Welsh, they fashioned themselves in the 19th century as reincarnated Israelites, as he fascinatingly demonstrates.

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