Save us from fads and change for change’s sake

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

There is no new thing under the sun. Over the weekend, I read a book which was alarmingly relevant to our present discontents: The Neophiliacs, by Christopher Booker, written at the end of the 1960s. That decade began well. The country had recovered from the austerities of wartime. It seemed to be an era of social stability. Most couples who married expected to stay married and bring up their children in stable families. Living standards were rising. National service was about to end. The public schools, whose oppressive regimes had created many left-wing dissidents, were liberalising.

Politics was also stable. Less than three years after the Suez debacle, Harold Macmillan had won a majority of 100. Macmillan was an extraordinary figure; it is doubtful if a more psychologically complex — but also politically effective — character has ever occupied Downing Street. The inner man had deep psychic wounds, but equally deep moral and religious seriousness. The outer could often seem like an insouciant boulevardier. But that was just a mask. The pains of private life and his wife’s infidelity often drove him back to faith and stoicism. Often, he must have been tempted to echo Parolles: ‘Simply the thing I am shall make me live.’ (Not that he was anything like Parolles.)

Yet by 1960, all seemed serene. The lower-middle classes, their numbers swollen by prosperity, were buying houses, Hillman Minxes and washing-machines. Labour, trapped between proletarian primitivism and Hugh Gaitskell’s Wykehamist priggishness — not that he was a prig in private life: merely a hypocrite — seemed unable to come to terms with the new Britain. Then it all went pear-shaped.

In recent weeks, London has been subjected to a children’s crusade, with hysterical youngsters not only talking nonsense about the environment but being taken seriously by the grown-ups. In the early 1960s, it was far worse. There was a youth revolt against the established order, which often responded with a moral, intellectual and political collapse. The walls of the establishment fell, and many of its defenders changed sides. Macmillan was unable to cope.

The BBC, many dons and a deplorable number of clerics — prefiguring Peter Simple’s Bishop Spaceley–Trellis — cheered on the neophiliacs. The movement found two leaders. The first was a wholly meretricious man, Harold Wilson. No more morally negligible figure has ever reached No. 10, a record which will remain inviolate unless Boris Johnson becomes PM. The second was a much more considerable politician, whose tragic death rescued him from a tragic fate. Once assassinated, John Kennedy was apotheosised: the lost leader under whom everything would have been possible. In reality, he would never have been able to pass as much civil rights legislation as Lyndon Johnson did, and would have plunged at least as deeply into Vietnam. By 1968, it would not have been ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’, but ‘Hey, hey JFK’. He would have left office broken and discredited.

The Neophiliacs documents the degringolade of the early 1960s. Mr Booker moves on to Jung, whom I have never read: this book makes me feel that I should. The conclusion on the political chaos is summarised in a quotation from Nigel Lawson, in this magazine of which he was then editor.

‘The time has come to call a halt to the restless belief that change itself is the only ultimate good, and to seek instead a period of social and intellectual stability during which we can once again put down roots and gather strength.’ In 2019, so say all of us.

These lucubrations were fuelled by Burgundy: a Beaune 1er Cru Les Epenottes ’13 and a Gevrey-Chambertin ’09, both from Pierre Bourée. We could not decide which was better. Neither was neophiliac.

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