Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II
The country Elizabeth II once knew exists no more, says a historian.
A.N. Wilson begins Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II with a disclaimer, telling readers that his book isn‚Äôt really about the current queen of England, although it covers the years of her reign, which began in 1952 and ‚Äúmight well rival that of Queen Victoria in longevity.‚ÄĚ
But even though it isn‚Äôt a royal biography, Wilson‚Äôs book uses Elizabeth II‚Äôs years on the throne as a convenient window into the evolution of modern Britain, a period of change that the author finds breathtaking.
Wilson‚Äôs topic is broad, but he‚Äôs accustomed to working on a large canvas. ‚ÄúOur Times‚ÄĚ is the third volume in a trilogy of British history that began with ‚ÄúThe Victorians‚ÄĚ and was followed by ‚ÄúAfter the Victorians,‚ÄĚ the entire series produced in just six years.
One of the reasons that Wilson can move quickly is that he isn‚Äôt exhaustively inclusive. Subtracting notes and pictures, the text of ‚ÄúOur Times‚ÄĚ comes in at around 400 pages ‚Äď less than 70 pages for each of the six decades covered in Wilson‚Äôs narrative.
Using pop culture to illuminate an era
A novelist and biographer whose works have included studies of John Milton, C.S. Lewis, and the apostle Paul, Wilson proves especially adept at using popular culture to explain the past. The intrigues of Parliament, No. 10 Downing Street, and Buckingham Palace get their due in ‚ÄúOur Times,‚ÄĚ but Wilson does his best work here in holding up a period book, song, or TV show like a bright shard to imply the era‚Äôs larger whole.
He opens ‚ÄúOur Times,‚ÄĚ for example, by pointing to J.R.R. Tolkein‚Äôs ‚ÄúLord of the Rings‚ÄĚ series, which debuted in the 1950s, as an elegy for a Britain that would become more open and modern over subsequent decades, yet less cohesive.
‚ÄúBritain as a political entity survived in this period,‚ÄĚ Wilson writes, ‚Äúbut it was to be less ‚ÄėBritish.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Wilson‚Äôs ginger use of quotes around ‚ÄúBritish‚ÄĚ suggests a vagueness about national identity that, in his view, will grow cloudier as new generations of immigrants continue to reshape Great Britain.
Here‚Äôs Wilson again: ‚ÄúThough it is certainly true that some of these immigrants have helped Britain prosper, it is equally inescapable that they have changed the character and composition of whole areas of Britain ‚Äď and not always for the better. Eager to be tolerant, governments did not insist that these immigrants learn the language or integrate properly.‚ÄĚ
Wilson takes particular issue with what he regards as the spread of radical Islam within Britain, which includes followers who are, in the author‚Äôs opinion, ‚Äúintent on destroying Great Britain itself.‚ÄĚ
Not that Wilson favors a return to the social orthodoxies that defined Britain when Elizabeth II was crowned. He writes with disdain of past
racial intolerance, while more recent gains in rights for gays and women in Britain inspire Wilson‚Äôs applause. Wilson also offers a thumbs-up for advances in British healthcare and the general standard of living during the past half-century, but beyond those caveats, his mood is generally dour.
History with a hint of theater
As in previous installments in his British history trilogy, Wilson makes dyspepsia into a cottage industry. In chapters bearing such titles as ‚ÄúA Portrait of Decay,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Decline of the Roman Catholic Church,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe End of Harold Wilson,‚ÄĚ he bangs a dirge of decline that recalls the darkness of Edward Gibbon.
If the author of ‚ÄúThe History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire‚ÄĚ comes to mind when reading ‚ÄúOur Times,‚ÄĚ perhaps it‚Äôs because, like Gibbon, Wilson uses a style of storytelling that‚Äôs deeply opinionated, assertive, and enlivened by a keen sense of theater. This is history told not with cool textbook neutrality, but in the voice of a wry uncle holding forth from his armchair.
Wilson‚Äôs views are prickly and sometimes exasperating, but they‚Äôre never dull. He offers as self-evident the observation that Bob Dylan is a better musical artist and performer than The Beatles, and he blames the political activism of the Fab Four for creating ‚Äúthe annoying legacy that entertainers, rather than being humble enough to entertain, should inflict their half-baked views of economics, meteorology and politics to those who had been gullible enough to buy their records.‚ÄĚ
If, as Wilson asserts, the Great Britain of Elizabeth II‚Äôs youth no longer exists, then ‚ÄúOur Times‚ÄĚ has ushered it out with a bang, not a whimper.