Peter Hitchens’s book is a plangent lament for the old Britain, the land of warm beer and lengthening shadows on the village cricket pitch; but it can also be read as an obituary for the old Daily Express. When Hitchens joined the paper, in 1977, it was still the voice of grumpy suburban reactionaries. Now it is edited by a founder of Spare Rib magazine and owned by a Blairite. Even the word Daily has been dropped from the title. Hitchens is the sole survivor of Fleet Street’s Mary Celeste, raging against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
No wonder he feels that the country is going to the dogs. And he knows who or what is responsible for this sorry state of affairs: the Bloomsbury Group, Wallis Simpson, council estates, Dutch elm disease, Elvis Presley, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, working women, Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, the Beatles, John Mortimer, Oz, bolshie students, trendy vicars, decimalisation, Reith lecturers, Coronation Street, The Archers, Roy Jenkins, the Teletubbies, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Princess Diana, Tony Blair. Wherever he looks, Hitchens espies yet more culprits. Central heating and double glazing are blamed for allowing families ‘to avoid each other’s company in well-warmed houses, rather than huddling round a single hearth’. Even duvets incur his disapproval.
As an Oxford undergraduate, Hitchens was a member of the International Socialists, whose slogan was ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’, and although he has long since lurched rightwards this plague-on-both-your houses attitude lingers on. The very thought of Europe makes him furious; unlike many other Europhobes, however, he hates America, too, with its ‘high-octane American ways of speaking and behaving’. He remembers with a shudder the constant industrial strife of the 1970s, but then chides Mrs Thatcher for breaking the trade unions. ‘The unions and their block votes may have forced Labour to adopt dreary and impractical economic policies, but they had also given it a sort of working-class, monarchist patriotism…For the most part, they were even more mistrustful of foreign nations than the Tories.’ Like the old Express, in other words. And, like the old Express readers, they disappeared without trace: ‘Margaret Thatcher’s carelessness with traditions and institutions…helped to weaken the foundations of everything that had seemed permanent before.’
Not that there were many foundations left by then, if the author is to be believed. Although the general direction of his argument is clear enough, his chronology is sometimes puzzling. ‘Few now recall’, he writes, ‘that the immediate postwar years were a time when many were alarmed by a rapid increase in crime, an atmosphere of purposeless rebellion among the young and a great deal of family breakdown.’ It seems that the few who recall all this do not include Hitchens himself, who has told us only a few pages earlier that violent crime, youthful rebellion and family breakdown scarcely existed before the 1960s – and were caused, respectively, by the abolition of hanging, the advent of pop music and the rise in the female workforce.
By the end of this elegantly written 350-page jeremiad, many readers will probably feel like killing themselves in despair – especially since, as Hitchens complains, attempted suicide is no longer a criminal offence. But in the final pages there is a flicker of hope. The referendum on the single currency will be ‘a last unrepeatable moment at which we can halt our extinction as a culture and a nation’, and will provoke a tremendous debate on all the other reforms and upheavals of recent decades. This opportunity must be seized by ‘those many millions who feel that they have become foreigners in their own land and wish with each succeeding day that they could turn the clock back’.
Back to what, though? To show us what we have lost but may yet regain, Hitchens compares the Britain of 1965, the year of Churchill’s funeral, with the Britain which revealed itself in the day after Princess Diana’s death. Imagine, he says, that a young woman is transported back to the streets of London in 1965. ‘She would be pleased to find the walls clear of the scribblings of graffiti artists …. There would be less litter, less dog-muck and much less chewing gum stuck to the pavement.’ So far so good. But as the time-traveller continues her exploration, Hitchens’s Paradise Lost seems rather less appealing:
She would search long and hard for a public telephone…London itself would seem extraordinarily dark and dirty even by daylight…The colour brown, in fact, would seem to crop up in almost every aspect of urban life, from food to furniture…She would rapidly notice that the past was smellier than the present, the air often reeking of breweries, cattlemarkets, cabbage and hot grease…At her hotel, she would be struck by the way the staff had never heard of credit cards, by the fact that her room lacked its own bathroom…Perhaps moving on to a café, she would gag at the thick gravy, push aside the watery murdered vegetables, refuse the stodgy pudding and reject the washy unrecognisable coffee…
All most evocative. But would anyone, other than the splendid Peter Hitchens, vote for this Elysium of brown armchairs and boiled cabbage? We shall see.