Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II

The country Elizabeth II once knew exists no more, says a historian.

Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II By A.N. Wilson Farrar, Straus and Giroux 496 pp., $30

A.N. Wilson begins Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II with a disclaimer, telling readers that his book isn’t really about the current queen of England, although it covers the years of her reign, which began in 1952 and “might well rival that of Queen Victoria in longevity.”

But even though it isn’t a royal biography, Wilson’s book uses Elizabeth II’s years on the throne as a convenient window into the evolution of modern Britain, a period of change that the author finds breathtaking.

Wilson’s topic is broad, but he’s accustomed to working on a large canvas. “Our Times” is the third volume in a trilogy of British history that began with “The Victorians” and was followed by “After the Victorians,” the entire series produced in just six years.

One of the reasons that Wilson can move quickly is that he isn’t exhaustively inclusive. Subtracting notes and pictures, the text of “Our Times” comes in at around 400 pages – less than 70 pages for each of the six decades covered in Wilson’s 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 “Our Times,” 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’s larger whole.

He opens “Our Times,” for example, by pointing to J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” 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.

“Britain as a political entity survived in this period,” Wilson writes, “but it was to be less ‘British.’ ”

Wilson’s ginger use of quotes around “British” suggests a vagueness about national identity that, in his view, will grow cloudier as new generations of immigrants continue to reshape Great Britain.

Here’s Wilson again: “Though 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 – and not always for the better. Eager to be tolerant, governments did not insist that these immigrants learn the language or integrate properly.”

Wilson takes particular issue with what he regards as the spread of radical Islam within Britain, which includes followers who are, in the author’s opinion, “intent on destroying Great Britain itself.”

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’s 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 “A Portrait of Decay,” “The Decline of the Roman Catholic Church,” and “The End of Harold Wilson,” he bangs a dirge of decline that recalls the darkness of Edward Gibbon.

If the author of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” comes to mind when reading “Our Times,” perhaps it’s because, like Gibbon, Wilson uses a style of storytelling that’s 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’s views are prickly and sometimes exasperating, but they’re 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 “the 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.”

If, as Wilson asserts, the Great Britain of Elizabeth II’s youth no longer exists, then “Our Times” has ushered it out with a bang, not a whimper.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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