As a beneficiary of the Welfare State and the Permissive Society – to name just two of their life-enhancing achievements – I owe an enormous debt to the liberal intelligentsia who, in the teeth of opposition from the Old Gang, brought them to pass. But who were these irreverent shock troops and what motivated them? The answer is given by one of their standard bearers, Noel Annan (1916‒2000), in his dazzling group portrait Our Age (1990), which is not only a joy to read but also a wonderful crib for anyone studying the social history of Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Lord Annan was that rare phenomenon, a public figure who could write, the greatest prose stylist of his generation in the opinion of some. During the war, from which he emerged in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, with an OBE and a head full of secrets, he was posted to the Joint Intelligence Staff, preparing the daily briefings for the chiefs of staff and the prime minister. This highly pressurized assignment involved swiftly interpreting masses of information and then expressing it succinctly and cogently, a skill on display in this book, the scope of which left reviewers gasping. ‘How could one man’, asked Frank Kermode, ‘know so much about so much?’ In addition to his mastery of detail Annan displays a wicked gift for observation. His appraisal of F. R. Leavis is exemplary: ‘he cultivated to perfection the sneer which he used like an oyster knife, inserting it into the shell of his victim, exposing him with a quick turn of the wrist, and finally flipping him over and inviting his audience to discard him as tainted and inedible’. He was also, as another reviewer noted, a master of the erudite aside, ‘uttered sotto voce, as it were, as the port goes round’. Thus Guy Burgess ‘had the look of a man who had just stepped off the Golden Arrow after a night in the Rue de Lappe’. But because he wrote most often for the New York Review of B
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