Ahead of Buxton International Festival’s Book Weekend, John Phillips delves into Simon Heffer’s The Age of Decadence to look at the parallels between our world and that of 1880–1914.
Next to an online review of Simon Heffer’s acclaimed book The Age of Decadence I found a wonderful headline which read ‘Calm down – Trump won’t become President and Britain won’t leave the EU.’
The headline was only from 2016 but now seemed to come from a different universe. The past is, they say, another country, and Heffer’s exploration of Britain from 1880 to 1914 reveals a nation which, while familiar in its geography, seems to occupy a different place in history.
That’s the beauty of good historians – finding something to say about the past which is both new and relevant, and Heffer achieves that in spades by demonstrating that this era when Britain was at the height of its power was also on a precipice from which to fall.
It looked like a contented and thriving country; the working and lower middle classes were enjoying greater individual freedoms and there was a revolution in leisure and entertainment whose legacy can be seen today in buildings such as the London Palladium, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, beloved of Strictly fans, and music halls celebrated by the television show The Good Old Days.
But a mismanaged war in a far-flung land – sounds familiar? – against the Boers proved Britain was no longer invincible. Acts of public protest verging on terrorism as the Suffragettes fought terrible injustices against women and the gulf between the rich and the poor created a crisis of confidence about the country’s place in the world.
Heffer builds his case against an arrogant ruling caste which saw progress only ever going their way despite warning signals of the break-up of the Union as Ireland crept toward civil war and the coming crisis in Europe which lead to a then unimaginable conflict.
But perhaps subconsciously they did see it coming, which is why they started to look back. Heffer claims these Edwardians created Britain’s national obsession with nostalgia, preserving the ancient buildings which the Victorians had been keen to tear down and romanticising the country in literature and poems such as A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, as well as creating the Arts and Crafts movement to counter the age of the machine.
Heffer is best-known as a newspaper columnist, and it was one of his colleagues in that club of soothsayers who came up with the Trump-Brexit prediction which just goes to show how close to the present date The Good Old Days can sometimes be.
But Heffer sums it up best with a quote from Britain’s most famous prophet of the future, sci-fi writer HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, who confidently stated: ‘Man will step from the pinnacle of this civilisation to the beginning of the next.’
Let’s hope he was also wrong about the Martians landing.
Simon Heffer will be speaking about The Age of Decadence in Buxton International Festival’s Book Weekend, which runs from November 24 to 26. It also includes talks by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine, Time Team’s Tony Robinson and The Archers‘ Timothy Bentinck. For more details and to book tickets, click here.