‘I deserted my children for my own personal happiness: it is as simple as that, regardless if I sometimes reassure myself with caveats, with a rationale which I have constructed for myself out of cardboard or tinplate over the years.’
So writes Rod Liddle in his brutally honest memoir-cum-polemic Selfish Whining Monkeys, which got a huge boost last Friday thanks to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s rational and entirely sane attack on him on Channel 4 (see above).
I admit to being a fan of Rod. Like James Delingpole, I think of him as something of a national treasure, although only in a sort of alternative reality — possibly a quite nightmarish one — in which the country's culture was led by people like James and I, rather than the types who Rod likes to take the piss out of; the well-connected London soft-nice-Left who end up on every board and in every committee, dominating the BBC, the judiciary, the arts, the universities — your Chris Pattens, your Shami Chakrabartis, etc. That's probably the main reason I like him; he pokes fun at people who are in power now, not people who were in power 30 or 40 years ago, as so much contemporary comedy does.
Along the way he manages to offend a few people, and even attracts charges of sexism or racism, although I'm not sure how meaningful those words are anyway; that's what Will Self accused him of in his Guardian review of the book, saying that Rod was too sympathetic towards the xenophobia of his mum and her generation. Yet what Rod actually says is that his generation's attitude to foreigners is better than his parents’, but that:
‘…about everything else, they were right. And I, and my generation, seem by contrast feckless and irresponsible, endlessly selfish, whining, avaricious, self-deluding, self-obsessed, spoiled and corrupt and ill. We are the generation that has spent the small but hard-earned inheritance we got from our hard-working parents (mine went on that most irresponsible and selfish of all of our new expensive freedoms, divorce lawyers).’
But I suppose if Rod's book got a good review in the Guardian there would have to be some sort of rip in the space-time continuum; although highly critical of the greed of Thatcherism, and the madness of runaway house prices, and privatisation, he's most scathing of the moral absolutists he calls the faux Left.
One of the characteristics of this group is a refusal to see that everything in life is a trade-off. You can be critical of the racism of a previous generation, while seeing that clearly immigration has come at some expense to social solidarity and made lots of people very unhappy. Likewise Rod is in favour of the greater freedom women now have — he recalls his father’s anger after the bank called him at work to ask whether it was okay for Rod’s mum to withdraw money from their joint savings — but he thinks it's surely reasonable to point out that this has come with costs, to the integrity of families for instance. But to people of a certain political stripe to even suggest that there may be a downside to greater sexual freedom or diversity is to admit to being some sort of pervert.
He's especially scournful of the nice, metropolitan, middle-class types whose leftist principles never involve any personal sacrifice; it's all just status signalling and easy moralising that presents the opinion-holder as being high grade and kind. Compare the way liberal men adopt progressive views that personally benefit them, such as cheap immigrant labour or women's sexual freedom, yet haven't the slightest sympathy for things that are actually an inconvenience — for example, transport workers who go on strike for better conditions.
Perhaps one of the worst aspects of the rise of the faux Left is that it has allowed mostly privileged people to consolidate power, just as Michael Young predicted, while losing their sense of gratitude and noblesse oblige. Our institutions are stuffed full of privately-educated people who pay lip service to the idea of opening up the system to women, minorities and the poor, but it's never at the expense of them or their kids. Having the right opinions is just another way of denoting group membership, along with the place in the south of France and the Oxbridge degree.
Rod comes from Old Labour stock, his dad from a very respectable working-class family with a devotion to the chapel, Labour Party and teetotalism. He argues that the Left has embraced the same sort of selfishness as the Right, but just in a more lawyerish way that rejects morally demanding concepts of right and wrong (and, as I learned, we have 88,000 more lawyers now than we did in 1988). At the heart of all this, he argues, is religion, or its absence, this God-sized hole having sucked the moral core from the British Left as much as it has the rest of society.
Filled with his trademark dry and self-hating wit, I would recommend even Rod-sceptics read his book; although sometimes called a contrarian, all his arguments are reasoned and reasonable and it's not your standard country-gone-to-the-dogs polemic. Far from being nostalgic, the society he describes us leaving behind sounds depressing and cruel at times, although filled with a certain Viz-like British humour.
I particularly liked the story where he describes a fight with a kid called Gary ‘a big, gangling, cheerful kid, if a bit thick – I suppose the sort of person who might now be a presenter on BBC Three. His dad came out to see what the fuss was about, and to his eternal credit shepherded the two of us into their backyard to slug it out properly, while he watched and occasionally commented with admirable neutrality.’ I don't think that would happen nowadays.
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