Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Return of the Young Fogey?

I remember when I was a teenager my sister gave me a delightful Christmas present, The Young Fogey Handbook. It came out at the same time as the even more successful Sloane Handbook, about 25 years ago.  The essence of the Young Fogey was that he was satorially and culturally reactionary, seeking a kind of donnish gentility frozen in the period 1930-1950. He sought to relive Brideshead Revisted, Miss Marple, and Jeeves and Wooster all at once. The Handbook made a lot of Betjeman, AN Wilson, Charles Moore etc. It was an entertaining read, but I remember feeling at the time that I would never quite cut the mustard sartorially. I owned a pair of jeans.

But it seems to me that the Fogey that began all fogies was JRR Tolkien. His disapproval of anything modern, his love of tweed and pipes, and his fondness for medieval religion make him an obvious member of the group. When shown a tape-recorder by one of his undergraduates he consented to use it, but first exorcised it by reciting a Pater Noster in old High German into it. Nearly knocked off his feet by a motorcycle on one occasion, he cursed: 'the blasted orcs'.

There was a circle of such types at Oxford in the 1950s, all living in Tolkien's shadow. One of them was CS Lewis, whom Tolkien brought back to Christianity.

In an article written in 2003 Harry Mount suggested that the Fogey was a spent force. The Young Fogey, he posited, was a kind of counter-cultural protester. Society had begun to accept as respectable many of the opinions that the YF was fighting for: feminism was beginning to run out of steam, Latin Masses became all the rage, Prince Charles won universal support against hideous modern architecture, gentlemen's clubs became popular again ... What was left for the YF to stand up against?

It's an interesting analysis. In France the same has happened to the 'Tradi', who had a strong identity in the 1980s and 90s. The young men tried to look like soliders of the foreign legion and, when not in army surplus khaki, would usually wear navy blue, making them look like 1950s boy scouts; and most of them were scouts, in fact.  They liked especially to wear the chèche, a long desert scarf adopted by the Foreign Legion. The young women were like British Sloanes, favouring cashmere sweaters and strings of pearls.

Now the tradis have become assimilated into the 'Génération Benôit XVI', wearing more or less the same clothes as everyone else, with the same hairstyles. The girls are even wearing trousers again. The political unity of the tradis (in, or on the fringes of, the Front National) has evaporated. The religious aspirations of the same group have become absorbed into the mainstream of Catholicism.

Recently Harry Mount wrote another article suggesting that YFs were back in vogue again, due to the wave of reaction engulfing us after the election of  a new government (run by public schoolboys), the Royal Wedding (between, we are led to believe, two YFs of a sort) and the moral outcry engendered by the recent riots.

Certainly the UK has had an interesting year: the Pope's visit, the Royal Wedding and then the Queen in Ireland. Lots of media attention focussing on the power of tradition as a force for healing and unity; even if before each of them happened we were told they would be disastrous in some way.

I think I would date the turn of the tide to the time when fox hunting was high on the political agenda. It was banned in the end, but somehow continues all the same, with more participants than ever. But I remember going along, with over half a million others, to tell the government where to get off in the 'Countryside March'. It was in 2002. 

London was awash with a sea of hearty tweed and green wellies, and a mix of public school and thick country accents. As we surged down down Pall Mall, tooting hunting horns, most on foot, some on horseback, some leading their cows (!), the cheers arose from the windows of many of the offices where people had come in on a Saturday to get a good view of the march and have a party. The balconies of the Naval and Military Club were full of champagne-coiffing supporters laughing and waving.  There was a counter demonstration, near St James' Palace, of less than 20 people. They looked completely destraught and I could not help feeling sorry for them. They were, as far as I could see, treated with politeness by the marchers. There was very little on the news about it all, but at the end of that day, the streets of London were full of heartiness.

I thought at the time that it was a pity that these folks had only mobilised for something as trivial as fox-hunting. Would they be prepared to do the same in defence of traditional values in general? Perhaps. Certainly, since that time it has become increasingly respectable to seek answers to modern problems in the 'old ways' ... the government's current efforts to bring back grammar schools by the back door are a case in point; even Labour seems to be giving in on that one.

Is the YF gone for good? Yes, I think he is. But a more grown-up cross between the Sloane and the YF is emerging. There are many young people now who are resolutely conservative in their ideas, intelligent, hard-working and favourable towards Christianity (despite all the bad press the Church and the churches get). The weak leadership from Christian leaders in the UK means that this general conservative feeling could go in a number of different directions. In continental Europe many politicans, and then church leaders, have more or less decided to join the conservative backlash, which has had the effect of toning it down but also making it a force to be reckoned with. In Britain this seems to be happening too, even if the Church leaders are lagging far behind. Interesting times ...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

A most interesting article. Hope you are well.

berenike said...

Do you go to Young Farmers' bashes, or read H&H? I have the impression that there isn't much in the way of traditional values other than hunting and hedges and Our Troops and whatnot, about which most of the Countryside Marchers would be that bothered.

Though it would be good on pro-life marches to ostentatiously show "we're so damn diverse"; maybe someone could bring a cow?

Anglo-Irishman en France said...

You are right, of course. But they would be against the state forcing a liberal agenda on schools, for example. Because they tend to be in favour of reducing the power of the state and increasing individual liberties.

I guess they would also be broadly in favour of the family and skeptical about gay marriages.

There is also a sense, I think, in which these people would be more ready to lesson to the voice of traditional morality and spirituality (if they could hear it) than would the children of the sixties.

You are right too that the Pro-Life movement could benefit from a facelift. But I am not sure about the cow ...