Although the bias of the Hay Festival is undeniably Leftist, that doesn’t mean that there are not alternative voices being heard at the event. One of these alternative voices is that of the American commentator and satirist PJ O’Rourke whom I first encountered when I read his 1986 book ‘Holidays In Hell’.
He was at the festival to promote and talk about his new book; The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again) which sadly I have not yet read but it is going on my reading list as soon as possible.
Out of all the sessions I have attended at Hay, Mr O’Rourke’s one was the only one where I could quite happily describe what happened in the form of quotes from both Mr O’Rourke’s spoken words on the stage and in the excerpts from the books that were read and discussed by him and the host David Aaronovitch. Not for nothing did someone once say that PJ O’Rourke is one of the worlds most quotable writers. Anyone who can come up with a title for a piece like: ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink’ is bound to be someone very quotable.
His latest book is about the post World War II ‘Baby Boom’, their attitudes, their mindset and how they differed from the generation of their parents who fought in that war and are often referred to as the ‘Greatest Generation.
He started his talk by noting that there was a big difference between the post-war experience of the United States and the United Kingdom. He said ‘We got the ‘post’, and you got the ‘war’, by which he meant that although the USA contributed greatly to the Alied victory over Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, their territory was rarely hit by the enemy. Britain on the other hand was fiscally devastated, our infrastructure partially destroyed in bombing and virtually our entire industrial, banking and administrative sectors were focussed on war aims. It is sobering to think that Britain expended a whole Empire as well as much of the Home resources to defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito.
Mr O’Rourke said that those of the first and second generation of Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1958 lived dull lives. However Mr O’Rourke explained that the that the reason that the 46/58 generation did live in houses that were just ‘boxes to keep the wife and children in’, was because of what that Greatest Generation had seen. They wanted a bit of boredom and conformity. The Greatest Generation didn’t want to have imaginative lives because they had had their fill of ‘imaginative ideologies, of the sort that marched under the Swastika or the Hammer and Sickle’. Quite rightly they ‘longed for stability’.
He added that the early to mid 50’s born were those of a generation where the parents had to a large extent ‘thrown in the towel’. The result of this cohort was the Haight-Ashbury hippie generation and the growing cultural reverence for idea of ‘the self’. The self centred and often parasitical hippies had their big hangover later in the 1970’s when they realised that ‘the bong setting fire to the beanbag chair’ has consequences. Unfortunately, in my view many of the consequences of Hippieism did not stop with a burning chair. Too many of that wooly and self-centred group ended up working in the softer of the public services such as teaching. This influx of Hippie/Left inclined people caused a profound change in education practises, some of the problems of which we are still living with today.
On the subject of politics Mr O’Rourke said that what characterised Baby Boomer politics was ‘bullshit’. He said that Baby Boomer politicians, such as Obama were ‘born in bullshit, are surrounded by bullshit and see bullshit as the future’. This lack of conviction and acceptance that so much of what surrounds politicians is bullshit has caused a political deadlock in wealthy baby boomer countries. However, Mr O’Rourke doesn’t see this deadlock as a negative thing but more of a positive thing. There are no great political causes anymore and he added: ‘maybe this political deadlock could eventually bring peace’. To illustrate this point he said: ‘we now have no noxious politics like that of 1930’s Germany’. There is no political cause that people are willing to fight or die for.
To conclude this was a very difficult session to summarise as it was neither autobiography or history but a large dollop of both. It definitely made me want to read the book. PJ O’Rourke has like many of us made the journey from centre Left to centre Right and I’m interested in reading of people who have like Mr O’Rourke gone from running an underground Leftist newspaper in the late 1960’s to be being on the Libertarian wing of the American Republican Party.
Mr O’Rourke said that he found that he couldn’t tell the story of the baby boom years without telling it in first person format. To me that makes sense, the post war years really were a time when people became more concerned or even obsessed about their selves and their own experiences. I’m looking forward to reading what could be a very interesting and challenging book. Mr O’Rourke’s speech at Hay made me wonder if future historians will view the Baby Boomer generations and the profound culture change they produced to have been either good or bad or both in their influence on the culture of the future.
(Note: Due tothere being internet connection problems in the middle of a field and other stuff going on, these Hay pieces are now not being live-ish blogged but are being put up as and when)