Totalitarianism is on the run but liberalism's future is not assured. Chris Patten rediscovers the relevance of Rex Warner's wartime novel for Robert Skidelsky's World after Communismby Chris Patten / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Unpacking books on a hot August afternoon, I turned up a long-cherished and long-unread political classic about whose virtues I have bored friends ever since I discovered it.
Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (Lane, 1941), written during the early years of the second world war, almost a decade before Orwell’s 1984, is a brilliantly original contribution to the ominously titled genre, “novels of ideas.” Like Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, Warner uses allegory to attack totalitarianism and collectivism and to assert liberal values.
In Warner’s novel, the brave new world is offered by the air force, encamped in its aerodrome outside a slothful and sluttish English village complete with pub, church, rector, squire, agricultural show and-at least until the arrival of the aerodrome-cricket. The aerodrome represents all the spartan efficiency and discipline of the totalitarian manifesto-“a barren edifice of perfection”-in contrast to the “muddle and inefficiency” of village life. The villagers carouse and gossip; they fall drunk into ditches; they bite the heads off rats; they lie and cheat; they even go to church. They lack a sense of purpose and order. They betray all too many signs of basic humanity-falling in love, developing loyalties to friends and places, forming a community which is “intricate and forgiving.”
The narrator, who for a time converts to the air force’s new order, summarises the enthusiasm of its followers: “In contrast with the villagers, the women, the clergymen, and the squires, we were carefree and direct, having made ourselves the servants of a single will and imagination… that would cut through like butter the vague amorphous, drunken and unwieldy life that was outside our organisation.”
The “single will” is that of the Air Vice-Marshall, a tyrant with a very English stamp; more of an intelligent headmaster than a blood-soaked mass-murderer, perhaps, but ruthless, narrowly focused, intolerant and unbending. For him, life itself needs a short-back-and-sides so that men and women can obtain mastery over both themselves and their environment.
It must have seemed familiar and chilling stuff in the 1940s when the book was written, and the metaphor still hits home today. But I have to admit that, re-reading Warner’s book this summer, I found the elaborate working out of the allegory rendered the plot from time to time absurd or obvious to the point of tedium. It does, however, remain an astonishingly powerful book, elegantly written.
What sort of resonance does…