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The Best of Our Time

Elected Provost of King's College, Cambridge, in his 30's and subsequently Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, Lord Annan is a delightful person who has given us a delightful book of scintillating erudition that ranges far beyond the confines of its subtitle. Indeed, there can hardly be a single English intellectual of significance in this century who is not mentioned in it.

As an etiology of upper-class England, it is inevitably grounded in that "unique British institution," the public school, which is to say the private school. Having been through one, I can attest to Cyril Connolly's opinion that the experience dominates your life. I have seen two elderly Englishmen introduced to each other and soon bringing up the ritual question. Where were you at school? (It is a fairly meaningless one in Italy or France and stands apart in intensity of definition from any university allegiance.) In my one brief meeting with T.S. Eliot, it was the only question he put to me.

Annan rightly sees this code of the public school man percolating through British life and letters, as well as politics (every member of Macmillan's postwar cabinet, including himself, had been to Eton). The New York Times reviewer objected to the elitist background of Our Age—only four percent of the British population experienced any form of higher education before the last war—but failed to see that the book is...

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