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The Hidden Pleasures of Life

Theodore Zeldin

Every 40 seconds, says Theodore Zeldin, somewhere in the world, a person is committing suicide. When people start reading this book, I am sure that sluggish pace will pick up. Never has a publication been given a more ironic, even sarcastic, title. For if life holds any hidden pleasures, Zeldin gleefully fails to find them. Indeed, the texture of existence, penetrating right to the core or quick, as described here, is rotten and depressing. You quit these pages rummaging for a cut-throat razor or hoping that, when the news comes, on, Huw Edwards will announce an imminent nuclear holocaust - as annihilation is nothing less than we deserve.

Chapter by chapter, Zeldin muses about the human experience, asking big questions such as 'What is a wasted life?' and 'What can artists aim for beyond self-expression?' He tells us, for example, that thinkers in the 18th-century anticipated that the creation of wealth would lead to 'mutual benevolence, sympathy and gratitude'. Instead, industrialisation and the accumulation of capital have inculcated 'pity, fear, disgust and hatred'. For all the blather about human rights and democracy, 85 per cent of the planet's resources are still owned by only 10 per cent of its population. In America, a third of everything belongs to 1 per cent of the people. In India, more than half the population live in spaces smaller than 'the minimum specified for American prisoners'.

Money brings out the worst in people, from biblical money-lenders to common lottery winners, plutocrats to the marketing men at Bang & Olufsen. Though Andrew Carnegie built 1,689 public libraries, he could afford to be charitable because of his ruthlessness. Unions were met by a simple tactic: 'No negotiation, close the factory down, let the strikers starve, and then take back only those who accepted his terms.'

Adam Smith seems naive in retrospect, when he argued that wealth makes a nation moral. In Egypt, for instance, if you stop being poor you become a target for violent theft. In Brazil, the police rob and humiliate those who call for help. African governments are openly corrupt. In Europe and America, labyrinthine malls may dazzle us with an infinitude of choice, but conglomerates are soulless - two centuries ago there were five times as many shops as today; local neighbourhood stores, which doubled as social centres. It is worth noting Zeldin's point that Ikea's tasteful lampshades are made by women in Delhi 'bent over a bench eight hours a day', the poor old souls.

Revolutions don't work, we learn from the Oxford don and author of An Intimate History of Humanity. Peasant revolts, famine riots, strikes, youth movements: aims and ideals are always lost and compromised by bureaucracy and despotism, as in France, Russia and China. One set of grievances is replaced by another. The most alarming rebellions are those involving religions - and there are currently 4,200 official religious denominations, none very naturally friendly towards women, who, says Zeldin, 'are finding that their struggle for recognition is increasingly being ambushed by revived misogyny.'

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Nastiest in this regard is the Muslim Brotherhood, who justify their authoritarianism by claiming that 'people are ignorant and it is our duty to teach them . . . Ignorant people cannot decide things for themselves.' Hitler and Stalin made similar claims, as did 17th-century Puritans and the Catholic Inquisition. Eliminating sin vindicates mass murder.

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The tragedy is that the 'politics of control' have even come in here, in modern Britain. Airport security procedures, for example, are replete with 'instruments of control' - all of us will have seen Marbella-bound pensioners and toddlers sadistically frisked and strip-searched at Stansted. Passports, as Zeldin says, never stop criminals 'but merely obstruct the free passage of the innocent.' There are five million CCTV cameras trained on our streets. Each of us is clocked 300 times a day as we go about our lawful business. Car number plates are recorded and our movements monitored.

In recent years, freedom of speech has been curtailed, the media gagged, and no one is safe from arbitrary arrest. Such liberties have been relinquished without a struggle - I hope Michael Gove, who looks so fetching in his Lord Chancellor robes, silk stockings and buckled shoes, will restore them. Yet after 9/11 and 7/7 there was a panic. Lots of new criminal offences were invented, trial by jury was put under threat, and you can be jailed for ages without charge. I myself faced the firing squad in Herefordshire because I put my recycling bin out on the wrong day.

Though The Hidden Pleasures of Life contains much food for thought, and while I enjoyed gobbling it down, it is vague and diffuse and amazingly badly written. 'I am not content to clothe my nakedness with borrowed or worn out clothes,' Zeldin tells us, whether metaphorically or sartorially, who can tell? Either way, not a pretty picture. 'I do not wish to spend my time on earth as a bewildered tourist surrounded by strangers,' he cries. Well, Saga cruises are not yet compulsory, even though I went on one myself up the Amazon. 'History is not a coffin with no escape,' Zeldin asserts, but who ever said it was? On the contrary, history is 'a bunch of keys that open doors to places no one knew existed,' we are also told - incredibly bafflingly.

On and on it grinds. 'If the insurance industry contributed more to helping people to help one another, not just anonymously by pooling their premiums, but by increasing their mutual understanding, they would give a new direction to the fight against fear.' And in a sentence that deserves what the late Jennifer Paterson called The Harry Wooders Award - her version of the wooden spoon - we read: 'Autobiographies are a rare cactus that flower spasmodically in the desert of pretence.' I'm sure Zeldin (surely a name I once saw on a music hall bill?) is a nice man, but don't you sometimes wish you could meet an author so you can shove a custard pie full in his face?

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