How age twists leftish youth into raving right-wing bigots

Even the most liberal of us tend to become contempt-filled hardliners as the decades pass

Is there no alternative to Reactionary Dufferism? Are all young leftists doomed to end up in golf-club bars ranting about immigration? There has to be another way.

Recent meltdowns by Michelle Shocked demonstrate the perils of growing old. Remember her? She was that American folk singer who was always chaining herself to railings and lying down in front of tanks. When illuminated by her leftist light, Billy Bragg came across a little like Augusto Pinochet. If ever there were a wholefood Marxist immune to reactionary backsliding it was the cropped Ms Shocked.

Say it isn't so, Uncle Joe. It seems that the former radical has, in recent years, embraced formal Christianity and swallowed certain intolerant maxims of the suburban right. At a concert in (of all places) San Francisco, Shocked side-swiped her fans by appearing to identify same-sex marriage as the work of the devil. "Once preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry the homosexuals, I'm pretty sure that that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back," she said.

Michelle offered a jumbled class of apology. Her argument, in so far as she has one, seems to be that, as a Christian, she may not like the rules, but she has to follow them.


Jumbled logic
One hardly knows where to begin when attempting to satirise this approach. Well, I have no time for intolerance myself but, as a racist, I am obliged to shout insults at every passing black person. What can I do about it? This seems to be the class of logic that Shocked now embraces. Anyway, it didn't wash with her fans and the rest of the tour was cancelled.

The journey from earnest leftist to Daily Mail -wielding fulminator has been all too well-trodden. It seems as if, at some point in the mid-1960s, about 80 per cent of the British literary establishment managed to cross from the hard left to the hard right without passing through the centre along the way. Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Braine and Paul Johnson all made that jump. The Mail 's angriest columnist, Peter Hitchens, was once an actual Trot. (His brother Christopher's characteristically idiosyncratic meander from hard leftist to quasi-neoconservative Barack Obama endorser maps a twistier route.) Our own Eoghan Harris has also been in that bus.

Get to a certain age and, when not feeling for lumps in the oxter or imagining dull pains down the left arm, the committed hypochondriac begins to fear the warning signs of Reactionary Dufferism. Don’t panic. It’s easy to mistake totally acceptable – indeed positively admirable – classes of middle-aged intolerance for the more sinister symptoms of early-onset RD. There’s nothing right wing about finding the presence of babies in restaurants an affront to all that’s decent. People on the telly who pronounce “privacy” in the American fashion should all be dismissed and immediately pressed into hard labour. Everybody who, even for a brief second, gets in my way is a roaring sociopath of the most repulsive stripe.

People who stand in twos on escalators, people who come to a dead halt in shop doorways, European students who gather in stationary huddles: all will be sewing mailbags when I finally come to power. Let's not start on those nutcases who won't step in from the aisle when stowing their luggage on aeroplanes. She just said it. The flight attendant just said it . Get out of the bloody way!

Hang on. Where was I?

Oh yes. The point is that, as we grow older, some of us find ourselves abandoning any effort at patience and embracing irritations that have been quietly bubbling in our psyches for decades.

The years grant an illusion of entitlement. Having lived through this much bad weather, watched this many bad films, listened to this amount of bores at bus stops, we, not unreasonably, feel we’ve earned the right to indulge in a spot of recreational fury.

The danger is that casual irritation – the sort that keeps blood flowing healthily through old veins – can too easily harden into ideology. Those who have been trained in bolshie leftist politics already have the mental equipment to live life as a different kind of embarrassing street lunatic.

Extreme views
You enter the shop a follower of Rosa Luxemburg and, after picking up Werther's Originals and medicinal sherry, emerge fired with passion for the absolutist dogma of Sir Keith Joseph. Newspaper columns swell with changelings who, like AJP Taylor, have "extreme views, weekly held".

Young folk concerned about the eventual arrival of Reactionary Dufferism are, thus, advised to begin their life journey from the middle of the road. It is too late for the rest of us. We are doomed to take our temperature daily, take note of cholesterol levels and fret when low-key daily irritations look to be driving us towards laissez-faire economic liberalism.

As if growing old wasn’t grim enough already.