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Picnics on Vesuvius: Steps Towards the Millennium.

Plague, famine and war, and other signs of hell upon earth, have generally produced millennarists. The very titles of Lord Rees-Mogg's recent books, Blood in the Streets, The Great Reckoning and this one (the two former being co-authored with James Dale Davidson) have a frighteningly apocalyptic message to deliver to our times, the final decade of the second millennium. Possibly every generation should be grateful for an 'official' keeper of the public conscience. In these essays, many of them reprints of his pieces in the Independent, but thematically arranged into seven parts, he elegantly wears the robes of that imaginary public servant.

As a bedside reader for the wee small hours the mighty issues of the modern world raised in Picnics on Vesuvius in a forthright common sense style should be no help to the insomniac as the distinguished author takes on the world depression of the 1990s, the AIDS threat, the decline of the United States, the rise of China, the collapse of traditional moral values and religious faith, and the way in which the socialist alternative to religion has lost its way if not its soul.

The success of The Great Reckoning and the media debate thereby engendered have brought William Rees-Mogg even more into the public eye. One is not therefore surprised to find throughout these essays, but especially in Part Four, 'Words and Images', much autobiographical comment, the inevitable shower of name dropping, and, a fair sprinkling of dogmatism especially on economics, power-politics and religion that is here expected and acceptable from a self-confessed student of John Stuart Mill and John Locke and of William James and Alexander Pope.

Perhaps, because of his insights into history, especially in the twelve essays of Part Six and their lapidary style, Rees-Mogg is deservedly quotable. For example: 'If we cannot trust the Bundesbank to co-operate in making the ERM work, we cannot trust a European central bank to operate a single currency'. On Ireland: 'Britain does not want to retain the role of the neighbour who intervenes in a family dispute'. On the royal family: 'A family with a history of unsuitable friends'. On megapolitics and power: 'Nations without a faith are always exposed to nations which have faith'. In a central essay entitled, 'We have the plagues: now we must look for angels', he lists six potentially fatal plagues and cites the ancient Jewish prophecy on the House of Elias, which states, 'the world doth continue six thousand years, two thousand years before the law, two thousand years under the law, and two thousand years the days of Christ'. In his essay on AIDS, the grim apocalyptic arithmetic of HIV, doubling every five years, means that by the year 2035 there would be more than five billion infected, which is the current population of the entire world. The grim statistics of this new Malthusian science are piled up remorselessly in this section but hope is held out that the major world religions whose sexual codes are designed to protect families and prevent sexually transmitted diseases 'may yet be more important than anything that governments or advertisements can achieve'.

Not all is doom and gloom in these essays nor is all stark realism either; the last two sections bring together his pieces on 'The Past: Pleasures and Insights' and a miscellany on 'Cricket and other afterthoughts' and these are full of interesting nostalgia, witty asides, and cultural perceptions. However, the sense of the tragic transience and brevity of human existence in which even 'our happiest moments are picnics on the slopes of Vesuvius' fittingly pervades what one hopes is not a book of prophecy.
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Author:McGurk, John
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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