Sunday, March 26, 2006

My Generation, Baby

"I am a modern man - the Beatles, colour TV - that's the generation I come from" - Tony Blair, 1997.

One of the things I'm interested in is documenting how it all went pear-shaped, what life was like before the Fall, the cultural drivers behind the destruction, the personalities involved, and some of the original documents.

This post will be a little disjointed, as it covers some big themes, each worthy of one or more essays - which I have neither the time nor ability to write.

There are several elements involved in this documentation. One important one is to bear witness. A key liberal myth, the "Myth of the Myth of the Golden Age" holds that crime wasn't REALLY lower in the past, streets weren't REALLY safer."He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."

At present this is a difficut task for our liberal elite. There are simply too many people alive who can remember Britain in the 1950s or even the 1960s (remember that the culture of the 1960s only spread in the 70s - and went mainstream even later, around the time Habitat stores opened everywhere. For an accurate picture of 1966 England look at the World Cup Final crowd - 95% in ties - ties ! and many also sporting hats).

But these generations - the wartime generations - are dying and will soon be gone. Mortality is even now on the horizon of the post-war grammar school boys, the people - of whom I'm one - who destroyed the culture to which they were the heirs.

So it's important to record the lives and opinions of these generations, partly for their own sake, but partly to refute the arguments of those who believe that the present is always better than the past.

Three documents - two on the cultural drivers of destruction, one on Edwardian Britain.

First the Independent on the 50th anniversary of the play "Look Back In Anger", as reviewed by the late Keneth Tynan in 1956.

"All the qualities are there, qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on stage - the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of 'official' attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour ... the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned ... The Porters of our time deplore the tyranny of 'good taste' and refuse to accept 'emotional' as a term of abuse; they are classless, and they are also leaderless."

I'm not quite sure what happened to to the underlying theme, but all the rest were representative enough - a small manifesto for the counterculture.

Another document - I must admit to never having heard of the Preston poet Alan Dent - and having read some of his stuff I wish he'd never heard of Dylan Thomas. But his "Memoria Technica" is important in that if you wanted to know what the Sixties were a revolt against, you'd only have to read this. All the themes are there. Namely :

Capitalism - indeed, paid employment of any kind - is dull and morally reprehensible. Success in this world is a token of moral worthlessness.

society’s handshake was a pay-packet and slavery

for he was famous in his realm
in Leyland and Chorley
from Accrington to Darwen
in Lancaster and Blackpool and as far as Oldham
he had conquered with his charm
the blue-eyed father and slick commercial traveller
filled the emptiness of his life by selling
as vain men fill the emptiness in their lives by selling
selling themselves a dream of themselves

Church is a dull thing that the straight parents make us do.

freedom from the narrowness of a niggard isle
from sexless Wesleyism
and God drowned in the Ribble
dirty with Protestant profit
and freedom was in no choice but to choose

On dull Sunday evenings at six
tight-suited smart and calm
on the back-row wicker seats
in a plain poor dour building
in a rich pretentious zone

I want to get drunk and have sex with girls.

I took my pre-sex preaching
then pubwards quiet querying and queer
went on my usual crusading quimquest

Respectability sucks.

my dream was freedom from the boss and the bureaucrat
my dream was the death of deference

In its own way it's also a manifesto for change - and a manifesto triumphantly implemented - as the figures for church attendance and a walk down any High Street on a Friday night will bear out. Though not quite fully implemented - all over Preston small boys, neatly dressed, will even today trot off to their religious classes once a week, with greater or lesser enthusiasm. But they'll be clad in white, not Sunday best - and their classes are on Fridays. I can still remember the cheerful kids pouring out of the madrassa in Woodhead Road when I lived in Bradford.

What a contrast with a Victorian working man - the Blackburn poet William Billington. What was that about the working class being uninterested in education ?

A dacent chap ull do his best,
An' eawt o' wod he's earnin
Ged th' owdest son a trade, an' th' rest
O' th' lads a bit o' learnin;
Bud iv he's eawt o' wark; wey then,
Unschollard, unbefriended,
His childer grow up into men—
Aw wod this war wur ended!

("this war" being the American Civil War, which closed half the mills in Lancashire)

The third document I stumbled upon while trying to find some lyrics for an old 78 in my posession. The Hubbard family archives contain the unedited memoirs of Frances Roper (nee Hubbard), an upper-middle class Englishwoman of good Christian family, describing the first twenty-odd years of her life in Ealing, the Forest of Dean, and her aunt's orphanage in South London. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

Four salient points - the safety and order of the Edwardian world, the all-pervading influence of Christianity, the still rigid class structure, and (as anyone reading childhood memoirs of the era will recognise) the enormous contrast betwen the tighty regulated and rigidly enforced relationship between adult and child, where any adult's word was law in every sphere, and the freedom/liberty/license of children's relationships with each other. In George Borrow's memoirs he desribes gang warfare and running battles between schoolboys (with however, none of the knife-work you'd get in, say, London today) in the Edinburgh streets. Reading the passage where the village boys torment Frances' Downs syndrome brother, I was reminded of Laurie Lee's gang of Cotswold adolescents plotting to waylay and rape the village idiot - a mentally deficient girl.

(The cultural level of the respectable working class in late Victorian times was remarkable. When our decorators arrive the radio is the first thing to go on. Can't work without it. Once ...

"When we had the local painters and decorators in the house the most beautiful part-singing would re-echo throughout the place all day, as they, the maids, the daily woman and the scullery maid all joined in, each one taking his or her part in perfect harmony." )


Dave said...

Each generation wants to define itself. The post war generation could hardly be as patriotic, disciplined, respectful, honourable, loyal and united as the heros from WW2. It must have really sucked in a lot of ways, being brought up on WW2 movies and war 'adventure' stories of boasting (pretending they weren't boasting but being quite proud of themselves) relatives all the while being told how lucky they were and how grateful they should be that the war was over. Its not supprising they turned to drink and drugs, and eventually told the previous generation where to stick their patriotism, and started claiming race doesn't exist and therefor no point in defending our people anyway. Ha what fools our parents generation must have been!

Martin said...


Stop flagellating yourself.

It reeks of masochism.

Exercises in speculating who did what to whom and when are largely pointless. What has done for our culture has been the same thing wot did for everyone else's, which is ideology.

Prior to the 20th Century, what ideology did British people have? Nationalism, probably. We did all right, not just ourselves but everyone else, when we looked after the national interest first.

Abandoning our historical allegiance to each other as British citizens in favour of fashionable new ideas was the worst thing ever to happen to our culture.

That, and the fact that the generation born between 1945 and 1955 were the most spoiled the country ever produced, going from having grammar school educations to missing National Service to catching goodness knows what in the Summer of Love to making a killing under Thatcher.

And still voting Labour at the end of it.

Phil Jackson said...

Great post Laban.

I expect you will know Jonathan Rose’s ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’ but, if not, I strongly recommend it. It should be required reading for all MPs - Barry Sheerman would find it particularly informative.

A good intro to the book’s theme is given in Rose’s essay here:

staghounds said...

For the bien pensants, it's always about 1958 or so.

Third Avenue said...

Interesting post, Laban.

I'm tempted to start my own 'Myth of the Myth of the Myth of the Golden Age' thread, but that could easily get out of hand. I think you know my scepticism about the 'Golden Age', but it is not based on a view (which is a straw man) that everything about the past was dreadful, and that today we live in an enlightened paradise.

But for now, just a few points. You say that the 'liberal elites' (boo hiss) have a tough time persuading us that the 1950s were dreadful because too many people who remember them are still alive today. That cuts both ways. If a poll were to be conducted today of, say, people about to retire, and they were asked whether they would swap their lives with those of their retiring grandparents in 1955, are you so sure that the result would be an unambiguous vote in favour of the 'Golden Age'? Apart from anything else, telling them that their life expectancy would be reduced by some 15 years or so might concentrate the mind, as would the need to say goodbye to their washing machines, television, central heating, etc, etc..

I also think you overplay a lot the importance of a play like 'Look Back in Anger'. Such things had a big impact on the theatre, but as far as the social morals of the country were concerned, surely far, far more important was the trauma of having gone through two world wars within a generation or two, with the (to us today) unimaginable upheavals that that had brought to every aspect of life. Then there was the huge expanse in wealth in the 1950s so that for the first time people did not have to worry about basic material concerns. Later came the demise of traditional forms of labour that had defined social structures in much of the country (the mines, heavy manufacturing). All this is far more important to the patterns of basic life than a West End play of the mid-1950s which was rather reflecting the changes that were beginning to happen rather than causing them.

Laban said...

TA - you must distinguish beween the material and the moral/spiritual. There can be no doubt that we're physically better off than ever before - but that's not in the end what life is made of, once a society gets beyond the subsistence level that was the lot of our forebears until 150 years ago or so.

Any single mum on a sink estate is healthier, cleaner and better housed than any monarch could have been 200 years back - but as the Guardian are always pointing out, it's our relationship with others which is key.

The Guardian would say that what she and her child needs is 60% of what Mr/Ms Average is earning. I'd say she needs relationships with others based on something other than cash extorted from them.

David - it's not surprising that some turn to drink and drugs - it's just remarkable how more Brits do than almost any other western culture.

I think it's the loss of Christianity - liberal guilt is Original Sin reborn for the new age, and Brits show all the symptoms of a people whose culture hs been destroyed, just like Inuit or aborigines.

Third Avenue said...

Laban - you're quite right that life is much more than having a washing machine. But that wasn't my point - rather, it was that the material conditions of life have a direct impact on the moral and social climate. The two cannot be divorced. Hitchens makes this very point in the Abolition of Britain regarding central heating. It was a material change that had a huge impact on the way families functioned as units. It, together with the advent of television, easy supermarket meals, and general rise in prosperity, had a massively greater impact on families' meal-eating habits (the fragmenting of the family structure, lack of communication, etc) than any amount of pernicious Guardian articles (the impact of which, in this area, is pretty much zero, I imagine). Equally important would be lengthened shopping hours, out-of-town shopping, anything with the numbers '24/7' attached to it. A Polly Toynbee article does not compare.

The fact that we (in the main) live longer, are healthier and do not live under the constant threat of destitution and hunger has inevitably lead to great individual freedom in personal behaviour - for good or ill - because our prosperity means that we can cope (materially) with the consequences of this freedom. Blaming the 'liberal elites' for this seems to me to miss the point, as well as taking away from individuals outside this intangible elite any moral agency for their own actions.

Martin said...


Whilst I ponder how many washing machines can compensate a society for the loss of the freedom to safely walk its streets at night, perhaps Third Avenue forgets that it wasn't the mere staging of 'Look Back in Anger' that was important - it was the effect it had on its audience.

An audience which perhaps also went to see 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', 'A Taste of Honey', 'Room at The Top', 'The L-Shaped Room', 'This Sporting Life', and 'A Kind of Loving', and which later sat glued to 'Cathy Come Home'.

In health terms my native west of Scotland is now almost back in the dark ages of the early 19th Century; the male life expectancy rate in Shettleston is down to 64 - give us another few years and we'll have it shaved down to 50.

And the blame for that state of affairs most certainly does not all lie at the door of the Mars Bar suppers, but more onerously on the demise of traditional forms of labour which were paid for in money which maintained its value.

Whether their deaths were natural is another argument altogether.

Also, I wouldn't agree with TA's arguments against a generational granny swap. In 1955 they had penicillin and streptomycin (they used to have TB licked in the UK, you know). Although the washing was more difficult, there weren't so many clothes shops. Hand me downs were the norm, not the exception.

And he shouldn't knock articles in the 'Guardian'. You might remember the hagiography of James Cameron, one of its former columnists, which was broadcast by James Naughtie two years ago, entitled 'A Pain in the Neck'. Naughtie concluded that Cameron had run two newspapers into the ground, was almost forgotten and that nobody borrows his books from the libraries; but still Naughtie asked 'Why was he so influential?'

Because it's always the guys reading the 'Guardian' commentaries who're the ones making the very big decisions.

Given the current ubiquity of tattoos and piercings, your analogy with primitive societies is quite apt; but there is a profound difference between the loss of Australian Aboriginal culture and the loss of British culture. The Aborigines' way of life was destroyed by exposure to the cultural juggernaut of Western civilisation; they returned no elected (and paid) representatives who used free votes to abolish their death penalty, their education system and their proscriptions of abortion and homosexuality; who helped destroy social mobility and quite deliberately set out to erode public morals.

What the Aboriginal translation of Anthony Crosland's famous remark about grammar schoools might be is best left to the imagination.

But we did have such representatives, who did do those things. Did any one of them ever ask us what we thought before they did any of that?

The Aborigines had no judges like Lord Gerald Gardiner, no academics like H.L.A. Hart, no intellectuals like James Cameron, no politicians like David Steel.

Weren't they the lucky ones. At least they lost their culture war fair and square. Ours was lost from within.

Perhaps liberal guilt is a substitute for religious belief. Marxism is a religion like any other. But even at that time it was widely known that Marxist economics were flawed.

Why did anyone think Marxist social theories would be any different?

And more importantly, why do we persist with them?

dearieme said...

Small point. "being brought up on WW2 movies and war 'adventure' stories of boasting (pretending they weren't boasting but being quite proud of themselves)": I grew up then and found it hard work to get my father to talk about his war. It was much later that I realised the significance of his being a keen wildfowler before the war but never shooting again after, save to teach us to shoot.

Anonymous said...

I could never get either of my grandfathers to say much about the war though they saw a lot of it on land and at sea. I think it left a shadow across their whole lives. There wasnt much pride involved. Still, as a jewish spokesman was saying last year in Auschwitz we are all just as guilty in allowing the rise of nazism. Neither of my grandfathers was still alive to hear the pronouncements of this ungrateful sh*t. On their behalf I would like to say to him: "Next time (if there is one) you're on your own matey."

Sorry going a bit O/T there!

Dave said...

yeah dearieme, I didn't mean that was the general case, my Granddad didn't talk about his involvement in the War for 50 years, mainly because he believed he wasn't allowed to.
I've a lot of respect for the war generation, but it must have been a hard act to follow.