Saturday, 30 December 2006

RETROSPECTIVE

As I’m older than most posters, my memory threads stretch back further. My earliest clear recollections are from being about 5 or 6, though I have been told a lot of anecdotes about my babyhood and have many photographs. It was the early 1930s, around the time that Hitler came to power in Germany – a seminal event that troubled people far less at the time than it should have done. For a few years family life mattered far more to us than the bigger world, as we had many troubles. All that changed with Munich, when I was 11. Even though the crowds cheered hysterically when Chamberlain returned from wooing Hitler waving his silly “Peace in Our Time” message, scarcely anyone else – and maybe not even the cheerers – believed any longer when the Beaverbrook Daily Express proclaimed every morning that there would be no war in Europe that year, or the next one either.

The 1940s – my teenage years – were wartime ones. Inevitable anxieties and shortages were sustained by a degree of social cohesion and national determination which had only been equalled during the Napoleonic Wars, 130 years earlier. Even after Dunkirk, with scarcely any viable defences and inadequate manpower, and the year-long Blitz, hardly anyone in Britain thought for a single moment that Hitler would defeat us. Looking back, it was amazing.

We emerged from the war exhausted and bankrupt, which did not deter the post-war Labour government from embarking on an ambitious programme of social reform. But Britain was overstretched, and dependent on American loans and subsidies which have only just been paid back. Regardless of the political arguments, that government – historic though its achievements were – made the psychological mistake of prolonging wartime austerity and food rationing too far into peacetime. When they were defeated, it was largely by the promises of Lord Woolton – a consummate salesman – that the Conservatives would give the people ‘good red meat’ - which he, as the new Minister of Food, proceeded to do.

The 1950s were a time of hope, and also some frustration. People felt they deserved a better deal after all their strenuous efforts and wartime sacrifices. There was also the growing shadow of the Bomb and the escalating Cold War of words between the USA and the Soviets. It was my first decade as an independent adult, earning my living on my own in London, where I have lived ever since. In 1956 the country was dramatically polarised by the Suez Crisis, which aroused even stronger emotions than the Iraq War. It is the only time I can recall when total strangers were arguing heatedly with one another on public transport [no blogsites for letting off steam in those days]. As with the rise of Hitler, Suez was a far more seminal event for Britain then we realised at the time. It marked the effective end of our Imperial pretensions, and the arrival of the USA as a major player in the Middle East.

The 1960s were a peak time of achievement for me. As I came up to 40, I succeeded in helping to pilot a minor, though highly important, social reform onto the Statute Book. It was an intensely busy time, and broadened my interests, contacts, and activities considerably. At the beginning of that decade, too, I formed my life-partnership which still endures steadfastly, though not as happily as of yore because of advancing age and failing health. Another aspect of the Sixties is that they were a time of gentleness, hope, and social experimentation for a new generation of young people. The era of Carnaby Street, Flower Power, and the Beatles. An innocent age, despite the freer use of [mostly soft] drugs. People were kinder, and one did not feel automatically suspicious of each new acquaintance. A whole barrel of twaddle has been dumped upon the ‘Sixties by old-fashioned jaundiced folk like Norman Tebbit and Mary Whitehouse, who blamed the ‘permissiveness’ of the decade for all the country’s subsequent ills. All I can say is that I was at the centre of the Soho club scene then, and friendly with most of the social workers concerned with young people in Central London, and I used to happily park my car in any Soho street several times a week until 2 or 3 in the morning – something I would never dream of doing nowadays.

The ‘Seventies became an uphill struggle, as demands for social and counselling help mushroomed and funding dwindled. The charity I ran kept going by the skin of its teeth, but for a number of reasons I retired in the late 1970s and concentrated more on freelance writing work and training as a counsellor. The decade ended with the triumphal advent of Margaret Thatcher, and support for “fringe” causes and caring for the marginalised members of society shrivelled. Some of the achievements of the Iron Lady may have been nationally beneficial, like a bracing cold bath, but she made kindness and concern for others unfashionable with her infamous pronouncement that there was “no such thing” as society – only individuals and families. This mechanistic outlook became increasingly stale, and poisoned the attitudes of the rising generations. The “New Labour” landslide of 1997 was greeted with near-universal euphoria – how mistakenly we are only now coming to realise.

The next great watershed in all our lives was, of course, what the Americans miscall ”9/11”. I can remember my next-door neighbour calling out over the fence “There’s something peculiar going on at the World Trade Centre”. We turned on the television and gaped. It was indeed peculiar, and the world has been getting more and more peculiar ever since. Much food for future blogs there!

Now it’s almost 2007. A century ago, in 1906, there was a national euphoric moment when the social-reforming Liberal government swept into power with Labour support. I wonder if there will be another such euphoric moment during my lifetime? One can only wait, and hope.

6 comments:

Jose said...

You awakened my memories, Anticant. Much of what you say I remember. You must know that the Canary Islands have had of always very close links with Britain. In fact there are many British families living of old all over the islands. Streets with English names, such as Horatio Nelson's in Tenerife where Lord Nelson was beaten in his attempt at conquering the island and lost his arm.

As you say those were other times, because the people of Tenerife after the battle tended to the wounded, fed the sailors, lodged them and bid them goodbye in peace.

The trade between the Canary Islands and Britain grew considerably, there is even a dock in London named Canary Dock, where ships with tomatoes and bananas from the Islands unloaded and loaded. From Britain the Canaries imported industrial products from refrigerators to cars, lorries and tractors.

I was in London in the early 1950s and there still were many scars from the war. As an anecdote I lost 8 kilos in one month just by walking about to see everything I could at off-work hours.

Here Franco's dictatorship ruled the country's isolation from the rest of the then democratic world. But the Canaries were privileged: we had close relations with Britain.

Which have been kept along the years.

Thank you for those memories.

anticant said...

Thank you for sharing those memories, Jose. There is always hope. The two most unexpected [to me] - and hopeful - events of the past quarter-century have been the emergence of Spain from a backward, poor, priest-ridden dictatorship into a thriving democracy, and the transformation in Western Europe of social attitudes towards gay people.

My ending words, "Wait, and hope", are the concluding words of the greatest [IMHO] novel ever written - Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo". They are words we must cling on to in these difficult times.

Merkin said...

In years to come people will say to one another 'Where were you when you heard about President Hussein's execution?'
That will be on a par with 'Your Kennedy moment or 9/11 moment'.

Lovely piece, Anti-que ,keep going with the retrospectives.

anticant said...

I won't! I couldn't care less about the guy except that I'm agin capital punishment. What I want to know is: Why wasn't it bin Laden?

But if Bush and Blair had been strung up alongside Saddam as in the Calvary story, now that WOULD be something to remember....

Jose said...

Indeed, Anticant. LOL. I however must say that should all those responsible for the war be strung up as you say, we would have to use the Himalayas.

Suzon said...

Yes, some times are inspirational and to be treasured. Those of us who have experienced one of those brief eras are fortunate indeed.

For the oldest Americans, for example, the Depression was such a time. Although it wasn't strictly true, it felt as though everyone was in the same boat. People with practicly nothing themselves paid a nickel to have their windows cleaned, even if the windows weren't all that dirty.

I recall the optimism (and real danger) of the American civil rights movement. Progress was made (not enough of course, but most remains in place).

(I'm not sure that the Americans really misnamed "9/11" given that it happened on American soil. I'm just grateful it didn't get given a more grandiose name.)

Thanks for your memories, Anticant. Let's hope that 2007 finds the pendulum swinging back towards a gentler and kinder world.