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THERE IS A persistent belief (from which even Literary Review does not seem immune) that we live in particularly troubled times. A modest overview of history, however, indicates that most times have been turbulent and that every era has been awful for some people and often for many: it is just that today we have the world’s press (and the Internet) to tell us what is going on elsewhere. This sheer availability of information obscures as well as clarifies our view of things. It ought to mean that, reading of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Tunisia or wherever is the hellhole of the week, we should realise our good fortune and thank fate for our peace and prosperity. But in practice we are so deluged with complaints, warnings and calls to indignation about our own society (which is what the press is there for, to provide drama and keep everyone on their toes) that we ignore these realities.
L o s t i n t h e My t h s o f Ti me modernity (the end of Empire, end of national service, antibiotics, television, l i fe on benefits, s tudent grants), are popularly depicted as a quaint era when ‘the rich’ still had ‘servants’ and when Nice Girls wore gloves and were virgins – or, alternatively, as a period still in the grip of austerity and wartime attitudes.
Those of us who were around then know that these pictures are false – that the Sixties did not break on a slumbering society but on one in which, even before the Pill, sexual mores had undergone a profound change and increasing prosperity was already transforming life with modern kitchens and foreign holidays.
It may well be that our future is much less easy than the present. We shall see. But our anxieties about global warming, over-population, oil running out, and so on, however justifiable, are no different in essence from our forebears’ fears of the Day of Judgement, Norse raiders, Boney or the Nazi invasion. The truth is that, in spite of constant cries of foreboding, we in the UK have lived, ever since the end of the Second World War, in almost unbroken peace, sheltered from the age-old scourges of starvation, plague and brutality. More than that, we have spent the last fifty-five years, since the final end of rationing and the beginning of Macmillan’s You’venever-had-it-so-good era, in a state of increasingly gluttonous comfort.
This point is implicit in the late Tony Judt’s last work, The Memory Chalet. Yet a mass of current books and articles dissect our times in ‘now’ and ‘then’ terms to create the impression of constant, amazing, batter ing change. We want a story told, whether in a political thesis or a personal memoir. We want things to evolve, to believe that there must be some social agenda either of progress or decline. This perception is not confined to old age (from which vantage point some significant change has genuinely taken place) but begins decades earlier. Hence a bizarre collective fantasy is created, in which a recent era that differs only in minor ways from that of the present day is labelled ‘a different world’.
Blessings and evils that realistically belong to a period few people now alive remember are steadily moved forward in the popular imagination to a much more recent date. ‘Dickensian slums’ in London, nearly all of which had disappeared long before the First World War, are now regularly portrayed as lasting until 1939, and quite soon, no doubt, we will be told that they were only demolished in the 1950s. The 1950s themselves, the second half of which was in reality vibrant with a rapidly emerging
And yet there is now a series of popular books about ‘The Sixties’, ‘The Seventies’ and ‘The Eighties’ (with ‘The Nineties’ no doubt soon to follow) dedicated to making out that these near-indistinguishable decades were each distinctive and quite, quite different from today. Dominic Sandbrook (born 1974) is an astute writer, indeed a debunker of myths, yet his State of Emergency: The Way We Were – Britain, 1970–1974 seems mistitled. The three-day week, by world standards and even by those of our own wartime generation, was a fairly minor emergency. Then comes The Seventies Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic Look at a Violent Decade by Gerard DeGroot. Violent? If you think that’s violence… I read one of the numerous memoirs now published and find depicted in it a world of antiquity and prejudice allegedly once experienced by people who are ten – fifteen – even twenty years younger than I am. All right, we all remember selectively, and these are writers rather than impartial witnesses – but can Lorna Sage, of blessed memory, who was not born until 1943, the year before the Education Act, really have attended such a late nineteenth-century elementary school? And how come the resourceful Hilary Mantel (born 1952 and therefore not even eighteen until 1970) was browbeaten by medical ignorance of a 1900 level?
The fact of the matter is that the last fifty-odd years have seen no great social upheaval remotely comparable with that which took place in a mere thirty-one years between 1914 and 1945, in the forcing house of two world wars. Nor has there yet been a revolution in transport, communications or in the expansion of towns such as the nineteenth century experienced. Our ancestors saw the very landscape of their lives transformed in the space of a generation. The arrival of the Internet, to be sure, marks a step change, but its actual effect on living has been talked up out of all proportion for want of other cataclysms. One day we will look wistfully and incredulously back on this present time of ease, with its fantasies of perpetual growth and ‘retail therapy’: how we were between 1955 and two thousand and – when? For change will happen again. Real, inescapable change. We only have to wait. ❑
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011