December 26, 2016
My friend and mentor Rodney Chambers told me a long, long time ago about a Soviet Russian student he had met when he was at Oxbridge. The Russian had entered the UK in the 1960s as a staunch anti-westerner and man of the people and The Party. By a very near interval the Soviet, as Rodney told me the story, had become a ‘rabid materialist’ wearing luxury goods like wristwatches all the way up his arms; and awash in the toils of that nascent consumerism as this was developing in Britain at that time.
The Soviet guy’s transformation was complete; from ascetic hardliner fellow-travelling all the way with the USSR Party Line and reviling western decadence and its squalid squanderings of resources and of labour on trifles; turn very quickly into a man mad for economic consumption under free trade profiteering.
To give you an idea of what this Soviet guy’s home background in Russia might have been like I tell you yet another story, told to me by my friend Richard Milton long ago in the 1980s. Richard’s mother had a friend who dwelt ‘behind The Iron Curtain’ as we called The Soviet Empire borders with the west at that time. This friend, a pen friend I believe, was a woman living in Moscow; that then den of all iniquity.
She was fairly affluent by general Soviet standards and suffered little hardship when compared to those Soviet citizens who lived outside the capital or a big city. By some means she got opportunity to visit Richard’s mother in Britain; and on their parting after the visit the exchange of farewell presents was called for.
Richard had gone to a shop and had bought an item for his mother’s Soviet pen-friend to take home as a memento of her visit to Britain. Richard had gone to a hardware shop; a place in those days which sold building materials and household amenity parts. He had bought for his mother’s pen-friend a hose with a Y shaped joint along its middle; one which into each of the branches of the Y shape went water taps – one hot – one cold - water. The other remaining end of the Y shape held a nozzle which acted to make the mix of the hot and cold water a finer spray. This was in those days in Britain used on bath taps to convert them into a makeshift and fairly primitive shower.
The Soviet pen-friend was utterly overjoyed by her gift she received; such a poor thing, such a makeshift fairly ugly thing; was considered in Russia to be a luxury light years beyond the ethics of production to be considered for making and selling there. This was a time 20 years after Rodney had told me the story of his Soviet fellow student.
But let us go further back to years just before the age of consumerism began to take off a little; a time immediately after a colossal struggle had been won and safety from wanton destruction of all people that held dear had been averted; and World War II had closed with decisive victory for the allied forces. Britain was picking itself back up on its feet. Social political policies were being implemented radically. A National Health Service; Free School meals; free milk for schoolchildren; Welfare clinics springing up everywhere to help ordinary people to live more healthy lives; and especially their children; who were to be inoculated against the killer polio and later smallpox. Radical political forces for kindness to common people were then put in place; many of which survive, even as ghosts, today; and which built an entity which came to be known as The Welfare State.
Britain and Britons had had more than enough of austerity and death and destruction before their eyes daily whether in the forces or dwelling at home. For some few years after the war rationing continued for food; and many luxury items, or what were then considered luxury items, which we today would not give a sniff for; were still not available, not manufactured at all. But soon, in a space of five to ten years Britain began to boom and the fabric of consumerism began to shoot forth as a sapling from an earth of rapid economic change.
Men and women had been separated for some years by the war; and this onslaught of prosperity along with welfare and a caring policy; acted to produce (to reproduce) what became known as The Baby Boom of the 50s and 60s. I myself was born in 1950 – a baby boomer – my junior school class held more than 45 children; whereas the recommended maximum size for classes these days is in the mid twenties – and that includes often a support worker in the classroom along with a teacher.
My childhood by modern standards was deeply deprived. My first wristwatch I bought at 18 from my wages. I had been in full time work two years and by then was earning less than £8 per week and giving my mother £2.50 of that for my board and lodging.
My pocket money as a child was a desultory 6d per week – 2.5 pence in today’s money. When I was old enough, and aged 12 or 13 and in secondary education; I delivered newspapers - two rounds in the evening and one in the morning before and after school. I found jobs before I left school helping with doorstep milk deliveries; with a local bread making factory helping drivers deliver loaves; with a cosmetics firm loading boxes for rich women onto vans for delivery – anything to get some currency and income.
Our home was probably below the poverty line even in terms of back then. But the Welfare State made me – milk gave me good bones; School meals aided my growth physically to maturity and good health. The Health Service saved my mother’s life and my brother’s leg; I myself was cushioned by it from the worst evils of illness.
Later on, at 21 I was to receive a full grant of money to go to university for three years and to study; which none in my family had every yet done; and the grant was provided out of taxation from a Local Government Council.
Luckily for me a window; a brief window, had opened whereto I was able to climb in lawfully and so take a privileged share of the resources at the common disposal of British society and its citizens. Not that my social class being alien to most other undergrads in those days did not cause me great difficulties with them; but yet I was super-motivated to learn and to study; because I was not of that ilk whereby it was an expectation, a matter of course, to finish ones education by topping it up with a degree.
These Baby Boomers, many of them like me were – at least by todays standards – from poor homes; homes which had a small fraction of the amenities and facilities we take as given necessities these days. This is not a brag or a boast of how hardy and resilient we were; no sort of anti-snobbery here at all: a bare fact only.
These are the people in Britain (and probably likewise in the USA?) who are now over 60 years old and many, maybe most, retired from their working lives. This segment is a huge slice of the population here in Britain; because of that boom in babies; and we have lived on so long largely because of the great starts we were given by The National Health Service; school meals and disease inoculations; general welfare and a rapid rise in standards for healthcare and diet during the 50s and 60s.
As Baby Boomers ours has been a ride on a carousel, so that when we compare our trouble free and horn of plenty lives to those difficult weary lives of peoples for maybe all of the previous human history; other perhaps than the gentry and the establishment classes over the ages. Churchill might be parodied here to say that:
‘Never in the field of human comfort; have so many done so much better than the lieu’ Harold MacMillan, a Tory Prime Minister of Britain at the close of the 50s, spoke his mind utterly truthfully when he claimed at that time for us all that ‘You have Never Had it so Good’. His words went into history and popular remembrance knows them here in UK today. He was also prescient on another phenomenon; on South African Apartheid on which he famously said; ‘The wind of change is blowing through Africa’. It took another 30 years and the lifetime of one superb man to get that wind to ‘blow their house down;’ but it came.
The Baby Boomers were a generation lifted from rags to riches (comparatively speaking) ‘at a stroke’ as Prime Minister Edward Heath in the 1970s said about an early devaluation of the British Pound; the 1960s were awash with money like never before: in Britain anyone with half a brain or half a body could gain full employment with more or less ease.
Most people know the social story of the 1960s – the pop culture; hippies; foreign holidays; flights abroad; car boom; traffic jams; motorways; television for everyman; demise of cinema; designer clothing; etc etc – and so was it not for those who had vestigial memories of privation and austerity – the Baby Bookers – an earthy paradise opened up suddenly to flower before their eyes and their pockets?
And is not their story here rather like a long-range-weather forecast which is retelling in slow motion the story of the Soviet student at Oxbridge which my friend and mentor Rodney told me; with his arms loaded to the shoulders with western wristwatch movements? Is it not the joy and delight of my friend Richard’s Soviet friend at her receiving that unlikely shower head gift? At an impressionable age ‘things’ suddenly became affordable and in plenty for the Baby Boomers.
And since then our economic wedded bliss with consumerism has gone on from strength to strength until today (and perhaps beyond today?) the world can and is being bought and sold daily at a money price; and nothing remains sacrosanct in the face of free market predations.
As a result, or maybe also because of this, our mores are changing; have changed accordingly; and who else might shepherd our alteration into ‘rabid materialists’ than the advertising industries and the much vaunted misnomered ‘creative industries’ most especially. All of us now are intoxicated by the proliferations of goods and services seemingly placed at our feet by the consumerist ethos – by its overproduction and by our overconsumption of resources and of materials – but the Baby Boomers showed us the way first by lavishing upon themselves and on their unruly children the marriage breakup, the parody of the funeral shindig; the everlasting leisure of cruise-taking to far away places where exotic life forms yet turn a plough by hand; they gave us Florida and Orlando ; Paris and Disneyworld; Centre Parcs and Weekender breaks; the whole nine yards of Life as Theme Park with its rides and accommodations.
What, you might ask, stimulates in me this vituperation at my own generation and compatriots? Well, here is a resume of two current Television advertisements now showing on British TV. One is for ‘Viking Cruises’ and the other is for ‘Anchor Spreadable Butter’.
Two elderly couples; one black; one white sit opposite one another on the deck of a cruise liner – so far all is nicely PC; the social mix and harmony angle is slotted in; a shibboleth of our days. But what is it that is to be out of favour and used as a pariah for the TV viewers to assent to baiting an in-common Aunt Sally, at which muck jollily is to be slung? It is ‘the grandchildren’ no less. Straplines such as ‘ We’ve just come back from a family holiday – so we need a holiday’ and ‘of course we miss the little darlings’ this said over the phone to their children, the parents of the grandchildren, and about the grandchildren; and said with fingers crossed to signify a ‘whopping white lie’ being told. These kinds of bid for one’s sympathies, these newly emergent mores, are reinforcing the new and upcoming acceptable social outlooks as these are espoused by many Baby Boomers and their progeny right here and now.
The terrible messages are: Family is a clog; a nuisance; a thing to be borne and suffered but not celebrated or enjoyed. One’s grown adult children are not to look to their parents for help, love, assistance, care, especially not reagrding their own children, who are their parents’ grandchildren.
No, the oldie Baby Boomers want to ‘get away’ from all that and to live out their retirements in adherence to Borrower Arietti’s First Rule of Borrowing: i.e. ‘Have as much fun as you can!’ But ‘fun’ here is all selfish fun; self indulgence and the hard cold shoulder to those to whom all love and loyalty ought always to be offered given and available. Their (irony?) ‘nearest and dearest’.
The ‘Anchor Spreadable butter’ advertisement has grandma give a toy elephant to a grandchild, whilst sitting dining with her daughter the child’s mother. The elephant has a squeeze function which sound a trumpet call – not loud – but perhaps –perhaps – little able to cloy for adults after a time? The child repeatedly trumpets the elephant and the adults begin to fray a little. Grandma receives black looks from mum for giving the gift. Grandma impassive and ineffectual sit and takes that blame. Mother then; to close the issue, brushes away her child callously and with a backhanded sweep knocks the child quite violently to the ground. Mother takes consolation in spreaded bread with Anchor butter: The end.
This ethos concerning tolerating one’s children is appalling in my view. The treatment of the grandma is atrocious. It is cartoon yet still its promulgation of a new approach to family and to familial relations is very nasty and insidious. That in public is condoned, and advocated even, a view which supportive of a summary dismissal and an attack on one’s child because the child is innocently enjoying a toy, a gift, it is beyond belief!
Over recent years alterations in the public ethos have occurred swiftly and radically: that is why Trump is in power and Brexit – ‘British suicide’ – was victorious – and these shifts in mores and in what is and is not acceptable behaviour in public life have been effectual in condoning, even advocating, that the old stuffy public standards should die and instead should be let loose an ‘anything-goes’ outlook to prevail in its place. Stuff like manners, politeness, punctuality, respect, due deference, and a host of petty kindnesses and generous regards have all been, are being swiftly being, jettisoned as old stuffy formalities which no one ever really felt or believed in anyway – good only for the Corporation tip.
And of course this is where the GREAT LIE, and the GAPING FALACY enters in. Because one oneself subjectively meant no goodwill when shaking hands with another; because one oneself felt no duty in love to a parent or a grandparent when having to look after them; because one oneself felt no gladness when a person showed good manners and went out of their way to assist; because one oneself felt nothing but derision or at best was left cold by seeing or experiencing such events; this means FOR ONESELF that all the world is in one’s own image and likewise is paying only lip-service and going through the motions when these dry stuffy formalities were in use and in vogue.
And here we have 21st century Britain ‘to a tee’ – the liberation from so-called ‘constraints’ of public standards of behaviour is a reflection of and a result of a fall in individual care and consideration for others – the triumph of the yahoo, or of the populist ‘devil take the hindmost’ ‘eat drink and be merry’ outlook.
In truth it is no liberation at all; because it imposes upon so many innocents who deserve and are due from everyone far better: The triumph of Caliban over Miranda; of Shylock over Portia; of Iago over Othello; of the Philistines over Kingdom of Heaven.
We the Baby Boomers first led the way and are leading the away still to yet further depravities. A large segment of British society having a wholly disproportionately high spending power, of disposable incomes; who take cruises too often and weekend breaks too regularly; exotic travels and entertainments; who wholly refurbish their houses annually; who indulge themselves on too many drinks; surplus clothes; and all things ‘nice’ - these baby Boomers are the darlings of the consumer industrialists to whom they can and do supply acres of profits and sales.
And so they are a target, a very susceptible target, for panderings by consumerist traders. Hence we have the very people who were lifted out of poverty by a social kindness in action and which we labelled The Welfare State; who have developed to adulthood and then lived on so as to have learned only to kick in the teeth the very caring and kindness which allowed and nurtured their lives of wellbeing.
The chorus is all very much the same – it is always: ‘Let the State look after me. I want to enjoy the rest of my life right now whist I am still fit and mobile.’ George Harrison’s song fittingly comes to mind;
_“All through' the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine All through' the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Now they're frightened of leaving it Ev'ryone's weaving it, Coming on strong all the time, All through' the day I me mine.
I-I-me-me mine, I-I-me-me mine, I-I-me-me mine, I-I-me-me mine.
All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine. Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one's frightened of playing it Ev'ryone's saying it, Flowing more freely than wine, All through' the day I me mine.
I-I-me-me mine, I-I-me-me mine, I-I-me-me mine, I-I-me-me mine.
All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine. Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one's frightened of playing it Ev'ryone's saying it, Flowing more freely than wine, All through' your life I me mine.”_
I leave you with one of the simplest thoughts ever expressed; expressed by the most excellent life ever lived; and capable of untold depths and of an endless unpacking. It speaks totally for itself:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”