What Happened to Us?
May 26, 2021
I recall in my boyhood the lassitude I felt each First Day of the Week. In those days Sunday was a day without resources to do much at all besides watch TV and listen to radio.
Even the TV stations closed down for some hours during the daytime on a Sunday. No point in going out – no shops open – no people about – if it rained one would sit and listen to the patter and watch the windows crawl with runnels, and feel generally extraordinarily dull and hopeless.
Every Sunday was the same. One never got used to it. Always a restless passivity and a vague undercurrent of dissatisfaction; an enforced idleness for a small boy.
I don’t recall exactly when the curfew of Sundays began to lift. I know that between 1958 and 1964 great changes in society happened rapidly – and to me to since I grew from 8 years old to 14 years old, to an adolescent in the ‘swinging sixties’.
Pubs were open even in the 1950s; but Sunday opening was lunchtime 11am to 2pm, and evening 7pm to 10.30pm. Hard to believe, eh? People wouldn’t swallow that now.
Sunday drinking was a national pastime. Get up wash shave/boudoir, dress, to the pub, home, Sunday dinner, sleep, perhaps sex, and then evening meal and out to the pub again. That was life on Sunday for many working people in London - in a pretty deprived area by today’s measures.
I guess everybody except devout people wanted it to happen – that Sunday should become ‘liberated’ - from sad and gloomy restrictions placed on it by Victorian pious hangovers. And it happened, pretty quickly, by the standards of social change as it happen in the early days.
I forget the sequence for the ‘opening up’ of Sunday. I know that by 1964 there was cinema on Sundays; and soon after came betting shops (but not open Sundays) and dance halls open Sunday nights – The Mecca chain of entertainments ran many. Some few shops opened soon, for restricted hours. Cars and traffic increased – early on Sunday traffic was negligible, but early on few owned a car – by 1964 my brother’s friends – he is two years older than me – were driving motorcycles and soon after graduating to cars.
The music for youth was Radio Luxembourg. That was it. By 1964 we had the phenomenon of pirate radio stations out at sea in the north Sea – Radio Caroline; Radio London – battered old hulks moored just outside territorial waters playing Pink Floyd and The Animals and The Who. All such ‘pop’ stations we financed by commercial advertisements which they aired continuously; but which never came between one’s ears and the music.
The pirate radio stations in a few years were closed down by The State – and The BBC launched Radio 1 a sits pop music flagship – I recall – I think- it was either ‘hole in my shoe ‘ or ‘flowers in the rain’ which was the first song played by Radio 1. By now things were moving rapidly and hippies had appeared and mods and rockers and seaside brawls and lots of job vacancies and high wages even for school-leavers. Illicit drugs began moving in – not conspicuously but now and then could be wafted one’s way.
By 1970 I think more or less Sunday in London had become nearer to being any other day than it was to being, continuing as, a Holy Day. I myself had grown up and Sunday for me had become so unlike Sunday as a child; a day to look forward to and to enjoy as part of one’s free time at weekends. I was as pleased as was any other person – excepting the church people I guess?
Parents bringing up children had a lot to deal with. Never before in Britain had there been a youth culture of the size and power and wealth of the item born during the 1960s. It sold itself on sex (free love) and music (rock and folk mainly) and drugs and booze (age restrictions were easy to get around then); and on ‘alternative’ lifestyles and on generally being ‘hip’ or ‘groovy’.
I recall clothes became a big thing for youngsters. Clothes of kinds only young people bought and wore – a Beatle jacket; a leather; Doc Marten’s; anoraks; Levis mandatory; Italian shoes; sneakers; hush puppies; car coats; poplin shirts; and - like now - tattoos were big – and among the youth.
So, having been born five years after the end of World War Two,during a time when rationing of foods and clothing were still in place, and, when on one’s way to school, one passed gaps in the streets, where no houses were, only rubble of bricks and glass. Bomb sites. Or in the gap had been built what we termed ‘prefabs’ made of pernicious asbestos walls and roofs, single storied and looking very makeshift; but some survived to around 1970. Some of my schoolfellows lived with their families in prefabs. I was always curious about them – never put together the fact that they were stopgaps, built where bombs had destroyed proper houses.
On the topic of houses and housing, in the street nearby were huge town houses, once grand and lived in by the cream, but fallen on evil days and in bad repair now housed on each of about five floors a family of poor people usually being families with huge numbers of children. Eugene Potter went to my school. His family had more than ten kids. ‘Euie’ as they called him.
There was one street, Laurel Terrace, which housed famously huge families, many were headed by rag and bone men who rode a horse around with a cart in the streets calling out for old clothes and stuff which they weighed and gave you cash for. Our they were ex-cons or were scrap metal merchants – mostly they were on the fringes of actual society, not quite travellers but often close to destitution I think?
That was how it was then. Those huge town houses were brutally knocked down in the early sixties to make way for flats, the flavour of the day, and later on for high-rise flats. Beautiful town houses, which like Cordelia will never come again, were butchered and instead of renovation they got utterly destroyed and wiped out. O, how the mighty are fallen! A crime of barbarous Philistinism.
Whilst these spacious houses lay condemned awaiting execution of sentence, standing empty, we – I and my friends - would play in them – a sometimes hair-raising game of jumps and diversions – the floors had no boards only rafters and one could be four floors up dodging from rafter to rafter. One wag knocked through a hole in the chimney fire place, through house-bricks into the house next door – for they were terraced, or perhaps semis.
I recall I found a Time Life book of action photographs of World War II in one house someone had moved out and left behind. It was big and red ‘leatherette’ as they called it covers and the photos were sometimes moving, horrific and astounding. The plume of the bomb on Hiroshima; a Kamikaze attack on a US aircraft carrier; a US soldier flame throwing into caves on Pacific Islands in which Japanese hid to evade capture; a landing craft hitting the beach at Normandy – lots of very remarkable images. I took the book home and kept it for many years looking into it now and then.
At this time came ‘over here’ from The West Indies many immigrants who settled in and around the area I lived in. I recall in the shops where there were small ads’ notice boards under glass for which a newsagent would charge a small fee per week to display people’s wants, need and offers – there were seen too frequently offers for rooms to let with vetoes such as ‘no blacks’ and ‘whites only’ openly allowed and visible.
There was a lot of resentment about immigrants; I think some of it was displaced from the great upheaval so many people and families felt when they were more or less made to move into high-rise flats and see their old homes destroyed for more high-rise to be built on their ashes. Whole communities were torn apart and ruined – and in a high-rise one did not meet many people – one had few neighbours - and there was no street anymore.
Community was not easily able to reform itself or recover from the changes. I for one had my considerable sense of alienation added to greatly by the fact of this funeral pyre of community-wrecking going on. The West Indians could not have come at a worse time -for themselves and for their hosts - in many respects. Old ways dying and being knocked on the head and new ways being solitary and alien and to boot strangers who were conspicuously strangers were there for the brunt of the blame.
The town planners collectively were under mass-illusions that their programmes were the thing and the latest and would be a great success. Go back there now and many, most high-rises are gone and sensible housing has made a bit of a comeback.
The detail I have given about my home place of birth and upbringing is in miniature a semblance of the havoc going on at large in Britain during the years a decade and a half on from the end of the war. Upheaval was everywhere. My school-friends many moved out with their families to the new Towns, Harlow and Stevenage, and Milton Keynes, and I never saw them again. Some emigrated to Australia on a £10 ticket which was being offered to families at that time. I never saw Hilton, my buddy at secondary school first year, after he went there.
I recall my very best beloved friends at junior school, saying goodbye to them at the break up of the final term at that school before we all went separate ways to secondary schools. It was momentous even though we were baffled as to what to say to one another and how to handle the situation. I think we all felt the moment and recall it still wherever we all are now.
To make the sixties ‘swinging’ and to be the harbinger of consumerism and of youth culture and of affluence and of excess and indulgence, that Sunday torpor had to be sacrificed, along with a whole lot of other settled - traditional even – things. In the making of something new many old things, often good things, are demolished.
Since then ‘progress’ has never looked back. Down the decades more and more of the same has been added – exotic holidaying; big cars for nearly everyone; copycat California lifestyle syndrome; hero-worship of persons who need lessons in good manners and a in a due sense of themselves; pushing ever further the sensationalism and horrific and unbelievability of art and movies, of music and of home entertainment and communications; excess, waste, over consumption; recklessness without care for the bigger picture; and so on all – these have arisen simply because we wanted them to happen. We did more than merely acquiesce with the manufacturers and service providers who pushed ever further; we embraced their fare and liked it and made it clear we wanted more.
We have rarely really pushed-back against the deregulation of life at large which has happened to society since the 1960s. Think how long it takes for us to get anything even self evident obvious in place in our society. Smoking killed millions before it became socially undesirable (in patches). Likewise drink-driving. We have obesity pushes after obesity pushes but still we eat chips and burgers and wraps and subs and kebabs and deep fried mars bars. Sugar has been demonised but has never yet successfully been taken off the daily menu for most of us.
The state of the air has improved with the dwindling of traffic during the Covid months; yet we are in a scrum to book holidays of epic proportions ‘to make up for’ the year without a plane trip to Thailand or Belize or Antarctica – one mighty binge to supply the ‘lost experiences’. The pressure is commercial to start up again all the items which are said to be causing Global Warming – and in the main we want them to start up again.
We have a government using a traffic light system to code countries for their availability for holidaying in. The government does not stop people from going to amber nations, it advises only that to go is not acceptable. Yet with our people’s track record, of just wanting more and more of the things which ruin things (for everyone) in the longer term, can you honestly see an amber light preventing many of us from going? Those who can afford the conditions and precautions and inconveniences will go nonetheless – because they can.
It’s a foreign world that Sunday of the 1950s and our people who do not recall it cannot easily imagine it being actual – a time when ordinary people we maybe not content but still compliant – in part because they were less self-assertive and critical; in part because they were deferential to the fact of The Lord’s Day. We are not deferential to almost anything nowadays; although we follow the trends and let ourselves be led by the nose, even as we might poke fun at 1950s life and people.
The worlds of art and of theatre and of ideas is ahead of the times from the perspective of an ordinary working person, if there is such a thing in the UK anymore?
Since the turn of the 20th century; and definitively in the dreadful wake of World War I, artists, men of ideas, and theatrical people have apprehended the world as -what should I say – a mess? - a nonsense? - an absurd free-for-all? - a fragmented and broken vision – a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces can never fit together – a place in which one acts as one is best able to amongst others doing the same – and consequently art,theatre and ideas have been to a man (and woman) a reflection of the disintegration in the minds of those who hold or created them, of their hopes and faiths in holistic visions and understanding of things.
Yeats: “Things fall l apart; the centre cannot hold”
Early Eliot: “On Margate sands I can connect nothing with nothing”
Dadaism; Vorticists; Absurd theatre; Deconstructionists; Nihilists; Atheists; Pragmatists; Post-truth-ists; Fake news-ists; Duchamp; Emin; The Sex Pistols, Hirst.
The exclusion of and dismissal of the plain representation in many art forms -pictorial; architectural; theatrical; literary; and in popular art forms the disintegration of story and narrative for the sake of the preference of show and spectacle, sensationalism and shock; all represent a breakdown.
The breakdown is of the social psyche, in individuals and en masse. The art and the entertainment is a reflection of the cost of loving losing that Sunday of the 1950s; of losing that time when voluntary deference to a larger entity than the self was available and present. Left to oneself each one of us disintegrates – it is inevitable – and that is where we are heading – singly and collectively. For what other outcome can there be?
Our men and women of ideas, of art, and of theatre, have followed into their course of non-representation and abstraction and shock-value and the hallowing of nonsense and disorder, of fractures and disintegrations, simply because once an established order is overthrown in a mind or in a state, and in its place is accepted as being the established fare - no order, no structure, no direction – where else can one go – what else can one expect – except the sort of art, ideas, and theatre – plus in other manifestations such as our movies, literature and in music – than what we have now?
If one throws away one’s eggs – there will be mess
In fact the art of today in many manifestations is not art – it is a cry saying there is no art anymore – and it is this because men and women chose and continue to choose for nothing rather than for something. It is an undeniable fact which only a person insane or wilfully contrarian will attempt to oppose that indeed there is something and there is not nothing.
There is for each persona presence of the world which they perceive; and in normal terms each of us accepts this world is ‘out there’ and we are ‘in it’ - thus this is something – it is a positive whether it is illusory or not the illusion is present as a positive, a something present. This is a very big deal. I say it again it is a very big deal.
Being happy or content to rubbish this positive, call it names and deride it, even deny it signifies anything, and to thereby accept a life which is lacklustre and downbeat,or hedonistic and reckless because ‘there’s nothing’;or to assert oneself as the object of life and so to devalue all others by default, because ‘there’s no comeback’; all this is distortion and disfigurement and derangement and deflection from the fact of the utter incomprehensibility of why, how, what, when, who, where this something positive – this state of being amongst a manifestation of a universe – is coming from, going to, about, doing, meant? These are the valid questions – and not questions of not wanting to be defined by one’s gender, and then wanting to define oneself by one’s gender, or knocking down statues to kill the past and those already dead who made it. These fancies are froth, candy floss, aerosol shaving crème.
To ‘get real’ as one hears said, one is to examine oneself and to consider one’s place in that manifestation of something we call life and being and things existent. Surely to spend time on anything else is like going into a restaurant and expecting champagne when one has ordered soda pop?
The composer Mahler wrote a song to words written by a German poet named Ruckert:
“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” - “I have abandoned the world”
The poet Wordsworth wrote a sonnet beginning:
“The world of late is too much with us”
These are special meanings of the word ‘world’ - it is the place where interactions exclusively between people go on; the place which houses the creations and manufactures, the services provided by people, for one another’s use and enjoyment; the place that gazes at itself within, absorbed and unaware, unthinking, of the greater world, the world of the presence of something, and that something eminently in every way a positive.
Lost in our own back yards.
I don’t think, I don’t mind but don’t especially want, that 1950s Sunday to come back and keep us all in doldrums. It is for me as like The Law that was given to the Hebrews by God via Moses, and which St Paul describes in this way:
“Before this faith came, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Take a look at these words. I close with them. They are The Christ’s; and they are the window into The Other; the meaning of this undeniable positive and presence
“As Jesus spoke these things, many believed in Him. So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.””