That shallow decade

In an article in the Times today Libby Purves assures us that the Tories have changed. What’s more so has Britain and we’re all the better for it. She’s talking about the Tories and the Britain of the 80s: the decade of Thatcherism, loadsamoney, Section 28, miners’ strikes and the Falklands War. She says:

[T]hat shallow decade can’t be repeated. Britain is — believe it or not — much pleasanter and more thoughtful than it was on emerging from the bruising, punkish, strikebound 1970s. During the 1980s, remember, hardly anybody in government gave a damn about the environment: debates about badgers and newts were confined to the backwaters of the House of Lords, and welfare organic farming — when we took it up in 1990 — was widely and viciously mocked. Homophobia flowered into Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Racial discrimination was technically illegal but dislike was open: who can forget Lord Tebbit’s weird remark on the Today programme about the Ugandan-Asian born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown :“This Miss Brown may think she’s British . . .”

I can’t help but admire the way Purves deftly palms off the blame for the aggressive atmosphere of ‘that shallow decade’ onto the one that preceded it, or rather its tail end when Labour were in power; but the 80s was a far more abrasive decade than the 70s. Where the 70s spat, the 80s bludgeoned. And bludgeoned and bludgeoned. It was as though Mrs Thatcher saw herself as Churchill in drag and her battles – with Argentina, with the miners, with anybody and everybody (even members of her own party) – as a second Second World War.

In a way it was a war, but Argentines aside, it was mostly a war with ourselves as we tried to work out who we were and what we believed in because this was the decade when the consensus around our national identity and culture broke down. The 70s might have been a decade of ‘socialism’ but it was also the last decade it was possible to talk unchallenged of Britain as a Christian nation. I remember the 80s as the decade in which my family stopped watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day; the decade in which it became acceptable, even in the more conservative parts of the country, to live together ‘outside of wedlock’ (what a quaint expression that seems now); and the decade in which we stopped thinking of non-white Britons as ‘immigrants’, or at least started the process. It was also, courtesy of AIDS, the decade in which we started to openly discuss (and accept) homosexuality.

It’s really only now that i can see, looking back, what a time of upheaval it was. Despite the way in which Purves contrasts the 80s and the more socially enlightened times we live in now, it was the 80s when, half-hidden by the belligerent materialism of the decade, the very developments she describes began to put out shoots. It’s ironic really that the things the Tories wanted to preserve – monarchism, Christianity, marriage and so on – are the very things their economic philosophy helped to undermine. The more individuals were ‘encouraged’ to be self-sufficient, the more their dependence on (and consequently attachment to) traditional institutions weakened.

Whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It has certainly created problems for us as a society, problems we have so far failed to find convincing solutions to. Dispersed and disconnected families, buildings in which so-called ‘neighbours’ live side by side for years without so much as speaking to one another, an increasing fear of crime – of being robbed or short-changed by A.N. Other; these are less pleasant manifestations of our modern self-oriented culture.

I wonder if we really are more ‘thoughtful’? I think we are certainly more careful in what we say about one another. But how much does that reflect progress in our attitudes and how much does it reflect the fact that without a common culture it is hard to work out what the boundaries of the acceptable are? We over-censor or we fail to censor ourselves at all. The war with ourselves has gone undercover now: it’s waged mostly anonymously via comments on news articles, and to a lesser extent on blogs and social network sites. I don’t know about ‘pleasanter’. To my eyes it looks vicious.

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Back from a funeral

Just back from a funeral. The man who died was a colleague in his early 50s, an extremely popular man, and the suddenness of his death has left the office in his shock. “I keep expecting to him to walk through the door,” is a remark I’ve heard several times; and it’s true, it really does just feel like he’s on holiday. I’m sure it’s different for his family: for them the absence will already be too long to feel normal; but for his co-workers, myself included, grief is precluded by a feeling of unreality.

This, i think, explains the scene at the crematorium as we all waited for the family to arrive. People were laughing and joking and talking about their everyday lives. It was only when the hearses came through the gate, bearing the coffin and the family, that a hush came over us. Suddenly, we had visible proof – if only indirectly in the form of the coffin – that a death really had occurred. We stood and watched as the procession drew nearer, preceded by two men in the uniform of the undertaker: formal coats and top hats.

At this point i was aware of a feeling of expectancy – the necessary ritual had begun. ‘Finally,’ i thought, ‘ i will understand that he’s dead.’ But as the family emerged from the hearses they were laughing and joking. They had obviously decided to make it ‘a happy occasion’. I understand why they chose to do this and the ‘celebration of life’ was very moving in parts, not to mention illuminating: i’d never realised that he was a fellow Morecambe & Wise fan. Still, i can’t help but feel that we do need in some way to address the death. A person was alive and now they are dead – and they will always be dead. We need a ritual to allow us to cross the bridge from the first of those realities to the second.

As it is, somewhere inside me i’m still expecting him to be back in work – tomorrow perhaps or maybe next week. How he’ll laugh when we tell him he’s dead…