I went to the funeral of a client. She was a lady who had lived a very long life. She had overcome adversity having been orphaned at a very young age and fostered out, as well as being separated from her siblings. She became a professional in health care in her thirties and ran her own practice. It sounded to me as though her life was anything but simple, and she achieved what she did though determination and hard work.
I happened to have a chat with the minister who took the funeral service. We agreed that there were less distractions for children growing up than there are now with all the technology, social media and, perhaps consequently, shorter attention spans. However, it seems to me that what my late client achieved in her younger days was actually much harder than it would be now. For one thing she was a woman, no one had the “right” to higher education when she was eighteen just before the Second World War, and a decade after the war when I was very small those opportunities were still not available.
When we were growing up as kids, we were not short of food. In many ways we were quite insulated from adversity, so I cannot say we suffered like the Four Yorkshireman. Our diets were more restricted because there was not the variety of food, there were few supermarkets, and those that there were carried nothing exotic. In the Sixties, even if we had money, there were few package holidays and because the Labour government had devalued the Pound, they were expensive. The Government had also restricted the amount of Sterling people could convert into foreign currency to go on holiday anyway. The country was regularly brought to a halt by striking workers in the public sector because of the economic problems and pressure on wages. Yes, your heart would not bleed because people were deprived of holidays in Spain, but the point is that many things we take for granted now were simply not available.
We live now in the Age of the Internet. Anything we might be able to buy, we can find. We can shop for almost any variety of foreign food we like, thanks to our outward looking trade connections and of course the immigrant population who have also created the demand. Life for most people is incomparably better than it was for those living in the Fifties and Sixties. Of course there are those who have missed out, and they can be resentful, quite understandably. Most of us, even the poor, have more than we might have had half a century or so ago.
Somehow, many have forgotten this; even those who were alive then. They forget how their parents struggled. They forget how difficult travel was, unless as a special treat on the train, or daily on the school bus. They forget the boiled potatoes and cabbage, the awful school meals, the school masters who beat them for some misdemeanour.
Where has this discontent got us? It has got us to a point where many voters want to wind back the clock to a time when their country was more isolated, when there were fewer immigrants, and when life seemed easier. It was not easy. If we were alive then, we were children and even poorer parents mostly shielded their kids from the worst.
People vote for nostalgia, even when what they hark back to is not real. They vote for Brexit, and in America they might vote for Donald Trump, when as Harold Macmillan once said of Britain “we never had it so good”, which relative to earlier times was true.
Those who vote for the past rather than the future threaten our way of life, and theirs. They believe the storytellers of the past and their false memories. Let us try gently to bring them back to the present.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again
A E Housman, from A Shropshire Lad (1896)