TIME is not fixed, in spite of our clocks and watches, sometimes the hours and days rush by in a blur, one day its Bank Holiday Monday then in a flash the days get shorter and the nights longer and darker. December is a busy month for all Christians and three members of my family had birthdays in December, now there is just one. It is the time to think about those loved ones who are not here any more. It shocks me to think I’m the oldest member of my family but its true.
I’ve always wondered about the where and when of my life. My parents worked very hard to take care of us, there were few luxuries and holidays. I understood that sometimes mother was very tired; washing the only energy from the power of her arms; cooking from the raw ingredients, not simply opening a packet to pop in the micro-wave and sweeping up the coal dust and the ashes. A coal fire is very cosy, but it does involve a daily round of clearing up the mess. My life has been so much easier; the amazing invention of the washing machine plus the tumble dryer, the disappearance of coal fires and the blessing of central heating. Yes I confess the micro-wave has an honoured place in my kitchen and ready meals are not unknown. on the other hand providing for the next generation seems to involve a lot of money, university grants have disappeared and debt now looms large for young people.
I am reading, ‘ The Five Giants [New Edition]: A Biography of the Welfare State’ by Nicholas Timmins, published in 1995. The book is a very illuminating history of a period which covers most of my life time. It covers the difficult and long drawn out birth of the Welfare State, historians date the official life of the W.S. began in 1948, there was a tentative start on pensions and free education from the end of the nineteenth century but the Five Giants; Want, Ignorance, Idleness , Disease and Squalor were brought together by Sir William Beveridge in his report published in 1942.
The Welfare State has been present in my life since 1948 to the present day, sometimes in the background and at others very much in the foreground. To me the political is very personal. I started school at the age of five and it was free, at the age of eleven I sat the 11+ and got a free place at grammar school. In my teens I had my appendix removed by the National Health Service. My father returned from his army service in a very poor state of health, for some months he was in hospital until he recovered sufficiently to be looked after at home. The doctor who treated him came from Jamaica. The family was supported by sickness benefit. Later he was able to return to work.
Long ago when a small child I began to talk, the language I was speaking was English, my parents’ language was English, we lived in England. Everything was plain sailing, I enjoyed talking and listening, our main entertainment was listening to the radio, although its name at that time was the wireless, which was odd because the connection was a long wire which was plugged into the electrical system. My father liked to talk to me when he came home from work. When I was four years old father stopped coming home from work, he was called up to be a soldier. There was an awful emptiness in the house, my baby brother, my sister, my bereft mother and I missed him dreadfully. Sometimes two aunts, Josie and Vera came to keep us company. We all spoke English, it was the only language we knew. The day of the big adventure came, it was time for me to go to school. We all walked to school on the first day, I went into a very large room full of boys and girls and one big girl who was the teacher.
She asked me my name and put a mark beside it in the register. I sat down at a table and she gave me a piece of orange paper and some crayons and suggested I draw some shapes on the paper. My memory assures me I drew beautiful squares, circles and triangles. I don’t remember being taught to read, or write or count, in some magical way I learnt these new skills and they are still an endless source of delight and pleasure all these many years later. I do remember learning to play the triangle and carefully following those beautiful blue notes, sadly my musical talent came to an early end and I prefer to listen to CDs produced by very skilled musicians.
Books and toys were in very limited supply during those war-time years, the teacher read stories and nursery rhymes, we danced, we sang and we made our own music with drums, castanets and triangles. I found a best friend, a clever girl who lived in the street just across the back lane, Joyce was kind and jolly and happy to be my best’st friend. The worst thing that happened to me was mostly my own fault, I climbed on top of the iron railings in the yard, someone touched my feet and I fell and hit my head on the ground. I was taken home and put to bed. The next day I recovered and returned to school.The classroom was a sanctuary in 1943.
The next adventure was joining the free library, a note from the teacher was required stating that I would take care of any book I took home and I could in fact read. The Kayll Road library was within walking distance but it was on a very busy road tram cars and lorries went up and down, private cars were few in those days. My mother told me I must wait until my sister could go with me, as she was eighteen months younger than me I had to wait for some months before her teacher signed the required permission. At last the day came and we both got on the tram which carried us up the bank and stopped in front of the library door. We walked up the steps, there was a door to go in and another to come out. We gave the librarian our permission tickets and she gave us a small cardboard ticket and showed us the junior library room. All around the room were bookshelves full of hundreds of books and there were a couple of tables piled high with books. I was bewildered how to choose the right book. One of those early books was ‘ Milly, Molly, Mandy’ I think the rhyming words together with the pictures made it very appealing. Most books were not beautifully illustrated picture books of the type that many years later I was able to buy for my son. Some books had a number of pictures in but the story was told in the text. I have no memory of the first book I took home, I simply understood that hundreds of books were available and in time I could read every single one of them. I suppose a very similar feeling to a child of today receiving their first mobile phone, suddenly the whole world seems within reach. Myself I don’t use a mobile phone, technology a step too far, but I do have bookcases at home with books tumbling out of them.
My present passion is a more detached look at the many and varied ways the English language can be used, I’m reading, ” Mother Tongue-The English Language,” by Bill Bryson. Its witty, easy to read and full of anecdotes. Bryson is an American who lives in North Yorkshire, almost a next door neighbour, he informs me that 300 million people speak English. I am just so lucky because its the only language I speak and read, I learnt a little French and Latin at school, only scraps of words remain, “bonjour madame, merci beaucoup, je suis une vieille femme, au revoir”. Latin I know had a huge influence on the English language, the Latin for free is libre, so our word library is a derivation of this word, books can be read for free.
The digital age also means that we can hear other people speaking their own words, we can tune in to people all over the world, we can connect. Books and newspapers are still very important but we can find our own information. The views of a media baron like Rupert Murdoch are not the full story, we can find the rest of the story, the true account. We still must ask ourselves is this fake news or is it an honest, true account of the world in which we live.
Sometimes the internet is wonderful and I love it, at other times it is absolutely infuriating. Beyond my understanding and refusing to do anything I ask it and I have no idea why. My original idea was to be full of praise, the way my words can reach all over the globe and be seen by people I will never meet and never be able to talk to face to face. this makes it the digital technical advance of the twenty-first century most loosely allied to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century. Books were still rare and precious objects but they were able to spread rapidly across the world. At that time it was only a tiny fortunate minority of people who could decipher these black hieroglyphics and read. Many of these people lived in monasteries studying the bible or the administrative class of the governing elite. This makes it the premier advance of the early years of this century. Computers started off as extremely large, hugely expensive machines, now most children in the affluent world can hold a computer in their small hand, that is the iPhone as it were a child’s first reading book.
I certainly don’t understand how the internet may revolutionise the transmission of information, at present the transmission of visual images seems to be the preferred option. The powerful millionaires who control the media have until now exercised a tight control over the access to information which explains to us how our society and societies in general are actually organised. We are entertained with gossip and the scandalous behaviour of celebrities. A limited number of newspapers, for example the Guardian , the Observer and the BBC try to explain the process and the end results of the factual decisions which are made by politicians on behalf of us all but in fact benefit a very small proportion, the 1% to the detriment of the vast majority of the population.
I used to feel that I lived in an open, democratic society where the worst things no longer happened to an innocent, law-abiding citizen, now I think I was mislead. In the last three decades the gap between the fabulously wealthy and the rest of us has grown exponentially. Wages and salaries have remained static and benefits have been drastically reduced, and then there is the catastrophe of the Universal Benefit. Some people will receive no U.B. for the month of December. Is Scrooge a member of the cabinet, can they be serious?
There is a lot of interest at present in the economies of the USA, Britain and most of Europe, a good deal of it sparked off by a book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. He has also broadcast on many different television stations. He and his associates have collected an enormous amount of data from many countries around the world. Professor Piketty is eager to explain the conclusions we need to draw from this factual data. Big changes have taken place in the world’s biggest economies since the 1970s, put simply the 1% have grown vastly more rich and the rest of us have stood still and the poorest have actually seen a fall in their income, this is called Austerity. Professor Danny Dorling coined the term the 1% and even the 0.01% for those whose wealthy has exploded.
The Canadian economist Chrystia Freeland published in 2014 her study, ” Plutocrats:-The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. ” Many economists are concerned about the static position of the majority and the pauperisation of those at the bottom of society and the effects that this will have on the peace and stability of twenty-first century societies. The period beginning in the late 1940s to the 1980s was a period of rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War. In most countries as in the UK a Welfare State was developed to alleviate poverty and care for the whole population, the promise of a better future for everyone ‘from the cradle to the grave’. My family was one of those millions; fed, housed, educated and provided for in times of sickness. an improvement to the poverty my parents had grown up in in the 1920s.
The gradual ending of the first industrial age and the movement to globalisation in the 1970s led to an increase in unemployment and further calls on the Welfare State. As we all know the W.S. is paid for out of taxation. The majority of workers pay their income tax without question, it is taken automatically without debate. The 1% have tax experts to point out how deductions and costs can be removed from the total amount legally. No doubt there are some who ignore bonuses and the return on shares with very dubious legality. According to Professor Piketty the right solution is a progressive annual tax on Capital. He goes on to add that if we are to regain control over Capitalism, we must bet everything on democracy, only regional political integration can lead to effective regulation of the globalised patrimonial system of Capitalism of the twenty-first century. Is this the reason we’re leaving the European common market?
Yesterday I watched a programme on BBC 2 ” The Super-Rich and Us it focused on the UK: We have more billionaires per head than any other country in the world: we are the most unequal nation in Europe
The last thirty years the middle class have stood still, the younger generation are becoming renters.
The top 1% pay themselves 780x the average salary.
Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize winning Economist in 2013 has stated, “Growing income and wealth inequality is recognised as the greatest social threat of our times. The renewed greed of the top 1% has had worse effects than even the financial crash of 2008.—–They use the media, much of which they own to promote the view that such greed is justifiable, it leads to the trickle down effect. The trickle down effect is a myth.
The next few days are all jumbled up, the house was strange and none of the familiar cups and saucers, chairs,or beds; the cupboards had none of the familiar buckets, brushes and dusters inside. One thing is clear in my mind, one morning my sister Jean and me and Mum got the tram into town to go to the Housing Office. A lot of other people, mainly mothers and children had the same idea. The year was 1943, the previous night had been one of the worst bombing nights of the war, Hendon the area around the docks was one of the most devastated areas. Shipyard workers lived close to their work on the river and the ships were the principal objects of the German bombers. The ships in the River Wear were the main source of the coal required by the industries in the south and the midlands which formed a large part of the war effort. My father had already been called up into the army as he was a very recent starter as a shipyard worker and the forces by this time were running very short of men.
My mother, my sister and I waited for what seemed a wearisome long time, at last our details were noted but no accommodation was offered. We caught the tram back to our relation’s kind hospitality. There was another matter to be sorted out, in September of that year I was due to start school, mother was looking forward to it almost as much as I was. The next day our little party was out looking for the nearest school, luckily within in few streets we came upon a large brick built school. The school yard was enclosed within a wall and the whole impression was of something permanent and solid. Mother looked at the nearby streets, were there any uncurtanned windows. Directly opposite the school she spied two blank windows upstairs, made brave by the cramped conditions of her present accommodation, she knocked politely on the front door. It was opened by a neatly dressed woman who assured mother , yes, there were three empty rooms upstairs. She agreed to let us have a look, the largest room contained a coal fire-place, the room at the back looked big enough for a double bed. There was a smaller bedroom at the front and amazingly there was a bathroom with an indoor toilet. In addition there was a back yard in which to hang the washing. Perfect! The woman had a son a couple of years older than me. Mother was reassured, clearly a respectable household.
Clearly some bureaucratic routines had to be gone through but some days later mother was given the key and our little family could move into our new home. I’m not sure how the furniture was obtained, I have the feeling some was our previous furniture and I think the council maintained a store of second hand chairs, tables and kitchen equipment. Soon we had beds and bedding, all the necessary equipment for family life to go on. A few weeks later mother took me into the school and suddenly there were lots of boys and girls filling a room. A pretty young woman appeared, sadly I don’t remember her name, she took me to a table, on the table was a piece of orange paper and a pencil. In my memory I began to draw perfect circles and squares. There is probably some fault in my memory, at the moment that’s what I have.
School was place I enjoyed, indeed I think the big idea was that children should be happy in school. I don’t remember learning to read or count, both were accomplished, it has to be said I was stronger on the words side and rather weaker on the numbers. My biggest creative achievement was playing the triangle, I was making my own special noise, music might be putting it too strongly! There was a huge chart covered in different coloured notes, memory tells me my notes were blue. The concentration required to keep time with the rest of the class was enormous and total pleasure. There was also singing, with my voice something seemed to be slightly amiss. Stories I loved, nursery rhymes too and most importantly I met my best friend. At first I didn’t know this kind blonde girl would become my best friend, I soon discovered it. To this day I remember her name, her first name was Joyce, her surname began with W, I think I will keep the rest to myself. I haven’t been in touch with her for over sixty years, however my memory is still bright.
The variety of television channels available now is seemingly without number, my Radio Times is full of them. I do record programmes, the most interesting items are usually on at nine o’clock in the evening, yes, clearly that is the time more people are sitting down to relax. The iPlayer and the ability to record programmes are an essential part of my media. One channel I’ve discovered recently is PBS America, it is staggeringly good, of course the Americans have been making moving pictures for about a hundred years. There is a cultural heritage and enormous respect for the ability to tell a story using the medium of film. In Britain we are still wedded to the book as the principle means of understanding our own cultural history.
PBS America is, dare I use the word, an educational channel ( yes that reminds me of the Open University). It is the combination of still pictures, the words of influential actors in the story and the words of those caught up in events over which they have no control. The Civil War in the 1860s is the programme which to me expressed vividly the tragic pity of war. It was told as if we were in the middle of the events narrated so clearly, as if they happened yesterday. I have watched war stories before but usually the killing and the dying are somewhat in the distance. Even the Second World War, during which I was a child, has seemed apart from ordinary life, something of another time, another place.
An extraordinary large team of people, under the producer, Ken Burns are responsible for a brilliant series of programmes and all the sources used are listed. These programmes should be part of the academic curriculum in universities and sixth form centres in Britain. I would guess they already are in the USA. I have been interested in history as long as I can remember, it is not an old irrelevant story. It still influences the way we think and behave today. There was a time when girls were thought to be beyond education, their brains were different, this was accepted as the rational truth. Also the cost of educating ordinary working people was seriously considered to be a huge expense and therefore quite unnecessary.
The last episode dealt with the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, this battle resulted in the largest number of casualties in the entire war, forty-six thousand deaths, the most costly battle in US history. Women worked behind the lines on both sides. There is still considerable disagreement as to which side won. Lincoln fought to maintain the Union and to free the slaves, the Confederates fought for their independence and for the right to own slaves. The UK is geographically a small cohesive country, America is a huge continent containing different types of climate and different economic systems, the Gulf states are very different from the New England states on the north-east coast.
I have lived in the city of Durham for fifty years, I surprise myself when I say that. In that time there have been many changes. The city seemed at that time to be small, although the very fact that I moved into a new house on an estate was a very visible sign of change, schools were being built, an increasingly busy bus station and of course the railway station which linked us to the rest of the country. Durham University although established in 1832 was up until the end of the 1950s relatively small, the students numbered in hundreds, and to a large extent separate from the city. This situation was in the process of change; free higher education and grants for students living away from home opened up this branch of education to a much wider section of the population. The University was quick to seize this business opportunity and soon became the most important part of the economic life of the city and therefore had considerable influence with Durham County Council. [No of students?]
There has been an equally big change in the domestic life inside most homes, I’m talking about television and the whole digital revolution, the mobile phone, the laptop and the computer. I grew up in a home without a phone or a television set. I remember the year the television set first appeared in my home, 1958. It was small and the pictures were in black and white, it was thrilling. Change now proceeds at a break-neck pace. Television channels occupy several pages in our programme guide, some of it made decades ago. I’m not complaining, I read books written in the nineteenth century and they still reveal something interesting about the way human beings live. A few months ago I spotted a station previously unknown to me, PBS America, I tuned in. I assume the letters stand for Public Broadcasting Service, that is to say programmes whose purpose is to tell the whole truth about events in American history from an academic point of view. There will come a time when films made from an accurate, unbiased academic viewpoint will be used in schools in much the same way that books are used now or more likely in addition to books. The programme that I’m watching is The Civil War which took place in the 1860s, much of the film was taken at the time of the war, the bodies just lying in the field, the narrative telling how many thousands of young men died, their words from the letters they sent home , incredibly moving, the soldiers became real people. The scenes of where the battles were fought and the generals view of what they were trying to accomplish. I have seen many fictionalised war films none had the impact of this true account.
This wonderful technology and the work of hundreds of people are making our own history available to everyone regardless of age or country or previous educational level. Marvellous!!!