Friday 9 May 2014

Back to the future

Dic Mortimer, whose blog puts Cneifiwr's efforts to shame, was recently off down memory lane with a slightly risqué joke about the late Lady Isobel Barnett, a mainstay of the now defunct radio quiz show, Twenty Questions. 

This reference and the apparently relentless rise of UKIP had me thinking about what Britain used to be like before Ted Heath (this post will be littered with obscure names that most readers under the age of 50 will find puzzling) took us into what was then called the EEC, and Britain went into a decline that only Nigel Farage and his cult followers can save us from as they attempt to turn the clock back.

Farage is 50 and so unable to remember the halycon days of pre-European Britain, but a great many of his followers don't have that excuse as they look back nostalgically on an England where old maids cycled through the morning mist to Holy Communion, and real men supped warm beer.

England had control over its own borders then, but was busy welcoming immigrants from the old colonies with signs saying "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish".

According to Nigel, we no longer have control over our borders, which is why passengers arriving at British airports often have to wait hours to go through passport control, and HM Press and politicians get very indignant when a senior official decides to try speeding things up by subjecting plane loads of ordinary travellers to only minimal checks. Fears that this cordon sanitaire might be breached has BBC reporters hanging around airports to film hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians jetting into Britain, only to find that there are no hordes.

Britain opted out of the Schengen Agreement, the hated EU treaty which means that you can drive from France via Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany through Austria and down to the heel of Italy without having to show a passport or stop for customs. Oddly enough, there seems to be very little appetite for scrapping Schengen and putting the border posts back in Europe. But then they're foreign, aren't they?

Three years before Nigel was born, Britain finally scrapped a law which made suicide a criminal offence. If you were unlucky enough to fail in the attempt, the chances were that you would find yourself in court and handed a prison sentence.

The UK was one of the last western countries to decriminalize suicide. The rot was already setting in, but Nigel was born in a country where abortion and homosexual acts were illegal, where we still had capital punishment (just). Birching had more or less been phased out, but was fortunately still available to the authorities on the Isle of Man (not part of the EU).

"What's a backstreet abortion?" I remember asking my parents after reading a newspaper headline. The question is clear in my memory, even if the answer isn't.

We also had lots of other wonderful home-made British laws which the European Court of Human Rights (not part of the EU either) would not be happy with. Getting divorced could be very difficult, but if you had enough money you could arrange for someone to pop in to your bedroom and photograph you in flagrante as evidence of adultery. Although not with someone of the same sex, because that would have landed you in prison, stupid.

Nigel thinks we should withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights and scrap the Human Rights Act so that we can get back to making proper British laws.

And while he's at it, he would like to scrap some of those mamby-pamby rights that people have come to enjoy, such as paid maternity leave. Luckily Britain opted out of parts of the Working Time Directive, so he would be starting from a position where British workers have fewer rights than their continental cousins. Giving workers rights is bad for the economy, as we can see from the basket case that is Germany.

I began to take an interest in politics at an early age, and my first political memory was the Cuban missile crisis. The grown-ups must have been very worried about it because I can remember there being a lot of talk in the playground about how we were all going to die very soon.

Not long after that we got our first television set, and Harold Wilson won the 1964 general election. This was very annoying because the precious slots allocated to children's TV programmes were swept aside to make way for election coverage.

Britain was in the final stages of losing its empire, and there were lots of bad news stories from the colonies that were left. Rhodesia declared UDI, and future Ukippers cried "Good Old Smithy". Jeremy Thorpe, who became Liberal leader in 1967, caused outrage by suggesting that the RAF might bomb strategic transport links in Rhodesia, and there were all sorts of baddies in the British press, ranging from President Nasser in Egypt to Dom Mintoff in Malta. Sometimes there were mini colonial wars, such as Aden (now part of Yemen) where 'Mad Mitch' fought what some people (the broadsheet Daily Express, for example) called the Last Battle of the British Empire. The Brits lost, although back home it was portrayed as a glorious fighting retreat, a bit like Afghanistan today, and Mad Mitch became a Tory MP.

A vivid memory from around this time (October 1966) was the Aberfan disaster. In those days multi-media meant that there were radio programmes for schools. Mrs Newman must have been tuning into 'Music and Movement' (a sort of prehistoric version of aerobics with flashes of navy knickers) when she picked up on the news that there had been a disaster somewhere in the Valleys. 116 children and 28 adults died. The school was very much like the one I was in at the time, only bigger, and the children were just like me.

Not long after that Mrs Newman made a point of calling the entire class together to tell us that a new little girl called Miriam would be joining us. We were to be kind to Miriam and not make fun of her because she was black. Actually Miriam's mum was white, but she still counted as the first black person we had seen, except on the telly.

I think we were kind to Miriam, and I went on a bike ride with her and we shared a walnut whip in a disused sheep shed.

My tenth birthday was celebrated in Pwllheli in a heatwave. Pwllheli probably does not get many of those, and my birthday cake caught fire on the beach when a gust of wind blew the flames from the candles onto the fancy paper surrounding the sickly icing. I spent my 10 shillings birthday money on a Welsh dictionary.

A month later Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put an end to the 'Prague Spring' and a young student, Jan Palach, burnt himself to death in protest against the invasion. Today Prague is a vibrant, beautiful city which is a popular destination for British tourists, right in the middle of the EU.  Thirty years before that the British Prime Minister (Neville Chamberlain) described Czechoslovakia as "a faraway country" of whose people we knew nothing. Nigel would have approved.

Despite all the bad news on the telly and the radio, life was sweet and mostly very happy. But there were children less fortunate, and one or two of my contemporaries had shrivelled limbs from polio.

Progress was being made with other nasty diseases, and my great grandmother was unlucky enough to be one of those to die in one of the last outbreaks of smallpox in south Wales (the last one was in 1962). She had lost her husband many years earlier in a mining accident and had been left to bring up four young children with no money. Towards the end of her life she developed what we would probably now call dementia and was put away in a "hospital", which was in reality a rebranded former workhouse.

She and other elderly patients succumbed to smallpox when victims of the disease were isolated with the expendable oldies.

That was slightly before my time, but only just, and I can remember all too well how another great grandmother spent her last year in a different former workhouse which had also been converted into a grim red brick nursing home. She had begged and pleaded not to be sent to the workhouse, which was what she knew it as, and never spoke to her daughter again.

That was just after I passed the Eleven Plus. I was apparently the first and last boy from my village to pass since the Second World War, and it meant that I went to a different school from all my old friends. It was a bit of a shock going from a school with 32 children to one with 1,200, and I remember someone asking me if I knew that so-and-so was an RC. I did not. In fact I didn't know what an RC was. Multicultural Britain was beginning to stir.

Out in the big wide world people tut-tutted at the race riots in America, and I seem to remember a lot of sympathy for black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement, but rather less sympathy when Civil Rights became the rallying cry for Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland.

A particular figure of hate in the British press at the time was Bernadette Devlin who became an MP at the age of 21. She slapped the Tory Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, in the face when he claimed that the Paratroopers had opened fire in self defence on Bloody Sunday.

Edward Heath unexpectedly beat Wilson in the 1970 general election, and I performed a sketch in an English class mimicking the Grocer promising to "cut prices at a stroke".

Decimal currency was introduced, and not long afterwards Heath massacred the French language in a speech heralding our membership of the EEC. I met him years later, but can't remember anything he said because I was distracted by his shirt which must have been several sizes too big. The cuffs extended right down to his fingers.

This was a strange period. There was a lot of talk about Britain having lost an empire and being in search of a role. Around the time that Dic Mortimer was frivolously tuning into Twenty Questions, a spotty Cneifiwr was listening to Any Questions. I can't remember if Lady Isobel Barnett was one of the regular panellists (she probably was), but stalwarts included Lord Alf Robens, Enoch Powell and Lord Bob Boothby.

Robens was a folksy former Labour politician who had become chairman of the National Coal Board. It was during his time in the top job that the Aberfan disaster happened. Rather than going straight to the village, Robens insisted on attending a ceremony at the University of Surrey where he was made chancellor. Although he later admitted that the NCB was to blame for the catastrophe, he refused to fund the full cost of removing the tips, and raided £150,000 from the Disaster Fund set up to help the people of Aberfan.

Boothby was another popular panellist. Although not widely known at the time, he had had a long affair with Lady Dorothy Macmillian, wife of the Tory Prime Minister, and had had a close association with Ronnie Kray, the London gangster, who supplied him with young men and arranged gay orgies for his enjoyment.

Enoch Powell's strange and slightly whiny voice completes our trio. After leaving the Conservative Party in the wake of his rivers of blood speech predicting carnage as a result of immigration, Powell went on to become an Ulster Unionist. He was virulently anti-Europe, and would without a doubt have joined UKIP if he were still around.

There were many other panellists like them, and week in, week out audiences would be told how wonderful Britain was. We had the best police, the best health service, the best system of justice and the best and bravest armed forces. We were damned lucky to be British in short.

Any Questions lives on as a quaint survivor of the great days of radio with a faint smell of wee and mothballs about it, as does its companion phone-in programme called Any Answers, which used to be fondly known as Any Bigots?

Perhaps it was teenage hormones, but Cneifiwr started to have nagging doubts as to whether all of this was true.

In politics there were signs that the old certainties were crumbling as well. Gwynfor Evans won Carmarthen for Plaid Cymru in 1966, and a year later Winnie Ewing became the SNP's first MP in Westminster. Across Wales English-only road signs were defaced. Northern Ireland went up in flames, there were the miners' strikes and the Three Day Week with power cuts, and all sorts of panic buying of exotic items such as sugar. Inflation soared.

Cneifiwr went on a school trip to France, and we stayed in a coal mining district near Lille. That must have been just before Britain went into the EEC because there were exchange controls, and you had to take your passport to the bank to change your £20 spending money into francs; the bank clerk would duly note at the back of the passport that you had bought foreign money to take out of the country, possibly putting the  Sterling Zone at risk of collapse.

There was a long series of notorious miscarriages of justice. Even at the time it seemed odd how every time a bomb went off or something bad happened, arrests would follow shortly afterwards and the guilty men would be locked up, only to emerge from prison years later when it was shown that they had been innocent.

To many people's regret, we had stopped hanging people by then, but at least the innocent lived to tell the tale.

The past is another country; they do things differently there.

Some things they did better, perhaps. I was never dragged around B&Q or Tesco's as a kid on a Sunday, even if they had existed, because most shops closed on Sunday.

Some things haven't changed. Boothby, Powell and Robens may be pushing up the daisies, but we have Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Boris.

The halycon days of backstreet abortions, exchange controls, wars, capital punishment, the birch and a forelock tugging, foreigner hating Britain in search of a role outside Europe is something UKIP may be keen on, but it won't get my vote.


Anonymous said...

Cneifiwr so much of this resonates with me too....we must be of a similar age.
I too remember the horror of Aberfan and the considerable empathy and sympathy felt by my family for the people of the village, my Nana also died in what was once the red brick workhouse but became the hospital for elderly dementia sufferers, I went to see and listen to Bernadette Devlin even though I was a teenager living at home and my Mum and Dad thought I would become a dangerous radical! She was speaking in a small room in Bolton Town Hall.
I was born and brought up Lancashire and I am hugely proud of that.
Experiences and a willingness to look past the given message is what shaped many of us in the four nations.
I am not personally heavily pro Europe but Farage and the other posh boys - your Osbourne's, Cameron's and, yes, your Ed Millibands - who want to run our countries and lives piss me off more. They have no comprehension of what makes many of us who we are and the decency that underpins and motivates us whether English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish.
I will go to vote -how could I not when my aforementioned Nana was one of the working class suffragettes? - but I will be writing None of the Above on my ballot paper.
Maybe a pointless thing to do in a way, but for me it makes a point and I think my Nana would approve!

Tessa said...

Excellent and evocative post, thank you.
Tessa (Age 49 and a half. Former schoolchild of St Mary's RC, then QE Grammar, Carmarthen).

Redhead said...

When you think of the courageous things that politicians have done: e.g. Bevan creating the NHS in spite of all the opposition he faced from the medical establishment, the massive social housing building in the new towns after the war, the freecuniversity education we were able to have, etc you wonder what went wrong.

Where are the political heroes for today?

Anonymous said...

This may give a different perspective

Wavell said...

There are no political heroes today, that is unfortunately a thing of the past.
Our current governing politicians are completely out of touch with the electorate, there is a LOT of fiddling going on for which the punishment is "say you're sorry and it will be OK".
All promises are to be fulfilled "after" the next election.
Our Government system badly needs a good shaking and that is why UKIP will do well in the European Election.

caebrwyn said...

Excellent post Cneifiwr, I agree with Tessa, very evocative.
Jacqui (nearly 52)

Richard Powell said...

Great post Cneifiwr. It resonates with me. I'm a year younger than you and grew up just outside Llanelli. A few comments:

- Exchange controls were abolished on 24 November 1979, so nearly six years after the UK joined the European Communities, as they then were. (EEC, ECSC and EURATOM). They were an early fruit of Thatcherism.

- Lady Isobel Barnet was indeed a regular on Any Questions? She later committed suicide after a shoplifting charge.

- Did you really follow the Cuban Missile Crisis at the age of four years and three months? That's what I call precocious. I've always regarded myself as reasonably politically aware but the first major event where I understood what was happening was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, when I was nearly nine.

- Sorry about your great-granny, but smallpox vaccination was compulsory under a series of Acts of Parliament, easily Googleable at Presumably your great-great-grandparents either ignored the law, or sought an exemption.

- You must tell us more about your encounter with Edward Heath at some point.

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you Richard. Memory can play tricks, and perhaps it wasn't the Cuban missile crisis, but I can clearly remember some scare or other which had us tots worrying that there was going to be a war and we would all be killed.

I know you are right about the final abolition of exchange controls - was it really as late as 1979 when they stopped recording foreign exchange transactions in passports?

Thank God smallpox has been eradicated. The fact that there were still outbreaks in Wales as late as 1962 despite the availability of a vaccine speaks volumes.