Vauxhall Bridge, a foggy 1 a.m.
It is very possible in blogland to focus on the hopeless, or to work oneself into anger. However, I have been struck by the regression in this society. Last night, I was wandering down to have Christmas dinner with my best friend near Vauxhall. It wasn't just the fog around the bridge that turned streetlamps into dim constellations that made me think of the oddness of the late nineteenth century.
There was a moment, from around 1850 to around 1960, I think, when British--English, but also British--society was historically very unusual. Perhaps because of Empire, war or poverty, the debt, drunkenness, promiscuity and violence with which London society had been traditionally associated at all levels was condemed and not celebrated; repressed would be the wrong word. Publicly, values associated with thrift, discipline and not a little misogyny came into play.
As the twentieth century proceeded, the social discipline of total war and of state power was added to this framework. Crime, debt, sex and poverty became things of horror and not the stuff of everyday, as they had been before, and the herd instinct of the English was directed towards decrying those things.
One way to square the circle was the peculiar intellectualism of the times. People used Latin slang--like 'quid'--and heard tell of stories of the past for which they held some reverence, in a way they don't now. For example, the latest pseudo-history film on Elizabeth leaves out the Tilbury Speech, as something too challenging and difficult for modern audiences. Yet it's one of the few things I admire about that regime. It's the same with comedy.
Wordplay and dancing rude humour somewhere got replaced with a lazy pretence of anger, whimsy and swearing. At some point, debt and fraud became not only acceptable but a way of recommended living. If you have credit cards now, for instance, yet never use them or pay them off immediately, your credit rating is lower than that of a borrower who makes more than the minimum payment, but only just, every month.
At some point, assuming every public service would be rubbish, every utility was out to rip you off, every item could be bought, and every educated observation or courtesy was pretence passed into the public mainstream.
Perhaps the reason is the combination of mortgaged housing on a mass scale and the destruction of the education system in the 1970s. Something happened though, and England reverted to a sort of Hogarth world.
It has its attractions, of course, but I am not sure people are that happy in it. The puritanical fury with which this country's middle classes hate smoking and promote recycling seems of a piece with their determination not to suppress dangerous drugs and the oversexualisation of every friendship. At some level, they must see the tragic silliness of their position.
Yet there are little uplifting moments. The smile of a my best friend at the friendship; a simple meal of fish and pasta and wine and apple pie; the surprise and cheer of the chap who offered me his ticket at Putney yesterday afternoon and then who went off with a 'merry Christmas' when I just paid for my own. People can't want the sort of valueless oversexed marketing society we've built. Eric Fromm said as much a long time ago, as Neil Clark points out here.
Perhaps my musing was prompted by the Wenlock pub I walked past on Kennington Lane. It made me think of a couple of verses from Housman's Wenlock Edge;
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
For governments as for citizens, the new year's resolution should be clear. Stop refusing to confront debt, or redefining it so you can avoid it; behave honestly; and ignore people telling you what you can and cannot do. Uphold reason and recognise the full life is sometimes contradictory, and laugh.
That won't work, I know. Private Finance Initiative dodges, hidden taxes, and write-offs of the national debt will become as important next year as the refusal to upset the media will. Some individuals have had neither the education nor the character development, nor the prompting, to survive the coming recession.
But in the smiles and strength of people just getting on with it, I found myself thinking about the way England has snapped back on Vauxhall Bridge in the fog last night. Some countries just never change, whatever fits they go through and however diluted they feel. Perhaps Britain will break up; but at least London stays the same.