Bloody hell, talk about painting yourself into a corner. To come up with a title like that at times like these implies there are reasons to be cheerful when the gut reaction of most right now would be to declare there aren’t actually any reasons to be cheerful at all. I must admit I can’t really think of any that come straight outta 2020. What about straight outta the 30-odd years after the end of the Second World War, though – the timespan that still feels like home? If this wretched century can do one thing to suggest there are reasons to be cheerful it is by enabling the past to be seen again via the technology of the present. The insularity that has been imposed upon the majority this year has exacerbated personal viewing habits that would’ve probably have served me well without a lockdown; however, the circumstances unique to 2020 seem to have provoked a binge on the familiar that has little precedence.

Some opt for Netflix, whereas in 2020 I’ve sat through the following box-sets: ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Department S’, ‘Jason King’, ‘The Protectors’, ‘Budgie’, ‘Colditz’, ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’, ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, ‘Public Eye’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Angels’, ‘Casanova’, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Out’, ‘The Sandbaggers’, ‘Shoestring’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin’, ‘Law and Order’, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ – all since March, and that’s not even mentioning numerous one-off productions or documentary series that have filled out my own private schedule. Sometimes, such as these nuclear bunker moments, it pays to have amassed a library of archive TV; the fact that I’d seen all of these shows before didn’t really matter, because there’s a ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ factor that means whenever you’ve done the lot, it’s time to go back the beginning. All very sad and pathetic, I know; but if you don’t build shelves or knit, what else you gonna do to unwind? I only ever feel alive when I’m creating, and I can’t think of any better way to experience facsimile living during downtime than by remembering how we used to live.

After revisiting the contents of the library, the good thing about being online is the prospect of stumbling upon something absent from that library, and I was momentarily cheerful this morning when I found an old Fred Dibnah programme on YT. I genuinely lost all sense of time, instantly enraptured by the fearless Bolton steeplejack ascending a chimney he was laboriously demolishing by hand. Anyone whose palms become sweaty watching John Noakes’ famous climb up Nelson’s Column needs to see Dibnah manoeuvring his way from ladder to chimney-top as he clambers over shaky scaffolding and wobbly planks positioned God knows how many hundreds of feet above ground. No safety harness to prevent him plummeting to his death, not even any gloves to combat the cold; once in place, he chips away with his chisel, lights another cigarette, and dismantles the brick edifice with the same artisan dignity as the man who erected it a century earlier. The gentle manner of the demolition is almost like Dibnah is showing his respect for his predecessor in a way that simply blowing it up doesn’t.

These films radiate so many different layers of melancholy – melancholy as the industrial landscape that made Britain the workshop of the world was being rapidly erased along with the nation’s global standing; melancholy that doorstep sandwich-chomping, fag-smoking, beer-drinking blokes like Fred – from a time when no working man had a weak handshake – are not so much a dying breed now but an extinct one; and melancholy at the realisation that so many restrictions have been placed upon freedoms which had been hard-won by the generation before Fred, freedoms that have been removed gradually by the generation after him, sneakily and slowly so that few noticed. What we are seeing now, however, is the blatant and ugly acceleration of that process courtesy of a pandemic that waives the previous hesitancy that anticipated resistance. I guess the problem with dependence on the riches of the past to provide sustenance for the present is that cheerfulness is always one step away from melancholy because there’s no escaping the fact it’s all gone.

To borrow a phrase I used in an earlier paragraph, ‘How We Used to Live’ is also the title of a wonderful 2013 film put together by Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, they of long-running musical ensemble St Etienne, and a film I watched again last night. It could almost be seen as a visual companion piece to Wiggs and Stanley’s superb CD compilations of overlooked and obscure gems from the nation’s neglected record libraries such as ‘English Weather’. It takes ‘travelogue’-type Technicolor footage of London from the Festival of Britain to the end of the 1970s and paints a poignant portrait of the capital as it was before money moved in and natives moved out; the footage is the kind that comprised Pathé and Movietone cinema fillers in the 50s, 60s and 70s but in this case is primarily lifted from similar shorts dispatched to the colonies and not shown in the mother country. Eschewing straight chronology, the film instead mixes the eras together in a delightful dreamy collage accompanied by a suitably lugubrious narration from Ian McShane and a complementary St Etienne soundtrack. Anyone who has a soft spot for old London needs to see it.

Again, however, the viewer comes away from the viewing experience somewhat overwhelmed by sadness. It’s not just the vintage cars or the way people are dressed or even the way the city looks – i.e. before it was scarred by bland glass towers that could slot into any non-dom billionaire’s ghetto on the planet; no, the impression the footage gives is more a lost world of community, consideration, shared values and, I guess, simple politeness – the people’s manifestation of the political consensus that collapsed in the 80s. What the images magically generate is a less rude, obnoxious, ignorant, aggressive, selfish and self-centred country, not to mention less authoritarian; all the worst human characteristics that Thatcherism and Blairism at their most nakedly avaricious legitimised are absent from the Britain of ‘How We Used to Live’. Yes, the exquisite stitching together of the footage could be accused of manufacturing an imaginary past, but it actually works in the same way memory does, far more effectively than if it was a conventional chronological documentary.

Having seen the unnecessary prevention of the public from marking Remembrance Sunday last weekend – and with every day seeming to bring one more despotic and undemocratic curb of civil liberties proposed or introduced by the UK’s devolved administrations under the guise of ‘saving lives’ – one can’t help but compare the world of ‘How We Used to Live’ to the world we’ve allowed to be remade and remodelled by such appalling individuals and not end up wondering how the hell we went from that to this. Of course, you can’t go back, only forward – but forward to what? I’d like to look upon this period as a periodical trough, yet it’s more tempting to view it as the last row of lights going out as it becomes increasingly difficult to detect any reasons to be cheerful on the horizon. Oh, well; if nothing else, documenting decline and fall makes for more gripping reading than trying to describe rise and shine, I suppose, so what am I complaining about?

© The Editor


  1. As one approaching my eighth decade, I am acutely aware of the changes during my lifetime, many of them better, particularly the material aspects, but many of the more positive societal aspects from earlier decades have vanished, to be replaced by generally uglier, less amenable environments.

    With this is mind, and despite viral interruptions, this year I have been on a nationwide tour tying to find my ideal base for the remainder of my life. I am fortunate to have no compelling ties to my current area, so can have unlimited horizons in my choice. What has become clear is that, whilst most feasible areas have now succumbed to the march of misery, there are still some pockets where people, environments and values from the past can hold sway.

    I don’t propose to identify those pockets here (a rush would be bad for property availability) but I believe I have finally located my ideal place and will now be starting the process of zeroing in on where I plan to lay my head until I lay my body more permanently. It is my personal reaction against the uglification of my current area: I can’t change the area, so I’ll change my area, for one which more closely reflects my comfort values.

    I guess that viewing broadcasts from earlier decades merely emphasises what has been carelessly, or deliberately, lost during the processes of ‘advancement’ – my plan is to turn back time for my remaining years, this time certainly applying more appreciation of those facets than I did first time round.

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    1. That’s certainly an appealing option and one I sincerely hope comes off. The last few occasions in which I’ve relocated have undoubtedly been beneficial to begin with, and each move was prompted by circumstances not dissimilar to the ones you describe. My previous address was one I saw deteriorate at a remarkably rapid rate over a period of seven years, and the last time I passed there the block bore an unnerving resemblance to some decaying Soviet workers’ apartments in the dying days of the USSR. I couldn’t imagine living there now in a million years, so I least I can console myself with the fact I’m not.

      Everyone in my life is always just passing through, as though I were a human manifestation of a railway station where passengers stop for a slash and a cuppa whilst waiting to change trains. I don’t really collect people and therefore don’t have the emotional ties – family, friends, relationships – that often serve to root others to places and keep them there till the end. In this respect, there’s nothing to prevent me from eventually upping sticks bar a few quid, I guess. Must just remember to post my pools coupon…

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  2. I was vaguely aware of the Wiggs/Stanley film and it was on my wishlist to check out, thanks for the reminder. I am a big fan of their music in any case. Disappointingly I have yet to manage to hook up with the lovely Sarah Cracknell, but it can surely be only a matter of time (ho ho).

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  3. My own routine of late follows that recommended to any recently recovering alcoholic, pre or post-COVID – AA or Lifering meetings, in recent times largely on Zoom (when I have the motivation), weekly aftercare (essentially, facilitated group therapy) from the institution I was treated in, phone calls with my local addictions counsellor, plenty of exercise, rest, reasonable diet. With one exception (a friend from my social drinking days who I still keep in on-and-off contact with) all of my Whatsapp contacts are either people I met in AA or people I met in treatment…actually one specifically (female) although that…entanglement…seems to be on the backburner of late. Perhaps for the best as our last meeting ended in a drinking session in her house (I have had a few slips). She has this massive sound system with the biggest speaker I have ever seen. Very interesting lady. Into her arts and crafts, makes these objets’ d’art from seashells she collects from the beaches near Sutton and Portmarnock (coastal areas of North County Dublin). Is currently learning how to play the drums, along with dealing with various legal issues which I won’t detail on here. Spent most of her twenties travelling and working around the world, basing herself out of London. Drove trucks in Africa, washed cars in hotpants in Australia. Did a brief gig lap dancing and she told me that on more than one occasion she was offered opportunities to become a high class escort but turned them down after accepting a few freebies (Epsom Derby reserved enclosure, that kind of thing). She did have a fling with a very very well-known, since deceased, soccer player (yes, THAT one) and a former Eastenders actress, whose name I forget, was one of her drinking buddies.

    In any case my routine probably sounds like a strange existence to some, but I can assure you, is infinitely preferable to the life I had been leading which was not going to end well. Damn lucky to have managed to retain my physical health.

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    1. Thanks for the positive update. I recall you were still in rehab when Lockdown Mk I kicked-off, so it’s good to hear you’re back home and managing to keep in control. I did once engage in group therapy myself a few years back and found it an interesting experience, though not necessarily one I’m keen to repeat. I totally understand the pitfalls of forming friendships in that environment which might then be extended beyond it; there were a couple of people in there I connected with and both suggested staying in touch on the outside. However, once removed from it, I consciously failed to do so, as though I felt I’d be constantly reminded of something the therapy itself was supposed to resolve. Nothing against the people themselves at all, but the thing that we had in common was something I wanted to put behind me.

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      1. Do you remember when I said before that one of the people I was in treatment with was a ‘celeb’ ? Well I might as well say, now that she has gone public on her cannabis addiction, that it was Sinead O’Connor. I was in Room 27, she was in Room 25. I can’t say I got to know her well but such conversations as we did have were always amicable. My friend Genevieve stayed in touch with her and was a bit pissed off the other day that Sinead didn’t text her back immediately in response to a text Gen sent. I mean ffs. Women, eh!

        It’s a strange thing, you guys were complaining about areas of the UK becoming virtually unrecognisable due to overdevelopment, and, yes, let’s face it, mass immigration. We have that in Ireland also, and yet, at the same time, in some ways Ireland is still a village were everyone seems to know someone who knows someone. It isn’t seven degrees of connection, it’s more like three or four at most. It’s a weird conundrum but I suppose it’s because the immigrant communities tend to, with some exceptions, stick together.

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      2. Your theory on Ireland still being akin to a village seems confirmed by the fact that you’re in rehab and Sinead O’Connor just happens to be a couple of doors down! Love it. Always thought her greatest assets during her fame years were her lovely eyes. Can’t imagine if they’re the same these days, bearing in mind the way certain substances have a habit of turning the lights out, but they certainly sparkled back in the day.

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