THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS

Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 2011 fantasy comedy, ‘Midnight in Paris’, features a lead character (played by Owen Wilson) resident in the here and now, whose holiday in the French capital takes a dreamlike turn when he gets lost in the backstreets one evening and finds himself stumbling into the Paris of the 1920s. Magically entering the time when Paris was the cultural epicentre of the western world, he encounters the likes of Cocteau, Dali, Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and various other creative luminaries of the decade. As a fan of the present they inhabit, the character attempts to convince them of the riches he sees in their era.

The cleverest moment in the movie comes when Picasso’s lover Adriana expresses her own personal opinion that the real era to be in was the so-called La Belle Époque period of the late nineteenth century; when she and the lead character somehow manage to travel back there, some of that period’s key figures they meet, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, are in agreement that the only age to have been alive was the Renaissance. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is not only one of Woody Allen’s finest recent cinematic outings; it also shrewdly points out that golden ages are retrospective labels tagged onto episodes of history after the event.

Unless we can look back on a particular phase of our own individual lifetimes and recognise we lived through a special period ourselves, many of us have a fascination with a specific era that took place before we were born. Personally, I would have enjoyed being a dandy during the Regency or perhaps a fashion photographer in Swinging London; but I don’t reflect on any time I’ve actually been resident in throughout my thirty years as an adult and hanker after it with rose-tinted nostalgia; I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed any of it. Whether I would have enjoyed the Regency or Swinging London any more isn’t an issue because I’ll never be there; however, it remains a felicitous fantasy.

Last week, a survey commissioned by the Resolution Foundation was published; the subjects of the survey were ‘Millennials’, i.e. anyone born between 1981 and 2000 (those born this century have their own hideous demographic nickname). The findings of the survey declared that one in three Millennials would rather have lived through the era their parents were young in, despite the fact that would mean they’d have been deprived of the electronic creature comforts life is apparently unimaginable without. Over 2,000 people were surveyed between the ages of 16 and 75 and the general agreement reached was that anyone young today will never achieve the same standard of life as that which their parents have enjoyed.

In this case, the yearning to have been alive thirty or forty years ago doesn’t stem from the obvious attractions of superior pop culture to participate in, but the more practical desires of being able to buy one’s home and having job security that can pay for one. In the survey, graduates were just as pessimistic about the future as those regarded as high-earners. 57% of the former were convinced the youth of today have a worse standard of living than their parents to look forward to; 55% of the latter (earning above £55,000 a year) agreed with them. When it came to lower earners (£20,000 or less), 44% shared the same belief. It would seem technological advances don’t add up to much more than expensive sedatives.

And yet – the supposed higher standard of living the parents of Millennials have attained didn’t land in their laps overnight. They had to work for it. Thrift is a word one doesn’t hear much these days, but it was employed by the young who wanted to get on in the 60s and 70s when they saw the doors to social mobility opening before them; there was an entrance fee, however. The heavy industry that existed on a nationwide scale for perhaps the first forty years after the end of the Second World War has been reduced to a small smattering of industrial outposts this century, but it was once one of the dominant employers of the country’s workforce; Millennials are spared that, at least; though maybe there was a greater sense of job satisfaction at the end of the working day when having emerged from a pit or a steel foundry than can be found in having cold-called strangers whilst sitting on one’s arse for eight hours.

Even if their parents’ generation received what seems to have been a greater reward for their endeavours, the hours were put in whatever colour the collar of the job; additional part-time work would augment the main wage along with night-school courses as a means of ascending the next rung of the ladder. Socialising would be rationed, with the occasional trip to the cinema or football enjoyed sparingly when money was being put aside for the long-term. If one had a car, chances were it would be a second (or third) hand banger; if one had a house, it would be fitted out with second (or third) hand furniture – and on HP at that; telephones were a relative luxury; television sets were rented; holidays, if taken at all, would invariably take place within the British Isles, erratic climate or no. If one wanted must-have household appliances, one had to save up for them; and other things were regarded as more important, anyway.

Make do and mend, making ends meet, living within one’s means – awful old phrases the credit card seemed to have magically banished from the nation’s vocabulary; consumerism has a lot to answer for, yes; but one could argue many of the disputes that crippled industry in the 70s and 80s were at times motivated by a craving for consumer goods that were being marketed more aggressively than ever before at that point. Today, there’s no need to strike for them; your flexible friend can get them for you and then you can show them off on social media. Debt, once such a shameful stigma, is commonplace below a certain age; and none of the money reserved for paying it off is going towards saving up for somewhere to live.

There’s no doubt the opportunities for social mobility have narrowed considerably, and many degrees now are not worth the paper they’re written on; working hours are long and pay is poor. But hardships are endured by all generations looking for a better life; whether or not that better life is there at the end of the hardship is another matter altogether. It might have been there in 1957, 1967 or 1977; is it in 2017?

© The Editor

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YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

Howard KirkA plotline running through ‘The History Man’, Malcolm Bradbury’s celebrated satire of 70s campus politics (both social and sexual), involves characteristic mischievousness on the part of the novel’s anti-hero, the promiscuous lecturer Howard Kirk, who spreads a rumour that an infamous eugenicist has been invited to speak at the university; this purely invented grenade that Kirk tosses into the lap of the lefty student activists who view him as being on their side sparks vociferous demonstrations that lead to the oblivious guest speaker receiving an early example of the ‘no platform’ treatment. Bradbury’s 1975 book accurately parodies the hypocrisy of the era in which it is set, both in the character of Kirk and in the advocates of campus free speech who believe the currency of speech only comes free if it mirrors their own opinions. Funny how we appear to have come full circle forty years on.

‘Power to the People’ was not only one of the rare memorable songs produced by John Lennon during his brief political phase in the early 70s, but it was also a buzzword of student activism during the same period. When the People had the opportunity to exercise the one democratic power at their disposal, however, few opted for the Marxist model promoted by the students whose very place at university was thanks to genuine Socialism at work via the post-war Attlee Government. If they had, Ted Heath wouldn’t have been elected PM at the peak of the sit-ins and demos that came to characterise the popular image of student politics at the time.

Four decades later, students possessed by a placard fetish have found a new cause over the past week or so – the result of another democratic exercise on the part of ‘the People’ that hasn’t chimed with their own point of view. They’re extremely angry and they will scream and scream and scream until they get what they want. It worked on their parents when they were children, because those parents caved-in to their every demand – unlike the parent/child relationship endured by the students depicted in ‘The History Man’, who no doubt received a clout round the ear-hole whenever they acted like spoiled brats. Perhaps that’s why that generation decided on a different approach to parenting once they graduated and grew up; and look what that has left us with.

The closing caption in the final scene of the superb 1981 BBC TV adaptation of ‘The History Man’ exposes Howard Kirk’s true colours when it reveals he voted Conservative at the 1979 General Election; I suspect Howard Kirk also voted Leave in the EU Referendum, for he would now belong to the age-group that has been portrayed as the assassins of Yoof in the wake of Brexit. Despite the fact that the baby-boomers, along with tweedy Tories from the Shires and BNP/Britain First white-trash stereotypes, couldn’t have swung the result without the same decision being made by millions who don’t fall into any of the camps carrying the can, they have been singled out as responsible for condemning a generation unaccustomed to not getting their own way to perceived oblivion.

Of course, there are far wider representatives of this generation, ones who can’t afford higher education anymore than their parents can afford to fund it, and their voices have been conveniently silenced by the gap-year backpackers who shout louder than anyone else. To assume everyone under the age of 30 is out on the streets demanding the Referendum result be reversed is to ignore those twenty-somethings denied the luxury of sponging off the savings of their parents, the ones struggling to make ends meet in minimum-wage dead-end jobs without the safety net of mummy and daddy to fall back on when debts need honouring.

It is amusing how the EU has been embraced so passionately by this particular social demographic, adopting the flag as their Facebook profile picture and painting their faces in it for the obligatory demo. Yet, when questioned in vox pops on the street, their actual knowledge of the institution is embarrassingly limited, bordering on nonexistent. The EU has suddenly become a ‘cause’, and like every T-shirt subject to the vagaries of fashion, it’s only a matter of time before it’s replaced by some other hash-tag fad. Declaring the older generation have robbed them of a future or swearing to never again give up their seat on the bus to a pensioner are the reactions of political virgins and/or the ignorant. They have been raised in a blame culture as well as one in which victimhood is chic, so now they can kill two old birds with one young stone rather than questioning why so many of them decided not to exercise their democratic right by actually voting.

Ironically, voting Leave was a far more dangerous and radical move than preserving the status quo, yet it’s perhaps apt that the genuine anarchy the decision could unleash is the consequence not of the faux-radicals waving their silly placards and stamping their feet, those conservatives with a small ‘c’ who believe the communal uniform of piercings, tattoos and unnaturally coloured hair somehow signifies radicalism, but their parents, grandparents and less-privileged contemporaries. Not that they would ever accept this from the womb-like safe space of their cosy echo chamber; they simply respond to being caught out as all children do, by name-calling, finger-pointing and crying. If, as has been reported, some Leave-voters now regret their decision, there must be just as many Remain-voters watching this pitiful festival of sour grapes and wishing they’d gone Brexit after all.

© The Editor

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