MEASURE FOR MEASURE

RestaurantI guess the extent of wartime rationing was belatedly brought home to me when I read ‘War and Peace’ a few years back. Naturally, this doorstopper of an epic requires a lot of pages – 1,334 the number my own copy can boast. But the edition in question was published in 1943 – indeed it has one of those lovely handwritten dedications inside it (‘To Ronald, from Auntie Nina, 25.XII.45’), the kind that always prompt me to ponder on the identities of these mystery people and what became of them. However, what really makes this volume unique amongst the many old books I’ve picked-up over the years is that the thickness of each page is so flimsy you can almost see through the paper. I’d been aware of paper rationing on top of everything else rationed during the Second World War, but I’d never encountered the realities of it before. Newspapers, comics and magazines were hit more or less as soon as hostilities broke out, reduced to 60% of their pre-war strength, and when the rationing of paper was tightened even further as of 1942, George Orwell looked at the way in which paper supplies were distributed from the perspective of the author.

‘A particularly interesting detail,’ he wrote, ‘is that out of the 100,000 tonnes allotted to the Stationary Office, the War Office gets no less than 25,000 tonnes, or more than the whole of the book trade put together…At the same time paper for books is so short that even the most hackneyed “classic” is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of text books, new writers get no chance to start and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published.’ Whenever wartime rationing is discussed today, the limitations on food and the impact that particular privation had on the nation tends to fall under the spotlight; but, of course, clothing was rationed, as was fuel (primarily coal), as was petrol, as was soap and dozens of other items it’s fair to say we take for granted. When it comes to petrol, many private vehicles gathered dust in garages for the best part of five years, and there are several public information films from the late 1940s offering advice to drivers sweeping the cobwebs away from their old bangers and wondering why they’re no longer roadworthy.

Some rationing ended before VE Day, but peacetime didn’t curtail the entire practice overnight. Various economic factors that were a natural legacy of conflict kept many of the restrictions in place and when disaster unrelated to war struck, such as the wet summer of 1946 ruining wheat crops, restrictions were reintroduced – in this specific case, bread rationing; the notoriously harsh winter of 1947 also saw the rationing of potatoes. The amount of petrol rationed was up and down throughout the remainder of the 1940s and didn’t finally end until 1950. The fact it temporarily returned during the 1956 Suez Crisis seemed to highlight how rationing was now engrained as a default response. Rationing was a major issue the Conservative Opposition fought upon during the General Election campaigns of 1950 and ’51; the Labour Government argued rationing should continue indefinitely, as though this was now the natural order of things, but the electorate sided with Churchill’s Tories in the latter contest and the promises to finally end rationing were kept – albeit as a slow ‘roll out’. Restrictions on sugar and confectionary were lifted in 1953 and everything else was de-rationed as of 4 July 1954, fifteen years after Chamberlain’s radio address.

The reluctance of Attlee’s Government to bring all rationing to an end was mostly a case of the administration trying its damndest to cling onto power, fearful of what the economic ramifications might be at a time when pre-war reliance on goods flowing into the country from the colonies (as well as home production) still hadn’t been fully restored; but it could also probably be said that rationing had become second nature as a policy, despite the population wearying of it. Governments realised it could work and that people would simply grin and bear it without rioting outside Downing Street. When the next comparable crisis reared its ugly head a generation later – the 1972 Miners’ Strike, followed by the Three-Day Week of 1974 – rationing was prepared for to the point of printing petrol coupons, but none were issued thanks to the life-saving presence of North Sea Oil. Still, the public were advised to reduce consumption in the home, and rationing did occur via electricity supplies; power-cuts became a regular feature of industrial turbulence during the period, continuing to randomly wreak household havoc until the middle of the decade. As someone whose earliest memories emanate from this time, power-cuts were normalised from day one for me and I assumed these were (and always had been) a commonplace fact of life; yes, you will be in the middle of watching ‘Blue Peter’ and the TV will abruptly switch-off without warning and you won’t think it unusual. Memory tells me when power-cuts finally ended, the drought of 1976 started the next day and then it was water’s turn to be rationed as the country appeared to stagger from one crisis to the next.

Okay, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out where I’m going with this. What the lesson of rationing taught governments was that they could inflict hardship on the populace and persuade them it was being done for the greater good; in the case of WWII, there was an element of truth in the need for sacrifice, though it must have grated a little whenever a Brit found themselves on an American army-base and had a glimpse of the plentiful supplies in the quartermaster’s stores. In each case in which rationing was employed – the Second World War, Suez, the industrial unrest of the 1970s – an initial crisis had provoked the emergency measures and people generally accepted the thinking behind the dramatic move, believing it would only be a temporary imposition that would be lifted as soon as the crisis had passed. A not-dissimilar approach had been used during the Napoleonic Wars, when the need to fund a seemingly never-ending conflict resulted in a continuous series of new taxes, not all of which vanished in the wake of Waterloo.

Governments tend to allay any disgruntled resistance whenever imposing such measures by adopting the ‘we’re all in it together’ sales technique, playing the victim and urging the nation to unite against a common enemy – whether that be Nazi Germany, Nasser, the miners’ unions, or even a coronavirus. One would imagine the vast majority of people in this country would greet the announcement that the new ‘Freedom Day’ of 19 July is definitely on (give or take a few small-print caveats) with a modicum of euphoria considering the past year-and-a half we’ve endured. Yet the voices of disquiet at this news are not necessarily emanating from the SAGE camp and all those grandstanding doom-mongers who will suddenly be deprived of the prime-time spotlight they’ve clearly grown rather fond of; it seems the pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine, pro-mask/anti-mask divides are now picking up where the Leave/Remain divisions left off – in cyberspace, at least.

In the real world, the legacy of Project Fear is already visible with the comical sight of customers attempting to eat a restaurant meal with masks on, or those who follow the latest infection rates as though watching the football results, or those who believe we should remain under house-arrest until Covid has gone the way of smallpox, which effectively means forever – interesting that the Labour Government of 1950 viewed rationing in the same way. Well, rationing did end eventually, though almost a decade after Peace in Europe was declared. And unlike in the early 50s, Her Majesty’s Opposition in 2021 is not demanding an end to emergency measures but pleading for their continuation, as Keir Starmer bleated yesterday. Even if they end on 19 July, don’t be surprised if their reintroduction is the default response to the next crisis; a precedent has been set.

© The Editor

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Today should have been May Day Bank Holiday, but it was postponed – not for the obvious reason, but because it’s been rescheduled to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Friday. Still, one can’t help but feel that a delay of four days isn’t long enough. It’s a bit like being one of those unfortunate kids born in the second half of December, those whose aunties hand them a present and say ‘This is for your birthday AND Christmas’. Most people are off work, and a Bank Holiday is a day when workers are given a treat by being given…a day off work. Surely it would’ve made more sense to have simply shifted the Bank Holidays that appeared smack bang in the middle of the lockdown to a later point in the year? But, one can’t really blame those whose job it is to plan public holidays for failing to anticipate a situation few saw coming; this situation is too strange for that. And it also continues to place the months, weeks and even days leading up to where we are now in a weird fabrication of immense distance.

However, history has taught us that this ‘optical illusion’ of memory has a habit of recurring whenever a life-changing event occurs and the world on the other side of the event suddenly feels much further away than it actually is. Think of how the last summer on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War is often portrayed as the golden swansong of an Edwardian age that was instantly plunged into luminous amber by those finding themselves on the Western Front. Of course what they’d left behind must have suddenly seemed magical. Certainly a conflict that began on horseback and ended in tanks did indeed serve as a watershed between one era of warfare and another, but this can feasibly be expanded to encompass a wider contrast between the world of 1914 and the world of 1918, one that stretches way beyond the battlefield. It’s no wonder the Edwardian age remains bathed in an alluring glow – though one perhaps viewed from the perspective of the officer class; war stopped play of a cricket match in which all the players were gentlemen.

Across the Atlantic, the three major bombshells that had the greatest impact on the American psyche between World War II and the present day were Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy and 9/11. The first was undoubtedly a shock to the American public; it brought a policy of isolationism to a dramatic end overnight, though Roosevelt had hardly been detached from events in Europe behind the scenes; what the Japanese attack on the US Navy in Hawaii did was to curtail the facade of non-engagement. But the US officially entering WWII didn’t necessarily worsen life for Americans who weren’t drafted; compared to here, the home-front in the States was probably better than it had been before 1941, so there wasn’t much yearning for the lost world that existed prior to Pearl Harbor. If anything, looking back to the Great Depression from the perspective of an economy energised anew by the war effort negated the kind of nostalgic longing for the recent past that the British experienced during the First World War.

JFK’s assassination is another matter altogether. Today, it tends to be viewed through the prism of the conspiracy theory industry; had David Icke been around at the time, he’d no doubt have got in early – though his removal from YouTube over the weekend says more about the Google Thought Police and the intolerance of the Silicon Valley worldview than it does about a man that anyone with half-a-brain recognises as an irrelevant fruitcake. Anyway, as for the President who bit the bullet on 22 November 1963, the trauma that hit the US over the death of a man who represented far more than he ever delivered instantly mythologized the Kennedy Camelot in a way that has proven remarkably resistant to no end of damaging revelations ever since. The orphaned youth of America may have been coaxed out of mourning by The Beatles – whose landmark debut on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ took place just two-and-a-half months later; but as the decade unfolded with the black hole of Vietnam and further traumatising assassinations, looking back to the perceived innocence and optimism of the early 60s and harbouring a grievance that the nation was robbed of a hope it has never regained was a comforting illusion that endures.

With 9/11 – an event that dragged more than just the one nation into its toxic orbit – the rapid realisation that the world had become a less nice place gradually shone a more benign light on the 20th century’s last decade. All those truly horrible elements of the 1990s – from bloodshed in the Balkans to genocide in Rwanda – were overshadowed in reminiscences that airbrushed the worst from the picture, and the 90s was refashioned as the Indian summer of a safe, peaceful planet in which things could only get better. The end of the Cold War, the Kyoto Protocol, Gazza’s tears, Bill Clinton receiving blowjobs in the Oval Office – hell, we’d never had it so good. By 12 September 2001, it already seemed like a hundred years ago – a fun and frivolous era when all we had to concern ourselves with was whether or not Blur would beat Oasis to the No.1 spot.

The dawn of a new age’s first task is to instantly distinguish itself from what immediately preceded it; but when that new age is a dark one, what immediately preceded it inevitably appears shiny and bright – and better – by comparison. Naturally, the Edwardian era seemed preferable to the carnage of WWI; naturally, the young President cut down in his prime felt like the murder of the American Dream he’d embodied; and naturally, the 1990s came across as a less bleak and far more hopeful period because it was a brief bridge between one Cold War and another. And now we find ourselves in a fresh time of uncertainty and unease that is painting the normal we knew before Covid-19 decided to extend its influence beyond China’s borders as not only eminently desirable, but as something we lost a long time ago – far longer ago than is actually the case.

It may well be that the only thing in 2020 that we have to fear is fear itself; but the abrupt loss of so much we invariably took for granted and the sudden change to the majority of lifestyles has had the effect of making many feel as though where we were pre-lockdown was some dim, distant Golden Age we can never get back to. It’s amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to the changes, too. Just in the way a scene from a movie barely a decade old might already seem strange should it feature characters smoking indoors, I’m starting to marvel at the absence of social distancing in any drama I watch and have to remind myself that this situation hasn’t always been the case. It just feels like it has. To claim that the past is beautiful and the present is beastly (nice turn of phrase to justify the title, eh?) might be stretching the truth; but if it were in my power to turn back the clock, I probably wouldn’t say no.

© The Editor

PUBLIC HEALTH AND PRIVATE LIVES

No, it can’t have escaped your attention that broadcasters, broadsheets and tabloids are desperately clinging to the yardstick of the Second World War as the sole means of measuring the current ‘unprecedented’ crisis; today’s issue of the Sun featured Churchill as its page one boy, no less. Perhaps the climate that fosters the flourishing of such constant comparisons reflects a lack of personal reference points on the part of those falling back on the most bleedin’ obvious scenario; it also maybe helps that only those in their mid-80s (at the youngest) now have any clear first-hand memories of WWII, so there are few in a position of influence to contradict the narrative. Moreover, it could be further evidence of the so-called ‘metropolitan’ perspective of those running the media that great swathes of the country’s population experienced disruption on a similar scale less than 20 years ago – only, they happened to mostly be ‘country folk’.

The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak was devastating to the country’s rural communities. From the first reported case in February to the end of the crisis in October, over 2,000 cases affected farms across the whole of the UK (893 in Cumbria alone), leading to the slaughter of more than 6 million cows and sheep, cutting off the countryside – including beauty spots like the Lake District – as a destination for visitors, and resulting in heavy damage to the agricultural economy; the overall cost to the country was £8bn by the end of the outbreak. Scotland estimated it lost between £200-250m in gross revenue to tourism, whilst the Scottish agricultural industry as a whole lost around £230m. With 80,000-93,000 animals being slaughtered per week at the height of the crisis, it’s not hard to surmise the deep psychological impact on those directly affected, let alone the personal financial one.

I could just be looking in the wrong place, but I can’t say I’ve so far heard anyone during the latest apocalypse evoke the ghost of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak amidst the wartime references; 2001 is certainly a good deal closer to us than 1940, but maybe the safe distance of the Blitz is an easier option. I also suppose the predominantly urban outlook that the majority share in the UK plays its part in neglecting the rural foot-and-mouth outbreak as a valid example of what can happen when individual liberties, livelihoods and lives are impacted upon by outside forces.

It’s possible collective amnesia, perhaps a by-product of the fast-food age in which we live, is partially to blame too. Who even remembers that the 2001 General Election was delayed a month due to foot-and-mouth now, the first such delay to have occurred since, yes, the Second World War? I only have to flick back through posts on here from two or three years ago to realise subjects that got people frothing at the mouth when they were written are sometimes ones I’m even struggling to remember now. Maybe that’s because they just seemed important at the time on account of ‘everyone’ talking about them – and they weren’t that important after all. The daily bombardment of information and outrage most of us are exposed to today has a habit of altering one’s perception as to what matters and what doesn’t; it also reduces everything contemporary to the same transitory here today-gone tomorrow status, giving further solidity and permanence to the legend of the war years.

We could select another underused comparison, and though this one isn’t as distant as WWII, it’s still almost 50 years ago. It began in what was one of those rather eventful months – January 1972. In the space of ten days at the end of it, unemployment rose to a million for the first time since the Great Depression; PM Ted Heath signed the EEC’s Treaty of Brussels (doused in ink by a protestor for his troubles); and Bloody Sunday took place. Yes, it was quite a month. Yet, whilst all this was happening, the nation was also in the middle of the first official downing of tools by miners since the 1926 General Strike. Whereas a decade earlier, miners had been in one of the best-paid blue collar professions – earning 7.4% more than the average wage for workers in manufacturing – comparisons had swiftly declined throughout the 1960s (in line with a huge pit-closure programme), and by 1970, a miner was making 3.1% less than his equivalent in manufacturing. Something had to give.

Unlike the more celebrated Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, when only those employed by (and communities sustained by) the mining industry suffered, the strike that was called on 9 January 1972 affected everybody. A polarisation of opinion bordering on near-Brexit proportions was the main impact of 1984/5 beyond pit villages and towns; but in 1972 the success of the miners in preventing the distribution of fuel stocks in and out of power stations – aided by train-drivers and dockers, and culminating in the notorious Battle of Saltley Gate in Birmingham – forced Ted Heath into declaring a state of emergency a month to the day after the strike began.

Schools and businesses closed as they were unable to heat their premises when February was hit by a characteristically biting cold spell; power stations across the country were working well below capacity, and 12 of them shut down altogether. The Government had no choice but to implement electricity blackouts. Industry was forced into working an effective three-day week and householders were advised to heat just the one room. The power-cuts began on 16 February, totalling nine hours on the first day; by the time the strike ended after seven weeks, the public had endured 20 days of living by candlelight. This period is often retrospectively muddled-up with the Three-Day Week of early 1974 that provoked the first of that year’s two General Elections; and while it can be seen as the opening act of the drama that did for Heath, it was still the closest throwback to collective wartime hardship the British people had experienced since the war itself. That’s when these things become actual crises – when they hit Joe Public.

Brexit, for all its powerful potency as the divisive director of discourse over the last three and-a-half years, remained a largely speculative threat to the smooth continuation of life as we know it. Debate in 2018 and 2019 was littered with prophesy and promise rather than evidence of actual damage; we were constantly told (by one side, of course) what was going to happen as opposed to what had happened; it was all restricted to prediction, which allowed the more wilder warnings of the Remainer soothsayers to escalate as it became apparent to them they were losing the argument. We still don’t really know what impact withdrawal from the EU will have on our day-to-day lives, but it hasn’t so far caused the Government to draft emergency legislation that could restrict them in the way events in both 1972 and 2001 did.

With the coronavirus, there’s still plenty of guesswork in abundance, particularly by media outlets; but there is also the death toll, closed schools, cancelled sporting events, abandoned city centres – and the empty supermarket shelves that we were warned Brexit would provoke have instead come about from a different source altogether. This once again demonstrates the dangers of predictions; over-fixating on one specific future often enables another to sneak in unnoticed.

© The Editor

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER

When the 48th season of the Football League kicked-off on Saturday 26 August 1939, Everton were the defending league champions and Portsmouth the FA Cup holders. By the time the season ended, Blackpool were top of the league, though the FA Cup had yet to begin because 1939/40 was prematurely curtailed after all First Division teams had played a mere three fixtures each. The outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September placed the national game in official suspended animation, from which it didn’t emerge until the inaugural post-war FA Cup tournament almost seven years later. Along with all avenues of entertainment that involved mass gatherings, football was an immediate casualty of the instant wartime lockdown; however, as it rapidly dawned on the government that the people needed their distractions, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and dancehalls soon opened their doors again. Football stadiums followed suit, though under somewhat surreal conditions.

The decision of the Football League to proceed with the 1918-19 season despite the outbreak of the First World War was perhaps a reflection of overconfidence as to how quickly that conflict would be resolved. There were no such signs of optimism in September 1939, but even when football returned as the authorities gradually recognised the demand for sport in boosting morale, the interrupted 1939-40 season wasn’t resumed; lessons learned during the darkest days of the Great War were put into practice as clubs participated in regional leagues and tournaments. The limited availability of players as the war progressed meant teams were allowed to field ‘guest stars’ in their line-ups, and the whole wartime football fixtures remain regarded as unofficial friendlies.

The national side played 29 games during the war years, though all were against either Scotland or Wales; none of them are classed as official matches in the record books. For a player such as Stanley Matthews, hostilities spanned what could have been regarded as his peak playing years – from the age of 24 to 30. Despite his international career beginning in 1934 and ending in 1958 (when he was 42), Matthews is in the record books as having a mere 54 England caps to his name due to his wartime appearances not being counted. Similarly, Newcastle Utd legend Jackie Milburn, who made his debut in the wartime league, scored 38 goals that are scratched from his record, thus enabling Alan Shearer to jump ahead of him as Newcastle’s all-time top goal-scorer.

Wartime conditions clearly have a habit of buggering-up the structure of the game, though football in the 1930s and 40s was a different (practically amateur) beast in comparison to its 21st century equivalent. Even the disruption that was a consequence of the Three Day Week in 1974 – when midweek floodlit fixtures were banned and games ended up being played on a Sunday for the first time – didn’t prevent the 1973/74 season from finishing on schedule; besides, the limitations were exclusive to England, and the respective leagues in the major footballing nations of mainland Europe were unaffected by what was a uniquely parochial problem. 2020, on the other hand, is something else.

The unprecedented suspension of all professional football in the UK and Europe as a precautionary measure against the spread of the corona virus may be viewed by some as a sensible contradiction of Bill Shankly’s famous declaration that ‘football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that’; but the potential chaos poised to be inflicted upon the interconnected tentacles of the global game – and the vast fortunes those connections generate – is major. West Ham’s vice-chairman Karren Brady has announced she believes the Premier League shouldn’t complete its remaining 2019/20 fixtures – though play is provisionally set to resume in a month’s time – and the season should be rendered null and void as of now. With West Ham hovering perilously above the relegation zone, however, perhaps her opinion should be viewed in a specific context. It’s doubtful whether Liverpool supporters would echo Brady’s sentiments.

Liverpool, top of the Premier League by a staggering 25 points, have undoubtedly earned their first title since 1990, playing some breathtaking stuff this season, and are within a whisker of getting their hands on the big prize; but would it be fair on them should their dazzling endeavours be rewarded with nothing and their results abruptly erased from the record books? And what of the club at the top of the Championship, Leeds United? 16 rollercoaster years exiled from the top flight finally appear to be drawing to a close with the team playing the kind of football that would be more than welcome in the Premier League. The financial and legal implications of the season being curtailed with less than a dozen match-days remaining are quite a minefield to contemplate, but the investment of hardcore supporters in clubs on the cusp of success then being denied everything they’ve waited many a lean year to see would be one hell of a blow.

Down in the lower leagues, any prolonged stasis could prove fatal; this season has already witnessed the disappearance of Bury FC from the roll-call of league football, and who knows how many other clubs already hang by a thread so threadbare that this crisis could kill them off altogether? This season’s FA Cup has only reached the Quarter Final stages, so that also stands as unfinished business – ditto the Champions League and Europa League; and then there’s this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament. In order to breathe new life into the European Championships, the competition has been restructured so that ties will be played across the continent rather than based in a sole country, with the final scheduled to take place at Wembley in July. Considering the fixture congestion there’ll be when Europe’s domestic leagues eventually resume, the best solution would seem to be delaying the Euros for a year, as league football is the bread-and-butter of players and clubs alike when all’s said and done.

The losses that stand to be incurred by sponsors and broadcasters – not to mention TV subscribers paying for games that aren’t being screened – will only spiral into unimaginable areas if this suspension continues beyond the hoped-for month. The ‘winter break’ the Premier League clubs lobbied for doesn’t seem like such a smart move now, does it? And, lest we forget, this situation isn’t solely a footballing crisis. Rugby, cricket and Formula One are also on ice. The Grand National and the Epsom Derby are the great racing events still to come, and there’s the small matter of a certain four-yearly mega event pencilled-in for Tokyo this summer.

The potential financial fallout associated with the postponement or cancellation of occasions that have gone from mere sporting events to multi-million pound cash-cows for global business could perhaps be viewed as emblematic of how sport has become far too big for its boots. And maybe football fans are receiving a taste of the domestic disruption to come when the money-driven decision to stage the next World Cup in Qatar takes place in November/December 2022. At the same time, these sports remain watched and enjoyed by millions who will now have to find new hobbies to occupy their weekends. The most popular pastime associated with self-isolation might explain the rush to bulk-buy bog rolls, but where it leaves the beautiful game is anyone’s guess.

© The Editor

DON’T PANIC!

‘…since the war’ was once the most overused barometer for measuring a crisis; you couldn’t avoid it when I was a kid in the 1970s – though considering anyone older than, say, 35 back then would have had a first-hand memory of some aspect of the conflict, perhaps it’s no surprise it was the suffix of choice. Watch archive BBC coverage of the February 1974 General Election and the phrase peppers the programme; but one has a real sense of what prompted its recurrence when even revellers in Trafalgar Square watching the results come in are forced to do so in the dark. ‘The gravest economic crisis since the war’ is the context, though one wonders how many times that particular expression had been uttered by opportunistic politicians in the 29 years following VE Day.

The winter of 1946/47 produced literally the gravest economic crisis since the war – or at least the first such one experienced. Retrospectively relegated to a footnote when the far more celebrated 1962/63 cold spell is recalled, the chill that descended upon the British Isles in January 1947 was equally devastating. In some respects, its impact was even greater than the winter of 16 years later in that it stretched the limited resources of a country already struggling through a protracted recovery from the battering it had taken on the home front. The Arctic temperatures wiped out a quarter of the nation’s sheep, decimated up to 20% of crops and were responsible for industrial production falling 10%. The standing of Attlee’s Labour Government plummeted as fuel stocks and food supplies dwindled in the big freeze, with imposed emergency measures having a seismic effect on morale; the floods that came with the March thaw were an additional blow to a beleaguered Britain.

When another Labour Government 20 years later dithered and delayed before belatedly devaluing the pound – at a time when such an action was viewed as a national humiliation – the chaos that cost Jim Callaghan his tenancy of No.11 Downing Street and fatally damaged the Wilson administration was regarded as…’the gravest economic crisis since the war’. Yet Wilson’s immediate Conservative successor came a cropper within three-and-a-half years of redecorating No.10, as quadrupling oil prices exploited by the key-holders of the country’s prime fuel supply – the miners – panicked Ted Heath into switching out the lights and passing round the candles. At the time, I remember asking my dad why the Germans were richer than us when they’d lost the war. This was when I found out parents don’t have all the answers.

Where Heath’s Tories had failed, Labour – under Wilson and then Callaghan – soldiered on in impossible circumstances, but still had to suffer the shame of crawling cap-in-hand to the IMF in 1976. Less than three years later, the unions ‘Sunny Jim’ had always been able to depend upon bit the hand that fed them because they had acquired the appetite of Oliver Twist. Another terrible winter – this time of Discontent – handed electoral victory to Margaret Thatcher as we once again endured ‘the gravest economic crisis since the war’. I have vivid memories of that winter, and as even the all-powerful omnipotence of television joined the catalogue of public services falling into stasis like donkey-jacketed dominos, the palpable feeling of imminent collapse made an impression that I’ve tended to view subsequent crises through the prism of. As a consequence, they rarely measure up and I tend to take Lance Corporal Jones’s advice.

It was almost 30 years before we encountered a comparable crisis – though even the Credit Crunch and the severe Austerity measures introduced by the Coalition in 2010 didn’t induce the same sense of being on the brink as 1978/79 did. The situation may have claimed the scalp of yet another Labour Government and exacerbated the schism between the haves and the have-nots, but the 2010-2015 Con-Dem regime acted like a ruthless receiver dividing the assets of an insolvent company. The climate was not one of the country being ungovernable or out of control. It took the unexpected outcome of a certain unnecessary referendum to finally return us to the state of existential emergency that provoked the return of ‘…since the war’.

It’s interesting that the most hysterical reactions to the result of the 2016 EU Referendum emanated largely from those born and raised in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period now regarded as a rare oasis of economic calm – strong and stable, one might say. And that’s not merely the general public; many children of Blair whose degrees in Media Studies facilitated their rises through the broadcasting and print medium ranks were similarly green when it came to a crisis and responded to a scenario for which they hadn’t been prepared in a fittingly OTT manner that has spiralled out of all proportion over the last three years. ‘Crashing out of the EU’, ‘stolen my future’ and ‘staring into the abyss’ have joined ‘…since the war’ in the Remainer lexicon; but WWII has also been revived as an unlikely yardstick by the other side, with ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ and misplaced allusions to Churchill making a comeback, even though (unlike the 1970s) they are being evoked by those who may as well talk of Trafalgar or Waterloo for all the relevance they have to their own experience.

Maybe a generation or two subconsciously yearned to have their malnourished mettle tested by a crisis. There’s an almost masochistic relish in fantasising about apocalyptic scenarios of the kind George Osborne forecasted on the eve of the Referendum, and the prospect of No Deal seems to have ‘turbo-charged’ (© every f***ing Boris Minister) the nightmarish imagery, fetishising the vision of empty supermarket shelves, bare chemist’s cupboards, martial law and primeval anarchy. Perhaps sitting through more zombie movies and games than is advisable has convinced some too young to know any better that a crisis only has the one outcome.

However, if history has taught us anything it is that crises are no more permanent than their polar opposite; no boom without bust and vice-versa. The wars Brits have been engaged in since 1945 have all taken place in far-flung locations, giving non-combatants an abstract perspective on conflict that doctored news reports from distant war-zones seem to have played their part in. Domestic economic crises, on the other hand, impinge upon our lives in ways that personalise their offensiveness and amplify their impact. But the genuine crisis in so many of our public services, for example, has bugger-all to do with Brexit; they’re in a bad way because they’ve been under-funded for decades, and the blame is with the Remainer village of Westminster, not the rest of Brexit Britain.

When it comes to a crisis, it’s probably best not to hang on every word of that metropolitan Mother Shipton, Emily Maitlis – the Remoaner Lord Haw-Haw issuing proclamations of doom ‘n’ gloom on a nightly basis. Many of us have experienced personal crises that have hit us at times when the nation had allegedly never had it so good, and the state of the nation has had no bearing on mine at all; the damage was restricted to the smallest of circles rather than the widest of canvasses. External events might occasionally contribute to the picture, but whether we find ourselves in the Promised Land or downtown Dystopia on 1 November, the nation will keep buggering on and so will we. However bad it gets, it then gets better – always.

© The Editor

URBAN MYTHOLOGY

Whilst the majority of last week’s D-Day anniversaries were fitting tributes to those who fought them on the beaches, it was inevitable a degree of nostalgia – even for such dark days – would creep into the commemorations. In the case of the Second World War, we have the comforting hindsight of a happy ending, which participants were denied at the time; but nostalgia – whether for the War via ‘Dad’s Army’ or talking-heads TV celebrating more recent cultural epochs – is a romantic electric blanket that is at its warmest when the chilly present seems to lack certainties. There don’t appear to be any certainties at all right now, and nobody has any idea what comes next other than predicting the worst. By contrast, the past is a benevolent piece of furniture we can curl up in and know where we are.

That said, distance sometimes enables us to discern jewels that were hidden when we were busy living in the past – as Jethro Tull once perhaps pointed out. For example, I’d only have to glance at a handful of posts on here from 2016 to come to the conclusion that 2016 was a terrible year – yet, from my own personal 2019 perspective, I can now see it was one of the happiest times of my life. If anything, this serves as a salient lesson to enjoy what one has whilst one has it instead of waiting for it to be claimed by nostalgia and the belated appreciation that is tinged with wistful regret. But I digress.

When watching the 60s/70s drama ‘Public Eye’ recently, it was telling that, amidst the inevitable presence of so many elements of British life long since gone, a particular plotline caught my eye: Lead character Frank Marker moves from one town to another and has to make an appointment to meet the man who is now his bank manager in order that his account can be transferred from his old branch to his new one. Despite Reg Varney making history with his inaugural withdrawal in 1967, hole-in-the-wall cash machines were hardly a fixture on every street corner through the 1970s, if at all. Alfred Burke’s character couldn’t simply relocate elsewhere and continue to withdraw money from anywhere he happened to be – neither could he manage his financial affairs himself online; all of his payments were physical and if he wanted to invest or withdraw, he needed to go to an actual building and make the exchange over the counter by engaging with a fellow human being.

In a week in which I witnessed the doors of yet another neighbourhood bank branch close for good, this scene from ‘Public Eye’ also reminded me how that mainstay of 70s sitcom jokes, the bank manager, was once an office almost on a par with the local vicar, GP or police constable in terms of ‘civic dignitaries’; they no doubt still count for something in Ambridge, but in urban areas the bank manager is virtually an extinct species. If you, like me, reside in an urban area, you won’t have a bank manager either – nor do you probably know a vicar, a copper or even a GP, at least if your experience of the impersonal surgeries in which a different doctor dispenses medication every time you visit is anything like mine.

In most cases, the clout such professions carried has gone because the environment that elevated them has gone. The absence of belonging that many in an alienating metropolis feel can partly be traced back to the point where the strands of benign authority that helped bind communities together became frayed and then snapped; from village elder to local squire to Sgt Dixon, the people required at least one go-to figure to resolve their disputes. Even if they still do, those figures aren’t around anymore; and, anyway, if authority equates with age, the village elder is most likely now rotting away in a care home. We can’t rely on the police to come running when we dial 999, we can’t get an appointment to see a GP, and our bank no longer has a branch on the high-street. Even if you favour collectivism, you’d be hard pushed to generate it in such a fragmented landscape.

The old concept of community, in which everyone had a part to play and a function to perform, had developed from the village roots of towns and had in turn arisen from ancient tribal divisions of labour; in those parts of the world where the literal meaning of ‘tribe’ still applies, one tends to find these roles remain intact and crucial to the community’s survival. In the west, where communities had grown through being supported and sustained by one specific industry, a sense of place was strong in a way that – following the subsequent black hole of underinvestment since the industry’s collapse – has been rendered utterly redundant. A town’s residents can connect with someone on the other side of the world but might not necessarily know a single person living on their street.

Today, community can be more of abstract concept, often equating with identity; the general trend is for the rejection of shared common ground in favour of individual separateness. Even when people defined by their differences or ‘diversity’ are quick to gather in a facsimile of community, their emphasis on individuality precludes genuine community, hence the endless splitting into endless subdivisions of every community based around identity, underlining how diversity can diversify to the point whereby nobody has anything in common anymore. The 21st century incarnations of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front are permanently engaged in social media spats that make unity seem like something people only did in the old days. We receive a tantalising taste of it when we pause to commemorate lives lost in conflicts that required unity to succeed; but the fact that WWII will soon cease inhabiting living memory to join the Napoleonic Wars as mere history keeps it firmly in the context of the past.

Politicians being, of course, the cynical old manipulators of the public mood that they instinctively are, sell themselves to the electorate by appealing to the craving for community as it used to be. The pitches of the wretched hopefuls vying to become the new Tory leader (and, unfortunately, Prime Minister) are crammed with fatuous references to ‘bringing the nation together’ as they line-up like a bunch of vacuous suits to be sneered at by Alan Sugar. The fact that they all appear to be falling over each other to see who can produce the best drug-taking anecdote is a bizarre development that could be viewed as either an attempt to appear human (not easy for a Conservative MP) or to pre-empt any dirty digging on the part of their opponents. Personally, my opinion of Michael Gove has not changed one iota now that I know he snorted coke 20 years ago; and to be honest, if I was married to Sarah Vine I’d probably be permanently off my tits on mushrooms, seeing that as the only viable means of achieving domestic bliss.

Understandably, one response to this strange rash of substance abuse confessions from the kind of people you really don’t want to picture snorting or skinning-up has been accusations of hypocrisy. For decades, the Conservative Party has repeatedly opposed any grownup discussions on the antiquated drugs laws and has constantly played the finger-wagging nanny against anyone daring to recreationally indulge. Then again, this ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach that the current confessions appear to emphasise is perhaps especially grating because it sounds so parental, albeit emanating from the most uncaring and irresponsible parents imaginable. If we need our village elders today, Westminster is not the village where we’ll find them.

© The Editor

DANGER UXB

st-paulsConsidering the Luftwaffe deposited 24,000 tonnes of high explosives on this Green and Pleasant Land during the Second World War, it’s no wonder unexploded German bombs are still being uncovered over 70 years after the end of the conflict. Only yesterday, homes and schools in Brondesbury Park, north-west London had to be evacuated following the discovery of one such archive device on a building site. That these recurrent discoveries elicit a rapid response and the clearing of the neighbourhood demonstrates just how much weapons of mass destruction devised in the early 1940s retain their power to provoke panic in generations who weren’t even present at the time of the Blitz; they also demonstrate how the post-war generations continue to walk in their ancestors’ shoes.

British ports and major manufacturing centres were predictable targets for Goering’s fearsome air-force once the Blitzkrieg began; eventually, it even turned its attention to architectural beauty spots like Bath. However, special treatment was naturally reserved for the capital as it remained the key scalp in Nazi Germany’s plans for Britain throughout the bombing raids. If we take London alone for a moment, the level of destruction is staggering.

For example, on just one night in May 1941, hundreds of high explosive bombs and a hundred thousand incendiaries rained down on the capital, killing 1400 civilians in the process and leaving large areas of the metropolitan landscape utterly devastated. It was an especially bad night for the city’s landmarks: Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons, the British Museum, the Royal Naval College, the Law Courts, Westminster Hall, the Mansion House, the Palace of St James, the War Office, Westminster School, the Public Record Office, King’s Cross Station, The Temple Church, St Clement Danes, St Mary-le-Bow – all suffered hits; but just as many humble homes suffered from either direct hits or the resulting firestorms: 5,000 houses were lost, leaving 12,000 homeless. It actually took until 1942 before the enemy had killed more British soldiers in the field of conflict than they had women and children on the Home Front.

One discerns the level of dramatic transformation inflicted on the London landscape in some of the turn-of-the-50s Ealing classics that include scenes shot on location, such as ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ or ‘The Blue Lamp’ – those vast open spaces in the centre of town that had yet to be built upon and render the capital almost unrecognisable as a consequence. But while the wreckage had been cleared away and left vacant for the developers to move in, it was all surface work. Beneath ground level, endless numbers of sleeping explosives remained, waiting for the call.

It wasn’t really until the 60s that the majority of the bombsites scattered across the capital were finally swallowed up by the sky-scraping office blocks and social housing projects that gradually created the modern metropolis blueprint we’re familiar with today. But, as with the rest of the country that had suffered excessive air-raids from 1940-44, the rebuilding operation was regularly halted for the odd day here and there, courtesy of a disturbed device that reminded those looking forwards that the legacy of the recent past was still under our feet.

Nobody can say for sure precisely how many unexploded German bombs are preserved in suspended animation below street level; but statistics published in 2009 reveal upwards of 15,000 bombs, grenades or mortar rounds were excavated from UK construction sites in just the two years from 2006-2008, which gives an indication of how substantial the amount of dangerous debris from the most relentless aerial pounding this country has ever received still is. Fortunately, the swift action of army bomb disposal experts has prevented any of these items doing the kind of damage they were designed for (and many indeed did at the time they were dropped), but the extent of precautions taken when one is uncovered speaks volumes as to awareness of the fact.

In 2015, one of our own that surfaced over in Euskirchen near Bonn claimed the life of a construction worker who inadvertently drove an excavation vehicle into it. Unexploded bombs of a century’s vintage are even occasionally stumbled upon in the fields of Northern France by farmers, something that goes to show how the impact of the world’s two most devastating global conflicts can continue to resonate down the decades.

Whenever an incident such as that which occurred in London yesterday occurs – as it so frequently does – history ceases to be an abstract concept for those not alive when it took place and becomes prescient again; the destructive potential inherent in a weapon forged in some Fatherland factory long before most of us (or even our parents) were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye suddenly catapults the past into the present in ways that words or pictures cannot.

More recent conflicts may have scattered lethal landmines in foreign fields that remain permanent hazards for children of this century; but the modern weaponry of warfare that essentially began a hundred years ago serves as a warning that, as with the radioactive discharge that clings to the soil of Hiroshima, the murderous machinery that has evolved to win a war doesn’t become obsolete when the peace treaties are signed – it stays among us and will still be here when we’re all long gone. Man has gifted immortality to his armoury. Now, that’s a sobering thought.

© The Editor

POLES APART?

PolesOne of the few British TV dramas of recent years that portrayed working-class characters neither as idle benefits-scroungers or comedy losers was Jimmy McGovern’s ‘The Street’, which ended a three-series run in 2009. One episode centred upon a ranting racist played by Joseph Mawle, who brilliantly exhibited the ignorance of the man whose vitriol’s relentless flow requires the absence of facts to maintain its propulsion. Reflecting contemporary Britain, Mawle’s character reserved his most vociferous ire for Poles, often falling back on hand-me-down World War II myths and legends of a selective nature whilst letting rip. This tendency to conjure up the Churchillian spirit of Britain standing alone whilst conveniently overlooking the crucial role Polish airmen played during the Battle of Britain is and remains a classic bigot’s tactic when justification is needed for each outburst.

The allies Britain could count upon during the Second World War for the whole duration doesn’t constitute the lengthiest of lists; and lest we forget, one of them was the country whose invasion forced Chamberlain’s hand in September 1939. The geographical vulnerability of the Polish Corridor dividing East and West Prussia was bound to make Poland the next Nazi conquest in the summer of 1939; and wracked with the guilt of having abandoned Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich Agreement, it was plain to the British Government that any further ‘annexation’ on the part of Hitler would inevitably lead to first an ultimatum and then war.

Polish fighter pilots comprised the highest number of non-native airmen on the side of the Allies in the Battle of Britain. The often-overlooked strength-in-depth of the Empire certainly helped on all British fronts – air, sea and land – before America entered the war; but the RAF’s Polish contingent was priceless to the eventual outcome of 1940’s key conflict. Polish troops were present at the later Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy, and Polish contributions were also essential when it came to the cracking of the Enigma code. It was fitting that Poland’s government-in-exile was based in London, for it seems to be pretty indisputable that Poland was this country’s most invaluable European ally in our darkest hour.

After 1945, the surrender of Poland to the Soviet Union as one of the unavoidable concessions the Allies made to Stalin to ensure his participation in the defeat of Germany appears a poor way of thanking the country for six years of constant support and assistance; but Poland wasn’t alone when the boundaries of the Iron Curtain were drawn; and, to be fair, the Allies didn’t really have much choice. The ruthless suppression of rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia by the USSR in 1956 and 1968 respectively didn’t prevent the admirable resistance of the Polish trade union Solidarity to Soviet dominance in the 70s, however. The charismatic Lech Walesa became the figurehead for this resistance, imprisoned for his troubles, though ultimately the hero of the resistance when martial law was imposed in 1981; he was eventually rewarded for his efforts by becoming the first democratically-elected Polish President in 1990, following the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc.

In the decades following the Second World War, the vast majority of immigration into the UK was drawn from former imperial colonies, particularly the Indian Subcontinent and the West Indies. Old loyalties to the Commonwealth were more evident than wartime alliances. Citizens from former European allies were far smaller in number up until the change in the constitution of the European Union in the 90s, when Eastern Europeans began to breach Britannia’s borders in sizeable numbers for the first time.

The figures released this week revealing that the largest immigrant population in the UK is now Polish I suppose consist of various caveats. Poles now apparently outnumber Asians, though do we include second or third generation members of the Asian population as ‘immigrants’ – or do we only include those who have arrived here in the last five to ten years? Nobody today, for example, would refer to, say, those of West Indian descent as ‘immigrants’, so successfully has Britain’s black population been absorbed into the social fabric of the nation, not to mention becoming the most high visibility other halves in interracial relationships; and those of us who were at urban schools in the 70s and 80s have grown up accustomed to black and Asian faces being as integral to the nation as white ones. So, we’re presumably talking ‘immigration’ in terms of the past decade.

A headline doesn’t explain all, though it’s not the business of the likes of the Daily Mail to do so; a paper that ran with a 1934 headline proclaiming ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ can’t necessarily be trusted to dispense facts that contradict the prejudices of both editor and readership. And how many of that readership rely on Poles for home repairs and au pairs, one wonders?

As ever, one’s personal perspective is derived from one’s own experience. The non-white British population of my neighbourhood is predominantly Asian, though all of the Asians I come into contact with speak in broad local accents, suggesting a British lineage stretching back a good thirty or forty years, which makes them no more ‘immigrants’ than me. My mother lives in another part of town, and her nearest high-street has apparently been colonised by Poles, which seems to have the effect of making her feel like a stranger in her own city; I do make the point, however, that were it not for the Poles who have taken over the shops, those shops would most likely be closed and the high-street relatively derelict. Asian enterprise saved the corner-shop in the 70s, after all; and enterprise can transcend ghettoisation in a generation. These things take time.

If the appalling mob-murder of Polish man Arkadiusz Jozwik in Harlow is proven to be attributable to the excuse of a post-Brexit Hate Crime, it would seem a little historical perspective is worth bearing in mind before we forget who we are and how we got here.

© The Editor

PEACE IN OUR TIME

Barmaley, StalingradDavid Cameron invoked it as part of the ongoing scaremongering surrounding the impending EU Referendum; and now a retired NATO General has followed suit in order to plug a book. WAR! Yes, that’s what Europe’s got to look forward to if we a) leave the European Union or b) turn a blind eye to Putin’s military ambitions. But both the PM’s recent Remain ploy and the soothsayer-isms of Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff are issued as warnings that would require key incidents occurring years, even decades, beforehand to come to fruition; and unless these key incidents have indeed happened and won’t become apparent as such till the dust settles, it’s hard to discern them while the mongers are busy scaring.

The two instalments of twentieth century World War – what historian Stephen Ambrose described as ‘a European Civil War with no European victors’ – had roots that stretched back a long way. For me, the roots of the First World War can be traced back to Napoleon’s vicious dismemberment of Prussia a century earlier, whereas the eventual outbreak of the Second World War was a direct consequence of Germanic humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles. Unless Yeltzin’s poorly-thought out rush to dive into a western market economy during the 1990s is cited as the cause of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, or the 2008 economic meltdown acts as an eventual catalyst for conflict, there isn’t really anything in the modern era that can be viewed as the crucial foundation-laying for war to match those that lit the blue-touch paper in 1914 or 1939.

The official line goes that peace has been maintained in Europe since 1945; if one ignores Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and a certain barney in the Balkans during the 90s, the line holds true. Not that the EU could – or should – take credit for that. It didn’t exist in its current incarnation in either 1956 or 1968 (the years of the USSR’s brutal intervention in failed, admirable attempts to embrace democratic freedoms), and I don’t recall it doing much to prevent the relentless bombardment of Sarajevo in 1992-96.

Granted, there is no denying that the past seventy years have been relatively peaceful when compared to the turbulent history of Europe, which is the bloodiest of any continent on the planet; but to attribute this rare stability to the existence of the EU is stretching it a bit. For an institution that spent its formative years as a purely economic arrangement between Western European powers to be promoted as some form of benign peace-keeping force in the centre of the continent for seven decades is dishonest, even if the peace angle was pivotal to its initial conception. However, it would undoubtedly be rather mean and churlish to express retrospective cynicism towards the movers and shakers behind both the United Nations and the European Economic Community when none of us were there to absorb the forward-looking determination they shared to see something genuinely positive arise from the ashes of a thirty-year conflict with a decade for dinner in the middle.

The current refugee crisis comprises the greatest mass migration of peoples in Europe since 1945, it is true, though the difference between then and now is one of direction. Today, Europe’s refugees are largely of Middle-Eastern descent and have viewed the continent they risked life and limb to get to as a kind of economic Promised Land; after the war, the refugees were home-grown, wandering from one devastated European nation to another, with the Jewish ones desperate to get out of Europe altogether and head for their own Promised Land…in the Middle East. One also needs to take into account the estimated deaths of around 70 million Europeans during the Second World War if comparisons are to be made with the immediate post-war continent and Europe in the twenty-first century. Europe in 1945 was a landmass that had experienced a population wipe-out on a par with the Black Death; today, it is a landmass experiencing a rapid upsurge in population.

A sudden influx of immigrants can provoke panic in some natives and foster grievances that, at their most paranoid, have a tendency to morph into far-right political parties; whether these have sufficient mass popularity to eventually cultivate a consensus whose natural outcome is war remains to be seen in this case – though Austria’s Freedom Party are poised to make a promising start. Similarly, while Putin has been able to do whatever the hell he pleases in the face of little worldwide opposition bar ineffective sanctions, is the only route available to the West to take him on militarily? Either way, there are so many ifs and buts (not to mention a fair few leaps of the imagination) if the doom ‘n’ gloom forecast is to be fulfilled that it’s hard not to see the motivation behind it as being a cynical ploy on the part of those with a blatant agenda and a degree in the politics of nightmares. The lights are still on in Europe at the moment, and the moment is all we have.

© The Editor