Quotulatiousness

June 11, 2017

Nostalgia for a lost England

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren got all weepy about bygone times in England:

I lived in England — London, to be more frank, but with much wandering about — through the middle ’seventies and for a shorter spell in the early ’eighties. By the late ’nineties I visited a place that had been in many ways transformed, and clearly for the worse, by the Thatcher Revolution. Tinsel wealth had spread everywhere, trickling down into every crevice. Tony Blair surfed the glitter, and people with the most discouraging lower-class accents were wearing loud, expensive, off-the-rack garments, and carrying laptops and briefcases. No hats. It was a land in which one could no longer find beans-egg-sausage-and-toast for thirty-five new pence, nor enter the museums for free.

I missed that old Labour England, with the coalfield strikes, and the economy in free fall; with everything so broken, and all the empty houses in which one could squat; the quiet of post-industrial inanition, and the working classes all kept in their place by the unions. I loved the physical decay, the leisurely way people went about their charmingly miserable lives. Cricket still played in cricket whites; the plaster coming off the walls in pubs. It was all so poetical. And yes, Mrs Thatcher had ruined all that. For a blissful moment I was thinking, Corbyn could bring it back.

Actually, he would bring something more like Venezuela, but like the youff of England, one can still dream.

I visited England as an adult in mid-Winter 1979, the “Winter of Discontent“, and it was a fantastically appropriate epithet for a chilly, damp, and miserable time-and-place. When we landed at Heathrow, there was some kind of disruption with both the bus service and the underground (“subway” to us North Americans), so getting into London required taking a cab. The cabbie “kindly” took us around a bunch of touristy sites (and probably ran up the meter a fair bit) before dropping us off at King’s Cross station. When we bought our tickets for the train north to Darlington, we were warned that the catering staff were not working that day (no idea whether there was a formal strike or just a wildcat walkout), so there were no meals available on the train. The restaurant at the station was closed — that might just have been the time we were there, as British restaurant opening and closing hours were quite restricted at the best of times.

On the train, we were at least able to get a cup of tea and a stale bun. The journey took quite some time — once again, that might have been normal, but what was supposed to be a ~3 hour journey probably took closer to 5 hours (maintenance, signalling issues, strike-related delays, and for all I know the “wrong kind of snow” were all possible contributors). By then, we’d missed our connecting train to Middlesbrough, but they ran fairly frequently so we weren’t held up too long. We finally reached my Grandmother’s house, only to discover that we might be hit by blackouts as the power station workers were threatening to go off the job. It was a dismal and yet appropriate welcome back to the place I’d left as a child in 1967 … it was tough to recognize the places I thought I remembered, as childhood memories tend to emphasize the (fleeting) warmth and sunshine and ignore the much more traditional wet and windy British weather.

I left Toronto wearing normal winter clothing, which was well adapted to our Canadian winters, but not at all appropriate to the bitter, wet cold of Northeast England at the best of times and this was the worst winter since 1963. My teeth started to chatter as we left the terminal at Heathrow and didn’t stop chattering until the door closed on the aircraft for our return two weeks later (in the middle of a huge winter snowstorm that had us on one of the few aircraft that arrived or departed that day).

My brief two weeks’ experience of England’s Winter of Discontent didn’t build up any particularly rich sense of nostalgia, let me tell you…

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