Monday, 3 February 2014

What went wrong?

I was born in 1944. I was due on D-day but wisely decided to stay inside until a week later.

We were still at war with Germany but by then it was clear our side was going to win. That year the great Education Act was passed; free education for all. I duly went to Harcourt County Primary near Folkestone; a new glass-and-concrete but nevertheless elegant single-storey building. Thinking I couldn’t read yet they marked the pegs for our coats with pictures of animals; I chose a crab which probably says something about me. The teachers, mostly women, were warm and kind and tried to teach me to cut out a Christmas-tree shape from dark green sticky paper; I hid the fragments of my failure under the desk when she came round to see how we were getting on; not from fear of her wrath: what I feared was the ridicule of the other children, all so much more street-wise (as we would say now) than me, and mocking of my dreamy other-worldliness. I felt overwhelmed, as we walked back from school each afternoon, by these noisy giggling and chattering groups that never included me. But I loved it all; we were each given a little bottle of milk at mid-morning break, and during my first term a big climbing-frame was installed in the playground, just for us. ‘Gym’ involved such things as setting a hoop rolling and then turning a somersault through it; I was astonished when several other children (not me) managed this feat. None but a few of the bigger boys who hung around the furthest corner of the playground and were best avoided ever complained about school; we all loved it.

And a few years later the National Health Service started: free health care ‘From the cradle to the grave’ for everyone. I queued with my mother every week at a little office in the recreation ground, for two flat bottles: one of sticky not-very-nice orange juice, and one, with a blue label instead of an orange one, of distinctly not-very-nicer cod liver oil, which was good for us: after each daily teaspoonful we were given a big spoonful of ‘Radio Malt’ from a huge dark jar with a red-and-yellow label showing a lattice-work radio mast like the Eiffel tower, surrounded by exciting-looking electric flashes. This too was good for us, but being nice was not free.

One had to wait hours at the doctor’s because in those days they gave every patient as much time as they needed. But they gave you prescriptions which you took to the chemist’s who gave you tablets or bottles of ‘The Mixture’. All free; no question of payment.

Then sweets came off the rations; the last thing to do so. On the first day there were long queues at the sweetshop but we, as children of people moving from the working into the middle class, waited until the next day. Even the dentist was free, and gave you gas so you didn’t feel anything. Mine was free anyway because he happened to be my father.

Then in 1951 was the Festival of Britain: the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery, all sorts of wonderful new inventions suitable for a Brave New World. The Festival Hall, with amazing sound-proofing against the trains, still mostly steam, rattling across from Charing Cross to Waterloo, and heating that worked by extracting low-level heat from the great heatsink of the Thames.

The mood lasted a few more years. Then, quite suddenly, it all collapsed. People, especially the people who held the purse-strings, simply stopped caring about the things that really matter.

What the hell happened? What hideous sickness overtook us?    

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