Well now: the Post Office has lost the plot. In the old days, there was a twice-a-day post service, reliable as the moon. Families could stay in touch, lovers conduct their courtships, merchants exchange contracts, all handwritten, from the copperplate of the professional clerk ('We beg to remain, Sir...') to the postulant's midnight heartsick scrawl and the labourer's clumsy fist, inkily scratched out with much blotting and protrusion of tongue.
Now the affectless smoothness of the inkjet, the bleak impersonality of the personalised mailshot, the catalogue, the credit card and the final demand are all that remain of the post. And the postman himself " once a proud servant of a proud organisation, uniformed and punctual " has become a shabby dog in jeans, hi-vis vest, baseball cap and iPod, destitute of pride, defeated by his profit-hungry bosses, owing no loyalty to an institution which gives him none back. We live in decadent times.
There was a time when the NHS was kept tickety-boo by proud, starched matrons. Now, as it disintegrates before our eyes, there are 'managers' (who manage to what?) with Mondeos, targets and best- practice metrics, because the only measure of any enterprise now is that of business: giving as little as you can get away with for as much as we can get.
No room now for the dedicated nurse whose care helped patients as much as any doctor; no room for the doctor himself, whether the consultant who actually knew " and recognised " his patients as he made his rounds, or the old-style GP who cared for his flock from cradle to grave. His ring on the doorbell meant help was at hand, but what doctor will visit now? Like all 'services' it is contracted out to strangers on a shoestring; even to go to the surgery requires a week's notice. Illness must be planned in advance and simple humanity has no place in these decadent times.
There was a time when we could trust the trains. To set out on a train journey is now as unpredictable as setting out upon life; there is no way to read the auguries, no guarantee how long the journey will last or whether you will reach your destination at all. Before the balderdash and cheeseparing, slogans and cost-cutting, the railways were a public good, recognised as such. To work on the railways could define an entire life. Orderly, dedicated, dignified and, above all, reliable, the railways represented everything that was best about a Britain which has long gone, sold down the river in the name of money. Now the rich get richer peddling misery to the public, who are no longer called 'passengers' (which implies they will be going somewhere) but 'customers' (which only implies that they have paid). Only a fool would set out on a train journey with hope; and anyway the poet was wrong; it is, in fact, better to arrive. But in these decadent times, don't count on it.
Don't count on anything, in these decadent times. There was a time when television was a cornucopia of delights. With only two channels you could still be sure of finding something diverting, informative, thrilling, moving " and often all at once " to watch, even if, in those days, you had to get out of your armchair to find it. (In those days there were only two knobs, and they were fixed to the box, so you never had to hunt for them.)
The Reithian ethos was still in force; the BBC knew it had the high ground of public service, and ITV sought to come up to those standards rather than the BBC slithering down to join it in the gutter. Television had the confidence to be itself; all gone today, in the hunt for ratings. Could Jack Rosenthal, Arnold Wesker, Dennis Potter be commissioned today? Not in these decadent times.
There was a time when motherhood was not squeezed into precious spare time, unregarded, an optional extra in a world which prizes busy-ness above all. To reflect, to be still: these are intolerable to our frantic lives. Once motherhood was a vocation, all- consuming, intimately wrapped up in the fabric of marriage. A wife and mother cared for her husband and children and in return her husband cared for them. He and they were all her care, and all the life she wanted; and he wanted to protect and soothe her and keep her safe from the greater world, securer in her smaller but infinitely important one. And at the end of the day, after a Martini and a rubber of bridge with friends, they would go upstairs and kiss the children goodnight and sleep the sleep which comes from simplicity and goodness and order, because those were not decadent times.
Well now; the Post Office has lost the plot? So it may have done; but it is not the Post Office's fault. If it is creaking and sometimes slow, unreliable, prone to unexpected failures, late, loses things, takes things to the wrong place or sometimes even seems to forget what it is meant to be doing, we should not complain. This is the normal behaviour of the senescent, and in the 21st century, the Post Office is very old and its time is almost done. To everything there is a season, and it is now midwinter night for the Post Office.
Now, we move bits around the planet, not atoms; electrons carry our information, not cheery postmen in the fog with mysterious sacks of love-letters, writs-in-Chancery, patent medicines (mostly cocaine, legal) and the occasional dead body part (not legal). The Victorian Post Office was a primitive internet; now we have the real thing and communicate faster than a threat or a kiss. Is this, then, a post-literate age? No; people write more, and more often, than ever before: to each other and to the world at large. It's just that we don't need the Post Office to do it. A lean and slipper'd pantaloon, let it fade away in peace. We live in modern times.
We live in modern times, and before we say the NHS is disintegrating before our eyes, we should think for a moment. Hospitals may be stretched; sometimes we may have to wait our turn. But what stretches them, and why we must wait, is success. Gone is the pitiful materia medica of the starched and matronly days, of pinstriped consultants and tweedy GPs, where often the only thing the doctor could prescribe was himself.
Cancer? You died. Bad hip? You hobbled, wincing. Bad heart? You died. Bad liver? You died. Raped? Pregnant? Too bad; you had the baby, and maybe you died anyway, or it died, or both of you died, and if you couldn't have a baby, too bad. The NHS is brilliant and popular and everyone wants to dance with her because, like a bad girl at a good party, the NHS delivers the goods. Of course there's a queue, because, at last, there's a point in queueing; because we live in modern times.
Nowadays, we cannot trust the trains. But nowadays we do not need to trust the trains. We have cars; we have aeroplanes; the days of the cloth- capped labourer cycling against a bitter nor'easterly to catch the excursion special are over, and if Mister Brown goes orf to town on the 8.21, it's because he chooses to leave the BMW in the garage. In the days when we could trust the trains, nobody went anywhere, and when they did it was in discomfort, cold and smoky, smuts in the eye and a stony silence. Now we have choices. The train is just one of those choices. And if we choose otherwise, they will have to compete for our custom. As, slowly, they are doing. Gare du Nord, anyone? These are modern times.
And in these modern times, things find their proper place. Gone is the condescension of Reithian days, when we watched what was good for us (on the BBC) or were patronised by comedy proles (on the Other Side). Now television, in all its tawdry, voyeuristic, postmodern multichanelled glory, has abandoned its genteel pretensions and found its proper place, as the natural heir of the music hall, the circus, the peep-show and the freak-show.
Television is a mass medium, and that alone should tell us who it's meant to please. And don't forget: in the Reithian days of nation speaking peace unto nation, there was war; and there was no Simpsons. Thank heavens we live in modern times.
Mothers are short of sleep in modern times. Fathers are short of sleep too. Nu? As Catullus said, The sun will set and rise again; our own sun sets, it's night and, forever, sleep. Plenty of time. And if 78 per cent of mothers think they've got their work/life balance wrong, they might ask themselves why, before they yearn for a time when husband and children were all her care, and all the life she wanted; and he wanted to protect and soothe her and keep her safe from the greater world, securer in her smaller but infinitely important one.
And at the end of the day, after a Martini or two and a rubber of bridge with friends, they would go upstairs and kiss the children goodnight and he would go to sleep and she would go into the bathroom and take the barbiturates, because she had no work/life balance to get right or wrong, and life was lonely, pointless and small, being a mother, being a woman, but not being a person. Not like now. Not like in modern times.
Then and now
THEN: The average cost of a house in 1970 was pounds 4,874; but the weekly wage was pounds 26.10.
NOW: The average weekly wage is pounds 475.80; and a house costs, on average, pounds 172,788.
THEN: Post came at breakfast time, followed by a second delivery in the afternoon.
NOW: With the internet and text messaging, who needs postmen to be efficient?
THEN: Job security was almost a given in the Fifties and Sixties.
NOW: Career-changing is seen as being versatile and multi- talented, rather than just fickle.
THEN: There were 2.4 million cars on the island.
NOW: 28 million " even the simplest of journeys can turn into an odyssey.
THEN: The number of recorded crimes per 100,000 people in 1950 was 1,053 and in 1960 still only 1,610.
NOW: There are 11,327 recorded crimes per 100,000. Perhaps the police have just got better at catching criminals.
THEN: Food was bought fresh and cooked with little waste.
NOW: If you do have to cook, you can buy a ready-made meal from a supermarket.
THEN: Smoking was social as the health risks were not widely known; 80 per cent of men smoked in the late Forties.
NOW: It is regarded antisocial. There are big health warnings on cigarette packets.
THEN: Elvis, Motown, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the dancing halls.
NOW: Music today can fuse the best of the old with the technology of the future.
THEN: Children were 'seen and not heard' and were expected to show respect to their elders.
NOW: Respect is earned rather than an automatic given.
THEN: Ninety per cent of adults owned a Bible in 1954. In 1970, 9.3 million people in the UK were churchgoers.
NOW: Bible ownership is at 65 per cent and 6.6 million people go to church. But there has been a rise in numbers of people in the UK practising faiths other than Christianity.
THEN: Mothers with new babies used to sleep an average of five hours, uninterrupted. In the 1960s and 1970s, 80 per cent of mothers had a set bedtime routine. Ninety-eight per cent of people disapproved of single mothers in the 1950s.
NOW: Mothers with new babies sleep about three and a half hours a night, and 69 per cent of mothers have a set bedtime. Only 38 per cent disapprove of single mothers.
THEN: In the 1950s only 12 per cent of men claimed to do most of the housework
NOW: That figure is exactly the same today.…