BACKTALK

Anthony Blond: Who said England swings? England didn't. It's too busy building a new society to worry about disillusioned critics

March 1 1967

BACKTALK

Anthony Blond: Who said England swings? England didn't. It's too busy building a new society to worry about disillusioned critics

March 1 1967

BACKTALK

Anthony Blond: Who said England swings? England didn't. It's too busy building a new society to worry about disillusioned critics

THE SKY WAS BLUE, there was a lake the color of emerald, and the grass on the putting green, imported they said from the Firth of Forth, was trim and firm. All the same, I had a feeling of unease, that I was being watched by a not totally benevolent eye. I missed my putt, looked up, and the bear which had been watching me shuffled sadly away. This will be recognized by all good Canadians as a likely incident on the golf course of the Banff Springs Hotel set in the Technicolor paradise of the Rocky Mountains, a hotel where the bellboys have to have influential fathers to get them their vacation jobs.

I don’t know your country well. I was bored in Toronto, was introduced by my cousin to the taxidriver set in Montreal, and was carted around Alberta by some of that province’s most enthusiastic citizens, so I wouldn't presume to judge Canada. I know that Canada has, on these superficial impressions, perhaps the highest standard of living in the world, a vast territory and an enlightened foreign policy.

1 can understand that an energetic young man such as Alan Edmonds should have left this ancient, overburdened island for such a place and that, returning from a sentimental journey to Britain, he should conclude that the $1,000 it cost him was a cure for any nostalgia, and that he had seen enough to be glad to be back home. He recorded his impressions (England Swings?, December 3, 1966) with some dudgeon and, may 1 suggest, some relief, since it would be not so encouraging for Canadians if he had had to confess that he was sorry to be back, would it?

It would be tedious to try to rebut inch by inch Edmonds’ criticism of England, but he did take two situations at the extreme ends of the social and economic scale to illuminate his charge that “too many Britons are still living in dank Victorian slums” and that “the caste system still puts a brake on change.” The typically dank slums he visited, and Maclean’s photographed, were Beaconsfield Buildings near King’s Cross station, just a mile from where, in the most salubrious surroundings, I am writing this article. He quotes a young plasterer earning $55 a week, who was watching an ancient movie on TV (has anyone ever seen a brand-new movie on TV?) and who said, “We’ve been waiting to be rehoused by the Greater London Council, what owns this dump, for 25 years.” One telephone call to the GLC produced these facts, which Alan Edmonds could have easily ob-

tained: that the GLC bought this building, because it was in such a bad condition, in July of last year, with the intention of demolishing it; that as the occupants are rehoused, the accommodation is not relct but the occupants are moved into the better parts of the building; that the whole building will be destroyed and all the occupants rehoused by 1968.

At the other end of the scale, Edmonds cites the case of the little Cotswold village owned by the Earl of St. Aldwyn, where “his people still touch their caps as he passes. The village store cannot mount the customary window display because he considers it would be vulgar, and so its display windows are jammed from sill to ceiling with rolls of paper towels. The Post Office wanted to install a public telephone, but the carl refused to have the traditional pillar-box-red phone kiosk in the place. A hut of traditional Cotswold stone was built to house the offending instrument behind a door painted in a delicate — and earl-approved—shade of cream.”

I called the earl. He was out shooting (I am afraid carls still go out shooting, just as Canadian millionaires spend time fishing in the Bahamas), hut his young secretary was horrified at this description. He said of His Lordship that he was the most unearlish earl in the kingdom; that he did indeed own most of the village, whose cottages were most beautifully maintained and plumbed, and no one paid a rent of more than a dollar a week; that no one was obliged to salute the earl as he passed, but that if they did so it was because they liked him; that it was a standing joke in the village that for one month last summer the village store was crammed full of toilet rolls (it is interesting for me, as a European, that Alan Edmonds, a new Canadian, should refer to those common or garden objects as paper towels); that because the village is a sort of beauty spot, he had indeed erected and maintained, at his own expense, a telephone box constructed of the same Cotswold stone as the rest of the village — an eccentric but surely not an autocratic indulgence.

To return to the broader scene, it is true that there are in England bad slums, but they are being demolished and replaced at a spanking rate by (generally) socialist - dominated local councils throughout the land. It is true that, in the slums of Glasgow, violence seems perennial, but so it is in New York's lower East Side or in Harlem, where the rats eat the soap and a far higher proportion ol the working population is on relief.

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Anthony Blond is a British publisher, active Labor Party member, BBC pundit.

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“Now Britain is beginning to take an honest look at itself”

The life of the British working man — or German or I renehman. for that matter — on a wage of $55 a week is much harder than his Canadian equivalent. He has not the big car. the generously equipped house, the wide open spaces and the opportunity for

self-advancement enjoyed by his North American equivalent. He does, of course, pay proportionately much less for the basics — food, rent, clothing —and he also has no fear of sickness. He can take no part in swinging London, that small area of discothequing. tiny - skirted photographers’ models, hairdressers and that ilk.

which was inflated by a Time journalist on a 10-day trip to cover the whole city and its life, and which interpretation has been denounced by every single journal in the country.

As Alan Edmonds says. England is suffering from the hangover of the Industrial Revolution she invented: the green and pleasant land of the

posters is not as typical as the damp, grey, mineral streets, built to house the cheap and docile labor of the 19th century, which built up the fat on which we could exploit an empire and just pay for our share of two world wars. But as Alan Edmonds suggests. Britain is beginning to take an honest look at itself. The Suez outing was probably the last creaky spring of the old. imperial lion, before it could be put to sleep and into a museum where it belongs.

The current Labor government has taken the view that, if the economy is to be righted, a measure of redeployment, a euphemism for unemployment. must be endured. (I don't share this view and believe that the squeeze can warm as well as chill, that new technological enterprises could be started with government money as fast as ancient and inefficient enterprises are shut down.) But in a horrible, old-fashioned way the squeeze and the freeze is beginning to work. The crisis in the motor industry. where thousands of car workers have been laid off. will at least result in an increase of the car-per-man output. The legislation against the negative aspect of trade unionism, which only a Labor government could get through parliament, will at least mean the end of silly demarcation disputes. Prime Minister Harold Wilson has at least, in his own words, shocked the nation into consciousness of productivity. We are now all too conscious of our defects, and our role which Dean Acheson said we had not found when we lost the empire, seems to be one of disparagement. In fact, if Britain were immediately to abandon the east-of-Suez military commitments, withdraw from NATO and plunge into the Common Market without so much as a by-your-leave from the Commonwealth, we could, without working one more man hour, immediately solve our balance of pavments and settle down to a new way of life with a nod of approval from the Gnomes of Zürich.

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Would Britain have been further ahead if she’d lost the war?

We have been called, as was Turkey in the 19th century, “the sick man of Europe”; if so, like some sick, old men, we have grandchildren. In the process of divesting ourselves of empire — voluntarily, may it be pointed

out — we didn’t completely cut off our dependents, so, apart from our special relationship with North America, we cannot be considered in the same light as other European countries such as Sweden or Holland. Alan Edmonds, reporter, chose incidents to typify England as untypical as that bear on the golf course was of Can-

ada. He also failed to see Britain in its historical context as the victor)?) of two world wars.

I he history of Britain since the war has been weary, dreary and undramatic.

For the first five years after the war, a victorious nation found there was still nothing like as much butter,

petrol, washing machines and Mediterranean sunshine as it could consume. At the same time, a Labor government was legislating like mad on every subject from the welfare state, where it succeeded, to the steel industry, where it didn’t, establishing the framework of an egalitarian society and effecting a social revolution more pervasive than ever happened to France in 1789, in an atmosphere of tiredness and shortage. We still had our old industrial equipment more or less intact and did not realize until now that the lack of devastation as suffered in France and Germany was a curse in disguise. The Port of London. for instance, would be much more efficient today if it had been totally blitzed in 1945 — but then we would have lost the war. (Would that have mattered, economically I mean? Considering the boom states of Germany and Japan, we seem in a funny way to have been on the wrong side!) Then came the period of decontrol under Macmillan, with bingo and carports, which ended sweeping the Conservative Party out of office and into disrepute.

This is, of course, a very impatient man’s guide to postwar British industry, but it brings us to the point where planning is now back again in fashion, but of a kind less passionate and more pragmatic than went on in 1945. No one will be spared in the current drive for rethinking our ancient assumptions, not even the workers, not even the lawyers, not even the jury system, not even our currency, not even the honors system, not even the public schools, not even — dare 1 breath it? — the royal family, who are now defended on grounds of efficiency rather than loyalty.

If ever Alan Edmonds feels the urge for another $1,000 cure — and the fare will have gone down by then —-I think he will find a Britain bereft of Beaconsfield Buildings and forelock-touching yokels, and full of shiny new projects and bursting with commercial success. At the same time, I hope that our policemen will still not carry guns and that, as we sweep away the debris of the Steam Age with an efficient, new broom, there will remain those sweet and gentle corners of the British Isles and of the English mind, which make me, for one, anxious not to leave. ★