Monday, June 13, 2005

More about changes in the culture

In my discussion of Terry Teachout’s essay on culture (10 June), I mentioned that it was hard for young people to believe how much the world has changed in the last fifty years. As a matter of fact, it’s quite hard to appreciate the change even if you’ve lived through that time.

It occurred to me, after I wrote the Terry Teachout piece, that I had already written something which gives the flavour of those cultural changes, at least as far as England is concerned. It is a passage from chapter 2 of my novel Passionate Affairs, which I published under the pen-name Anne Moore.

The novel is related by an Englishman in his sixties, looking back over his life. The following passage is drawn from fiction, please remember, but it represents pretty accurately what I actually think. This is what the character says:

To enable you to understand this story, I have to start by telling you something about the mores and morals of the English in the year of Our Lord 1960.

When I say ‘the year of Our Lord’ I do so not in any flippant way, but because you need to be aware that England was at that time still a self-consciously Christian country. In particular, people had remarkably stuffy ideas about sexual behaviour.

The self-appointed moral guardians of the 1950s -- bishops, judges, schoolmasters -- tried hard to put the clock back to the nineteenth century. They tried to draw a veil over the horrors of the recent past -- to pretend, as far as possible, that Auschwitz and Dachau had never happened, and that all we needed to worry about was the length of ladies’ skirts when worn at Henley Regatta.

This was a world in which publishers could be prosecuted for issuing a book in which sexual intercourse was described, even without the use of four-letter words. It was impossible to print the word ‘fuck’ without ending up in prison. A similar fate awaited anyone who published a photograph showing female pubic hair. There weren’t many nipples on view either. Topless sunbathing? Ha! Forget it.

Magistrates competed to prove how stupid they were by ordering the destruction of vaguely racy books such as Boccaccio’s Decameron, first published in the fourteenth century. All stage plays were censored, the censors being retired military men in their fifties; their decisions were ludicrous.

The so-called leaders of society frowned upon divorce. Illegitimate births were never discussed in polite company.

Sex education was a farce, if provided at all, and it usually wasn’t. There were instances of well-bred middle-class gels entering into marriage with only the haziest idea of how babies were conceived and born.

Homosexuality was illegal: if you took part in gay activities with another consenting adult, in private, you could be sent to jail for it, and many men were.

Whether you regard these attempts to ‘maintain standards’ as admirable or ridiculous, you have to accept that they were made, and that they were highly influential in creating the ethos of the time.

In short, the England of the late 1950s was a society which was tight-arsed and morally restrictive to a degree which young people today would find hard to believe. It seems as if, having fought so hard to preserve what we had, in two world wars, we had lost all awareness that change might sometimes be for the better.

The Prime Minister of the day told us that we had never had it so good, and in a strictly economic sense that was true. But it was still a miserable bloody time. Believe me.


Anonymous said...

Michael--What did people in those days do to rebel, then? I mean, how was rebellious behavior displayed?

dhamel said...

I've often wondered what it would like to be plucked out of the present and put back in, say, 1970. I suspect it would seem like I was in a foreign country, despite having lived through that time. Apart from all the cultural changes that have occurred since then, the sorts of things you describe, there are the changes wrought by advances in technology. Need to get money at a bank on Sunday? Forget it. No ATMs. (Need to go to a grocery store on a Sunday? You can probably forget that too.) No paying at the pump. No charging at the grocery checkout. No TiVo. No VCRs. No cable. In fact, probably only three or four hazy stations on TV. And, of course, worst of all, no cyberspace. What a strange and frightening world....

Anonymous said...

I recall that a friend's mother a working class woman who gave birth in 1960. Told me that she did not know how her baby was going to come out. She still did not know after the midwife told her it would come out the same way it had got in.

Sad and ignorant days.