Not Just A Place

Ah, Election Night at last! The wigs are accumulating on the green even as I write. It will be some time before the casualty count is tallied, however — so for tonight, we need a little diversion, with an appropriately conservative theme. I’ve found just the thing, from the fertile pen of John Derbyshire, who, in the latest edition of his monthly Diary, waxes nostalgic (as we greying sorts are prone to do) for a time when England was still England.

As everyone of a certain age can tell you, Western Civ. peaked in the early 1960s. It’s been pretty much downhill since then. Philip Larkin nailed it as only a poet can: “Life was never better than / In nineteen sixty-three.” That was the year I left home and went to college in London.

One year earlier than that, in 1962, London Transport — the MTA of that time and place — produced the best promotional movie ever made by a transit authority. (Not, I’ll admit, a crowded field.) LT have put it on their website, where you can watch it. The movie’s name is “All That Mighty Heart” — a line from a Wordsworth sonnet, as anyone with a grade-school education in 1962 England could have told you. The movie closes 23 minutes later with an even more atmospheric sonnet: Thomas Hood’s “Midnight.” In between you get a day in the life of the city, with a gentle emphasis on the work of the transit authority.

Nostalgia? Oh boy. Here is London as I recall my first acquaintance with it, a mere 20 years on from Orwell’s observation of “crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners.” The teeth are actually pretty good; but this is a promotional movie, and anyone showing much tooth display is an actor. The young women are slight and pretty in their big skirts and cardies, just as I remember them. (When did everybody get so fat?) The middle-aged women still wear hats, as do the older men. Hats — I’m talking real hats, not baseball caps — were well on the way out, a social change usually blamed on John F. Kennedy, but with causes probably deeper.

Even more evocative than the sights are the sounds: the fruity tones of John Slater introducing Housewives’ Choice, a music-request program for housewives — which is to say, heteronormatively married females brutally excluded from the workforce by the oppressive patriarchal conspiracy. (The first caller, name of Elsie — when did we stop naming our daughters Elsie? — requests “a gay tune.” John gives her Johann Strauss’s “Tritsch Tratsch Polka.” Why not Tchaikovsky or Benjamin Britten?) We also get the even fruitier tones of Jack de Manio announcing something or other, then the fine old rustic buzz of cricket commentator John Arlott.

It’s all so heartbreakingly English. The transit workers, who greet each other by name when changing shifts, are Bill, Bob, Tom, and Ted. Strangers are addressed as “chum” or “love,” depending on sex . . . sorry, “gender.” The advertisements are so diffident you wonder why anyone bothered to buy anything: “More and More People Prefer Senior Service” (a brand of cigarette). It’s still Orwell-land, more or less: a nation with plenty of squabbles, tensions, and injustices, but long familiar with itself, at ease in its own skin. A nation, not just a place, which is all England is today.

(Footnote: Those two transit workers in the canteen at 11m10s: If they’re not engaged in adultery, they’re doing a darn good imitation of it.)

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2 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    We who are grey of beard and long in tooth (but not yet toothless!) remember that, once upon a time, even when it was dreary, it was “Merry Old England.”

    (fn: Malcolm, if that’s what you think adultery looks like, you need to get out more — neither of that pair looks particularly syphilitic.)

    Posted November 3, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    No, that was Derb’s footnote, not mine.

    Posted November 3, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink