This Island of England Breeds Very Valiant Creatures

I have gone through a spate of watching British movies that show the country in the 1940s and 1950s (e.g., The Long Arm and Green for Danger). And also, as I always like to do, I have been spending hours over tea listening to friends in their 70s, 80s and 90s tell me about their experiences growing up here.

I was walking through Victoria Station today and it occurred to me how stunning it would be to a Londoner of 75 years ago. The quality of the construction, the cleanliness of the air, the computerized everything, the big screen television, the abundance of affordable food and drink. In material terms, it would be unimaginable luxury.

Here’s a photo taken not far from the one above, but in 1940:

I think about these contrasts and the current “austerity” in the UK, which means that government spending is rising in nominal terms, there is a national health service, modern construction, cheap airline travel and countless other amenities. There are no ration books (they lasted here until the 1950s), no polio outbreaks, no rows of outdoor toilets, nor a million other unpleasant things that were taken for granted only 3 generations ago.

Is there suffering now under the current economic malaise? Absolutely. Some people are without work, others are struggling under mountains of debt, others can’t afford university and as always, some people are just lost and alone. But would people from the 1940s and 1950s have seen modern Britain as a place of astonishing wealth and comfort? Again, absolutely.

One could argue that the material contrast is irrelevant because people are so much happier today. But that is untrue: Across the western developed world, subjective well-being, faith in institutions, and felt meaning in life have if anything declined since the “bad old days”. Most people were fulfilled back then, even though they were materially much poorer than are their great-grandchildren.

I think the better conclusion to draw is that the people of this country are a lot hardier than they are sometimes given credit for, and are more able to persist through difficult times than perhaps even they themselves know (or remember). And more generally, human beings are remarkably good at squeezing joy, love and meaning out of life even when things are not going as they wished or hoped economically.

And that’s why as I walk through London these days I am possessed of a most un-British spirit: Open, unembarrassed and unrestrained optimism about the future of this country and the people in it.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “This Island of England Breeds Very Valiant Creatures”

  1. Maybe you have a case of temporary euphoria since Manchester City (the other Mancunian team, the not-United one) won the Premiership on Sunday with two miraculous goals in injury time added-on.

    After 44 years in the shadow of their giant neighbour, it was quite a win. To be fair, United also hard times in the 1970s and were relegated for a year. And City’s wealthy owners, expensive foreign players and imported Italian manager might have had a lot to do with it.

    Still, on the face of it, we can call it a win for the almost-always-vanquished.

  2. Keith, I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey here, but I’d encourage you to apply this to the elites who are somehow ending up with government money amidst all of this ‘austerity’. Point out their likely fate in the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, and tell them to stop whining.

    1. Narratives like Keith’s are put to two uses: They remind us that a larger perspective can help us bear our own burdens; or they can convince us that the dire problems of other people aren’t so bad. I think Keith skates uncomfortably close to the latter when he compares the current austerity to 1940 London.

      UK austerity is a foolish choice, and it is rightly condemned, even if it hasn’t done as much damage as The Blitz.

      Speaking as a lifelong U.S. resident – and therefore part of the “western developed world” – this seems either absurd or irrelevant:

      Across the western developed world, subjective well-being, faith in institutions, and felt meaning in life have if anything declined since the “bad old days”.

      I mean sure, people had a lot more faith in institutions – Jim Crow, the Catholic hierarchy and the Nazi Party were western institutions that inspired a lot of faith – but even if their adherents had more “subjective well-being … and felt meaning in life,” I’m not going to get all misty-eyed for a time when people treated their institutions less skeptically.

      1. politicalfootball: I am not trying to persuade you (or anyone else) of anything. I respect everyone’s right to be bitter, cynical, disappointed, dissatisfied, jaded, nihilistic, pessimistic about the future etc., as they please.

        It’s just that I’m not. I feel grateful about the lives we have in the developed world when I compare them to how our grandparents lived, and even moreso when I compare them to how people in poor countries live right now (See my post immediately prior to this one).

        I am with Louis C.K.: “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”

        1. As an American who has lived in London for 14 years, with a lot of travelling around this small island in the North Atlantic, I agree. One of the first things I read when moving here was Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. We have a 93 year old friend who, among other things in her life, typed up the first draft of Bevan’s proposed National Health Service. Yes, the current government is doing some stupid things, and and indeed even some possible harm, but nothing to reverse the scale of the improvement over the past five or six decades. It’s useful to keep that in mind–thanks.

        2. I certainly agree with Louis CK, and explicitly included his perspective when I wrote my comment. You might read the first sentence again. Likewise, I don’t think I can be rightly accused of being bitter, cynical, etc. Progress is driven by people who aren’t satisfied with the status quo. GB Shaw (via Bobby Kennedy) was the opposite of cynical here:

          There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

          I think the current economic foolishness gripping the UK is entirely fixable, so why not fix it? In that context (which, if I’m reading you correctly, is the context you intend) it’s the height of cynicism to say Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

  3. This Island of England? Have you forgotten, as Londoners often do, about the resentful, woad-encrusted Picts and Gaels boiling eye of newt to the banshee screams of wind turbines north of the Wall?

      1. James and sven: My family heritage is Welsh and Scottish..”Island of England Breeds…” is a quote from Shakespeare (Henry V, just saw the Globe production in Cardiff, very good).

        1. Touché on my defective Bardlore.
          Henry V is dated to 1599, while Elizabeth was still alive and nobody knew what her successor James VI of Scotland would do. In the scenes with Henry’s ahistorically multicultural soldiery, you see Shakespeare already experimenting with the idea of a national identity beyond Englishness, but he didn’t have a word for it. The Welsh captain Fluellen is a comic character, but IMHO he’s more rounded than the (very funny) caricature of Owen Glendower in Henry IV. It was James who invented Britain as a political concept to unite his two kingdoms; and it’s s sensible convention to follow today.
          BTW, I don’t claim Welsh ancestry (some Scots), but owe my existence to the victory of Welehman Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field.

          1. James

            The current Globe production touring the UK has the most funny Fluellen I have ever seen — and I have seen many productions of the play. To compare to the film version, the Gobe’s Fluellen is much darker in Branagh’s (magnificent IMHO) version, lighter and with more of the regional strains in Olivier’s though still not as light as in the production touring the country now.

            On my ancestry: the giveaway is the Y in my name. Humphries are overwhelmingly English, but Humphreys are overwhelmingly Welsh, don’t ask me why.


          2. Correct me if I am wrong, Mr Wimberley, but surely the idea of a personal union of crowns hardly began with Jimmy 6/1. There were plenty of precedents for it in medieval history (the Angevin “empire” being the most immediately relevant “British”example – see Henry II King of England, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes, and Lord of Ireland among other titles). During Jimmy 6/1’s reign, England and Scotland remained sovereign kingdoms with their own laws, judiciary etc etc. Jimmy 6/1 did talk about achieving an actual union, but this was extremely unpopular and he allowed the idea to fade out after some tentative stabs at legislation, including a short-lived commission. Vastly more significant, I submit, were the Acts of Union under Queen Anne in 1707 which actually unified the parliaments of England and Scotland.

      2. sven, when the Times was “the Thunderer” – the paper of record in Britain, and not the godawful Murdoch rag it’s become, it famously printed the headline, “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off”. I think we can safely say that Steinberg would have felt right at home.

    1. Given how he’s hollowing out what little credibility the American media still possess, I suggest that the British are vastly better off without him. I still can’t understand the appeal of a self-contradicting political and economic dunce with marked sanctimonious and hypocritical tendencies. His exploitation of the protests in Iran was one of the more nauseating displays of cultural imperialism in the last ten years – especially when one considers his record on Iraq!

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