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.