Wednesday 10 December 2014

The present is also a foreign country

In 1953, the year before I was born, a novel with one of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century was published.

It was L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, and I’m sure you know the words: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That usually prompts a nod of recognition. But if one ponders the logical consequences, aren’t we all creatures of the past? And does that not make each and every one of us immigrants in the foreign country that is Britain today?

Because they certainly do things very differently here and now, compared with the black and white, steam-powered, pounds, shillings and pence, “never had it so good” world in which my generation grew up.

Since then it has been pretty much a perpetual revolution, disguised only by the fact that the young woman who was crowned in 1953 still has her image on the currency today.

Many of the things I read and hear each day seem as alien to me as they must to a non-English speaker who has just arrived in Dover clinging to the underside of a lorry.

I miss half crowns and remain equally baffled by metric measurements and the way that English names for foreign places keep changing, but those of the foods associated with them (Peking duck, Ceylon tea) do not.

I cannot keep up with the ever-changing rules on acceptable language. A few weeks ago I listened in astonishment to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers that was dominated by fury with Lord Heseltine for having used the word “handicapped”. This is apparently about as offensive as anyone can be to a disabled person in 2014.

It came as news to me and, reassuringly, to my younger and much more switched-on wife. Though the caravan will surely move on again, rendering the currently approved word completely unacceptable within another few years.

Meanwhile the most offensive words of my childhood are now the mainstays of popular comedy shows.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this, and expecting the name of Nigel Farage to crop up, so I won’t disappoint you. He doesn’t like being late for events because the motorways are so crowded, and cites “open door” immigration as one factor driving population growth.

My dad was saying much the same thing in 1960, outraged by the growing number of cars on the road and particularly by people on the neighbouring council estate having the temerity to take up driving.

His views were formed by around 1915, as mine were by the end of the 1950s, and thereafter we were both lost somewhere abroad without a guide book.

But it’s not just me, my dad and the entire membership of UKIP. Most of us appear overwhelmed with nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. Witness the recent YouGov survey that found a huge majority of the public in favour of renationalising the energy companies and railways.

Clearly forgetting the epic, soviet-style inefficiency of the old electricity boards and British Rail.

The simple, sad reality is that you can’t combine a generous welfare state with open borders; you will inevitably be overwhelmed by demand.

But equally you can’t maintain a functioning welfare state when your own population is ageing, and you rely on those in work to pay the pensions of the elderly. Those moaning immigrants from the past who irritatingly insist on living longer and longer as each year goes by.

The only remote hope of squaring that particular circle seems to be allowing the working population to be topped up with younger people from overseas. Maybe our leaders could try spelling this out a bit more clearly.

Ultimately this conundrum is all the selfish fault of us baby boomers, famously obsessed with sex yet bizarrely failing to breed in adequate numbers. I belatedly tried to make amends by adding two potential workers to the national pool. And my reward? A lecture the other day that began: “You silly old man, you don’t know anything. I’m two. I know things.

Actually my younger son Jamie is all of 2¾. I’m seriously thinking of entering him into a debating contest with Mr Farage.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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