The Good Old Days?

New surveys this week reveal mothers get less sleep, children have less respect and trains are less punctual. But was the past really so much better? Michael Bywater makes the case for - and against
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The Independent Online

Well now: the Post Office has lost the plot. In the old days, there was a twice-a-day post service, reliable as the moon. Families could stay in touch, lovers conduct their courtships, merchants exchange contracts, all handwritten, from the copperplate of the professional clerk ("We beg to remain, Sir...") to the postulant's midnight heartsick scrawl and the labourer's clumsy fist, inkily scratched out with much blotting and protrusion of tongue.

Well now: the Post Office has lost the plot. In the old days, there was a twice-a-day post service, reliable as the moon. Families could stay in touch, lovers conduct their courtships, merchants exchange contracts, all handwritten, from the copperplate of the professional clerk ("We beg to remain, Sir...") to the postulant's midnight heartsick scrawl and the labourer's clumsy fist, inkily scratched out with much blotting and protrusion of tongue.

Now the affectless smoothness of the inkjet, the bleak impersonality of the personalised mailshot, the catalogue, the credit card and the final demand are all that remain of the post. And the postman himself - once a proud servant of a proud organisation, uniformed and punctual - has become a shabby dog in jeans, hi-vis vest, baseball cap and iPod, destitute of pride, defeated by his profit-hungry bosses, owing no loyalty to an institution which gives him none back. We live in decadent times.

There was a time when the NHS was kept tickety-boo by proud, starched matrons. Now, as it disintegrates before our eyes, there are "managers" (who manage to what?) with Mondeos, targets and best-practice metrics, because the only measure of any enterprise now is that of business: giving as little as you can get away with for as much as we can get.

No room now for the dedicated nurse whose care helped patients as much as any doctor; no room for the doctor himself, whether the consultant who actually knew - and recognised - his patients as he made his rounds, or the old-style GP who cared for his flock from cradle to grave. His ring on the doorbell meant help was at hand, but what doctor will visit now? Like all "services" it is contracted out to strangers on a shoestring; even to go to the surgery requires a week's notice. Illness must be planned in advance and simple humanity has no place in these decadent times.

There was a time when we could trust the trains. To set out on a train journey is now as unpredictable as setting out upon life; there is no way to read the auguries, no guarantee how long the journey will last or whether you will reach your destination at all. Before the balderdash and cheeseparing, slogans and cost-cutting, the railways were a public good, recognised as such. To work on the railways could define an entire life. Orderly, dedicated, dignified and, above all, reliable, the railways represented everything that was best about a Britain which has long gone, sold down the river in the name of money. Now the rich get richer peddling misery to the public, who are no longer called "passengers" (which implies they will be going somewhere) but "customers" (which only implies that they have paid). Only a fool would set out on a train journey with hope; and anyway the poet was wrong; it is, in fact, better to arrive. But in these decadent times, don't count on it.

Don't count on anything, in these decadent times. There was a time when television was a cornucopia of delights. With only two channels you could still be sure of finding something diverting, informative, thrilling, moving - and often all at once - to watch, even if, in those days, you had to get out of your armchair to find it. (In those days there were only two knobs, and they were fixed to the box, so you never had to hunt for them.)

The Reithian ethos was still in force; the BBC knew it had the high ground of public service, and ITV sought to come up to those standards rather than the BBC slithering down to join it in the gutter. Television had the confidence to be itself; all gone today, in the hunt for ratings. Could Jack Rosenthal, Arnold Wesker, Dennis Potter be commissioned today? Not in these decadent times.

There was a time when motherhood was not squeezed into precious spare time, unregarded, an optional extra in a world which prizes busy-ness above all. To reflect, to be still: these are intolerable to our frantic lives. Once motherhood was a vocation, all-consuming, intimately wrapped up in the fabric of marriage. A wife and mother cared for her husband and children and in return her husband cared for them. He and they were all her care, and all the life she wanted; and he wanted to protect and soothe her and keep her safe from the greater world, securer in her smaller but infinitely important one. And at the end of the day, after a Martini and a rubber of bridge with friends, they would go upstairs and kiss the children goodnight and sleep the sleep which comes from simplicity and goodness and order, because those were not decadent times.

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