DJ Taylor: Why change always gets the better of us...

... and how, among ourselves, we have much sunnier memories of the Bad Old Days than the official chroniclers of our age
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a week when the price of first and second-class stamps rose by stratospheric percentages, the BBC's Justin Webb offered an elegiac gloss on the lost art of correspondence. "The days of letter-writing are over," Mr Webb proclaimed, before wondering whether we should "write one last note – saying goodbye to the letter itself. The truth is that we have moved on. We may not want to, but we have."

In filing this complaint, Mr Webb was also making a profound observation about an altogether wider cultural phenomenon: the absolute irresistibility of change. No browse through the volumes of post-war social history produced by such writers as David Kynaston and Peter Hennessy ever fails to bolster the unalterable law of historical progress which states that practically any innovation or adjustment to settled habits will be stoutly resisted by the great majority of the population and yet, mysteriously, will happen anyway.

To make this point is not to follow the right-wing ur-democrat line which suggests that, as most of the liberalising achievements of the post-war legislature (repeal of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, etc) were carried through in the teeth of public hostility, they are, therefore, suspect. It is merely to note the existence of what the scientist Rupert Sheldrake would call "morphic resonance" in the face of change: a deep-rooted collective conviction that opposition is always futile and that no amount of heel-digging can ever retard its forward march.

Exactly the same feeling pulses through the great early-20th-century American novels of diaspora and displacement. After all, if the Arkansas sharecroppers of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath had refused to give up their ancestral territories, something would have to have been done.

As it was, the thought of a world turning inexorably on its axis is too overpowering to resist. In 21st century Britain, on the other hand, resistance to change is nearly always stymied by the lack of adequate administrative checks. Here in Norfolk, for example, we spend our time complaining about "development" schemes cooked up by an alliance of Tory councils and property barons, knowing all the while that, however many petitions are signed, the oligarchs will always win through.

One of the fascinations of the current wave of Seventies chic, set in motion by Dominic Sandbrook's book and television series, which comes to a close next week, is the solidifying of what might be called the standard view of that turbulent decade. It is now generally accepted that the era of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan was a kind of cauldron of raging inflation, industrial militancy and moral drift. To counter this view come the more matter-of-fact testimonies of the era's survivors who maintain that, if you were there, it was possible to have a fairly decent time and, in the words of the old Talking Heads song, not worry about the government – or, in this case, the government's inability to govern.

Much the same conflict – standard historical line sharply opposed by certain veterans' associations – has likewise coloured interpretations of the Fifties, written off by most historians as a provincial backwater about to be overrun by Sixties consumer materialism. The decade is fondly remembered by many ordinary people. My father always said later that, back from the war, young, free (up to a point) and single, he had had the time of his life between 1950 and 1955.

There is no way of countering this relativist approach to history. To Jessica Mann, whose The Fifties Mystique is published shortly, this was a thoroughly retrograde epoch. To the Observer journalist Katharine Whitehorn, reviewing the book in the current Literary Review, "the optimism of the Festival of Britain was real...". All this reminded me of a conversation I once had with an elderly great-aunt, who insisted that the Thirties was a splendid time to be alive on the premise that "people knew their place". No doubt about it, one woman's sink is another woman's swimming pool.

The general opinion was that, in belitting the veteran Labour back-bencher Dennis Skinner for some bracing remarks about the Culture Secretary, our Prime Minister rather disgraced himself. According to The Independent's Matthew Norman, "Dennis Skinner doesn't need the contempt of cocky whippersnappers who never did a proper day's work". For the record, Mr Cameron's exact words were: "Well, the honourable gentleman has the right at any time to take his pension [Mr Skinner is 80], and I advise him to do so."

Having read this exchange, I found myself rather sympathising with Mr Cameron, on the grounds that the Beast of Bolsover has been happily dishing it out to politicians of all parties – not least his own – for more than 40 years. It was he, for instance, who, when Reginald Maudling was lamenting the amount of time it took a British worker to construct a car compared with speedy foreign competition, uttered the immortal words, "An' 'ow long would it tek you, fats?".

Much is always made of Mr Skinner's credentials as a former miner whose father was sacked after the general strike of 1926, but this, at any rate at the time of his election to parliament in 1970, was the carte de visite of the Labour aristocracy. In his own irascible way, Mr Skinner is, or was, quite as privileged as the posh boys he enjoys ticking off.