Yearning for the mindset of half a century ago

We have been softened up for the definitive indication that we are re-entering the 1950s
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The Independent Online

Some kind of vaguely significant Sixties anniversary seems to be upon us - the first meeting of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber perhaps, or the day when Dave, Dee Dozy, Mick and Titch first hit the number one spot. Whatever the occasion, the usual gang of ex-groovers - Lulu, Donovan, Willie "Wild Thing" Rees-Mogg - have been asked to reminisce about those golden years.

Some kind of vaguely significant Sixties anniversary seems to be upon us - the first meeting of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber perhaps, or the day when Dave, Dee Dozy, Mick and Titch first hit the number one spot. Whatever the occasion, the usual gang of ex-groovers - Lulu, Donovan, Willie "Wild Thing" Rees-Mogg - have been asked to reminisce about those golden years.

One grizzled old party actually said something rather interesting. The real Sixties had in fact taken place during the 1950s, he said, but no one had noticed until several years later. On the face of it, this view would appear to be the result of too many magic mushrooms having been taken in the formative years. I participated only marginally in the Fifties, being imprisoned at a prep school for most of the time, but a subsequent reading of the key texts of the decade - Bradbury's Eating People is Wrong, Wain's Hurry On Down, Cooper's Scenes from Provincial Life, Amis's Lucky Jim - suggested that the Age of Aquarius had yet to dawn in those furtive, innocent days.

But taking a hazier, more hippyish view of the question, it is possible to argue that the traditional, chronological approach to the past preferred by straights and breadheads is distinctly limited. For many of us, the 1960s were no more than an annoying party, taking place elsewhere. Speaking personally, I missed out completely: I did not do my thing, kick out the jams, nor to any meaningful extent did I let it all hang out. Although I spent the legendary summer of love in its epicentre - Haight Ashbury, San Francisco - I emerged as virginal and drug-free as the day I was born. For me, the 1960s dawned later, some time in the 1970s. Others may have been even slower off the mark; a few, I dare say, are only just reaching their personal summer of love right now.

So dig this: the old hippie was right. That whole decade thing is sometimes just a state of mind.

Yet, just now and then, a mental time-shift touches not only individuals but whole swathes of society. There has, for instance, been evidence that the values and mindset of half a century ago have recently been embraced by thousands, maybe millions in 2004. The startling success of Lynne Truss's vade mecum of good usage Eats, Shoots and Leaves was the first indication that the 1950s were back. Grammar was big in the post-war years, providing a structure in a world still dizzy from the effects of conflict. The learning of the gerund, the past participle having been mastered, represented the application of solid, parade-ground principles to civilian life.

If the discovery of a new yearning for grammatical certainties has not been entirely surprising at a time when little else is sure, then the next indication that 1950s values were back has been more of a shock. For most of the past 50 years, Latin was a byword for educational torture and dreariness. At my own prep school, the Latin master had unconventional teaching methods, marking a boy's work by putting a hand up his shorts and pinching his buttock with every question wrongly answered, but, even with these diversions, the work was unutterably dull.

The terrible legacy of childhoods passed in the shadow of Kennedy's Latin Primer caused an educational backlash for over three decades but now, apparently, Latin is on its way back. A new software-based course is helping the return of the subject to the national curriculum in state schools. A mouse called Minimus, with his adventures recounted in Latin, is a huge hit in primary schools while, at the other end of the scale, Open University courses are massively over-subscribed.

Oddly, and perhaps hypocritically, I approve of this revival of the lesson which once caused me such misery. The substance of the Latin that was once taught - translating dreary texts about Caesar laying waste to Gaul and so on - seemed to have been devised by sadistic specialists in boredom torture, but the effect of learning the shape and correct formation of sentences, and the derivation of words and phrases, contributed more to our early education than, say, history or English.

First grammar, then Latin. We have been softened up for the definitive indication that we are re-entering the 1950s: the return of manners. An author called Penny Palmano has come with an idea that is as brilliant in its old-fashioned simplicity as Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Her forthcoming book Yes Please, Thanks promises to give parents guidance as to how to convince their children to behave with decency in restaurants, to ask for things nicely and only after having offered them to others first, to eat with their mouths closed and with their elbows off the table, and to stop playing with your food now.

The art of listening and communicating needs to be taught, Ms Palmano says. Ideas of respect, kindness and thoughtfulness should be learnt, and precious little guidance is to be found in the outside world. "Children with good manners are happier children because they are more popular, and teaching them good manners also teaches them a set of moral values they can hold on to," she says.

Apart from a few key words, notably "happier" and "more popular", these words might have uttered in many a grim educational establishment 50 years ago. Today they seem shockingly sensible.

terblacker@aol.com

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