My Noughties: Looking back on the decade

Ten Years - Ten Stories

Charlotte Philby
Saturday 28 November 2009 01:00

Tens of thousands of revellers gathered along the banks of the River Thames.

The crowd gasped as the final countdown to the new millennium began. Ten, nine, eight ... a collective intake of breath ... seven, six, five ... strangers gripped each other's arms ... four, three, two, one ... As the clock struck midnight – fireworks illuminating the night sky – a wave of euphoria engulfed the rain-sodden crowd: the world had not fallen off its axis; the international computer system had not collapsed. But although the much-anticipated YK meltdown had not come to fruition, few could have predicted the explosive series of events that would define the first decade of the new century.

The past 10 years have been a time of radical social and economic transformation: a period of progress, of technological revolution, of civil partnership; of America's first black president, the sequencing of the human genome and the commencement of the Human Rights Act. But the decade leaves a legacy of devastation, too: of the tsunami in Asia, the Columbine shootings and countless wars across the globe. Here in the UK, we've grappled with financial collapse, the invasion of Iraq, and the 7/7 bombings. Culturally, too, there have been highs and lows – from the irresistible rise of Harry Potter and the opening of Tate Modern to – lest we forget – the invention of The X Factor.

Here, as we prepare to wave farewell to the Noughties, we find out what the changes of the last decade have really meant for the people of Britain.

The banker's story: Paul Staples

In 2000, the banking industry was riding the crest of a wave and there was a palpable sense of opportunity. We were at the height of the dot-com bubble, seeing the creation of new businesses like Amazon, Google and eBay. The arrival of the American investment banks in London was viewed as a significant vote of confidence in the longer-term prospects of the City and we felt a sense of professional pride in what we were creating. Two years later, we had been through a reality check with the end of the dot-com era, but the mood within the industry remained diligent and purposeful. The level of turbulence proved mild in comparison with what was to follow.

The tempo then increased, with the impact of private equity and hedge funds being keenly felt, and the emphasis shifting to more complex and innovative deal structures. The period between 2004 and 2007 will probably be referred to by historians as the Great Age of Leverage, and also of financial innovation. From a personal point of view, it was a very exciting time to be in the banking industry. There was the emergence of the "BRIC" countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – into the financial scene and the increased importance of private equity and wealth funds.

By 2007, there were concerns expressed regarding market dynamics and the effects of aggressive financing techniques. And then we had the truly shocking collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. I have a clear memory of the day it was announced – there were very few people who actually believed that the authorities would sanction failure of such a visible financial institution. It changed everything and we have yet to understand its full impact. It was an emotional time, too, and there was a period of soul-searching and introspection, as we wrestled with exactly what the industry stood for.

Since then, we have been immersed in a tide of relentless public anger that has overshadowed the efforts being made to rebuild confidence. It has affected us all and it is not yet possible to understand fully how the banking world will be expected to operate going forward. The issue of compensation and bankers' bonuses is clearly a sensitive one. We are also conscious that banks need to be seen as playing a useful and effective role in stimulating economic growth.

The past 18 months have been a period of gradual rehabilitation amidst considerable regulatory turbulence. The credit crisis has been educational and humbling. We need to show professionalism and resilience as we seek to restore public faith and trust towards the banking system. This is uncharted territory, and it promises to be a long and arduous journey.

The teacher's story : Mary Gibson

Schools now are complex, multi-million-pound organisations, and my position as a headteacher is increasingly that of chief executive of a company in charge of its own budget. I have to bid for funds on behalf of my school; if we want to do a project on road safety or healthy eating – as is expected of us – or if we simply need extra staff members, then I have to apply for money, which means working through a lot of red tape.

I've been the headmistress of Yerbury Primary School in north London for 27 years. Children here come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds: 15 per cent speak English as a second language, and 27 per cent have a different language spoken at home. There is also a significant number of pupils with complex special- educational needs. We have the most fantastic team here, the kids are brilliant and the parents and governors are incredibly supportive. But it's become increasingly stressful in the past 10 years.

Teachers are expected to fulfil roles today which a decade ago would to a large extent have been matters of parental responsibility. We are the ones expected to help children develop healthy lifestyles. We must teach them safe practices in terms of using computers, how to behave when moving about the area outside of school hours, and how to make positive contributions to society – to be part of their local and global community. While it is, of course, fantastic to encourage these things, such expectations are an additional strain on already over-stretched resources, which makes things tricky.

The computer revolution has also really hit schools in the past decade. Now the place is filled with stuff like interactive whiteboards. You'd imagine it might mean less paperwork, but now when something is e-mailed to us, a brochure is also sent by post and faxes are sent through, too. Heaven knows how many forests are wasted.

Some headteachers hate SATs, but I'm not too concerned about them; I could live without them but I think they can help give parents an indication of what children have achieved. What I am very against, however, are the SATs league tables, which have gained more prominence in the past 10 years. These rank school against school but actually tell you very little about the place. They are terrible things.

Recently, the Government has been focusing on schools as places within the local community where public events are held out of school hours; this is known as the "extended day". There are now choir meetings and sports clubs held on our premises, which puts a lot of pressure on the building and on the personnel; I am personally responsible for overseeing these public events, so I am never really off the job.

"Risk assessment" has been an increasingly popular buzz word in recent years, too. Criminal background checks are a huge thing at the moment and take up an awful lot of time and resources, as even casual volunteers need to be assessed. Interviewing for teachers is also a process riddled with bureaucracy. Ten years ago, you would have looked at the application forms and used your own judgement to decide who to call in for interview. Now it is form after form, to be filled out online and on paper, and it's all about box-ticking.

The soldier's story : Doug Beattie

The past decade was the end of innocence: when we stopped pretending to be soldiers and became real soldiers. Since I joined the forces in 1982, we'd acted as a world peace keeper, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. But by 2006, I was swept with a sense of worthlessness and shame, as I described to my wife thrusting a knife through a man's neck.

In early 2003, my battalion was sent to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. There, we were taken into the desert, given a piece of land and told to make our own camp. A few months earlier, I'd been doing fire duty, assisting response teams attending 999 calls in Nottingham. Now, assisting my commander, I was preparing to take our battalion to war for the first time since Korea.

People think we arrived in Iraq and destroyed the country, but in the early days we worked very hard to retain order there. My battalion looked after enemy prisoners of war. In the first 12 hours, we had about 800 prisoners with 12 men to look after them. My men showed great compassion to the POWs, giving them their food and water, carrying their stuff when the prisoners couldn't, looking after their wounded and dead.

I finished my five-month tour in a place called Al Amarah. There, I helped save the lives of two Baathists who were being beaten by a crowd, and was awarded the Queen's Commendation for bravery.

I returned for another tour in Northern Ireland at the end of 2003. It was extremely quiet and not a great deal happened. The following year, I spent nine months in Sarajevo as a regimental sergeant major, and in 2005, after six months in Edinburgh, was promoted to captain and worked in training infantry. It was 25 years since I'd joined the army and I was back in the place I'd started, this time on the other side.

I was due to leave the military in 2006, but in July that year was asked to go to Afghanistan. It was supposed to be a desk job in Kandahar but when I arrived there weren't enough soldiers in Helmand so I headed there to work as a liaison officer between the Afghan army, the police and national directors of security. The first incident happened on 11 September that year. We'd been given two days to retake a town called Garmsir, in the south of Helmand. Having mustered 17 British troops and 150 Afghan police and army members, we set off. The battle lasted 14 days. At the end, I was awarded a Military Cross.

That year, I killed for the first time. I wish I hadn't but I did. He stepped in front of me holding a grenade and I shot him. I went on to kill many more. Some killings, as I sit here now, I can justify to myself. Many I have problems with. I left Afghanistan feeling personally saddened by what I had done. It had been a landmark event. When I got home, I had real problems relating to people. In order to come out of that place, I wrote a book about my experience, which I finished in July 2007. Now I'm back in Portadown, having come full circle. I travelled the world and came home to a peaceful Northern Ireland.

The pensioner's story: Lilian Cadeaux

As somebody who is 88 – or 60 years past the sweet bloom of youth – I have observed a changing world. In this past decade, we've had to endure that horrible person George Bush, and I have greatly regretted the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So many ill-advised decisions are made by people in power; I have to get the old typewriter out and shoot off a letter to my local MP here in Lancaster every now and again. But as a taxi driver told me recently, summing it up well: "The problem with those people is that they've had a common-sense bypass."

This morning I was watching television and was horrified to learn that people are being bullied on the internet now. It's tremendously sad. It's a sign of a general decline in our society. What is going on with the actual abusers to make them behave this way, I just don't know. It must be something terrible in their own lives. I can't imagine this was happening 10 years ago, as I cannot imagine that young people had computers in their bedrooms 10 years ago. It's a very bad sign for Britain.

I will not have a computer for various reasons. I know they cause people a great degree of anxiety when they break down, and I can't find space for more equipment and learn how to operate it. I go to a local friendship centre for the older person, and meet women there of my age who are completely computer literate and use them to design their own calendars and birthday cards. But I prefer arts and crafts classes. I know that people do a lot of things on the internet these days, but I just persevere with phone calls. If I need to book a train or youth hostel, I will ask one of my children to do it for me. I am very fortunate in having people around to help me.

For a person who has always lived pretty much on a shoestring, I'm very chuffed indeed that I now live far more comfortably than I did a few years ago. My disability allowance – which they call a carer's allowance when you reach my age, though I don't have a carer – covers all my taxes. I am terribly gratified. Only today I got a letter from the pension service: I'll be receiving £400 winter fuel allowance this year. I'm not sure I'll be using it – I'm heated by storage heaters in my flat – but, of course, I do enjoy contributing to charities, so I always transfer a slice to one of them. It gives me the support so that I can in turn help others. Spread it around, I say.

Some things haven't changed. You can still fall through the net. A while ago, I broke my pelvis and left wrist and when I left hospital I had no home-help and no district nurse turned up. When I broke my right wrist earlier this year, again I got no help; there are still either cock-ups or grave shortages of staff.

I was horrified to read in the paper that pubs are closing at an alarming rate. The English pub is a really precious thing. It must have something to do with the smoking ban. As an occasional smoker, I feel personally vilified by the legislation. It is appalling to think that old people's homes forbid residents from smoking. Outrageous. What we need in this country is what I call sensible amelioration.

The farmer's story: Stephen Till

The Nineties had been reasonably good years for agriculture. We moved into the millennium with quite a lot of confidence. Now we're again moving into a new decade and with some confidence – but we've had a lot of problems in the meantime.

The first real challenge came in 2001 with the foot-and-mouth crisis. There were four partners in our farming business at that time: my father, my mother, my brother and myself. At our farm, near Castle Howard in Yorkshire, we were growing wheat, barley and sugar beet, with an area reserved for set-aside in line with European law. We also kept 1,000 pigs, and sold 40 at our local market in Malton each week.

When the outbreak struck, all the livestock markets were closed; we had to sell our animals straight to the abattoir and have done ever since. The crisis started in February and officially ended in October. But the subtle effects have continued, and there's been a fundamental change in the way people market livestock.

For me personally, the loss of Malton market, which has never re-opened for pigs, was a huge blow. I would go there every week, meet with various traders and pay off bills. Now payments are made electronically. It's been a major change in the way we transact business. But the biggest thing has been the lack of personal contact in recent years, and foot-and-mouth was the catalyst.

In 2005, my father died, and my mother the year after that. Already my brother and I had had to make some big changes in the way we worked in order to cope. Then, a year later, the York sugar-beet factory closed down. My family had been growing sugar beet since the mid-1920s and instead of this spring-sown crop, we had to change to grow oil-seed rape, an autumn-sown crop. This unbalanced our seasonal workload.

The summers of 2007 and 2008 were incredibly wet. The wet harvest meant a lot more work. During that time we were having to use a large amount of diesel in our machinery, and gas for drying the grain, and the price of both of these had risen dramatically in those two years. The other residual effects of that time were that many farmers had great difficulty in getting their winter-sown crops planted and that there was a major increase in soil pests, particularly slugs, which meant not such a good harvest in following years.

Many of the products a farmer uses are tied into world prices. When the cost of oil went up, the cost of soya-bean meal and fish meal rose, and as a consequence the price of our pig feed increased dramatically too. In 2007, grain prices went up by 70 or 80 per cent, fertiliser doubled in price as well, though since then, prices have reduced again to a sensible level. This year we've had a much drier summer, and a reasonable harvest; meanwhile, the dry autumn has allowed us to get all our autumn crops sown in good condition. I like to think that things are on the up.

Really, you've got to be optimistic about the years ahead. We're now approaching a new decade – and a new year is a new start, isn't it?

The doctor's story: Judy Bennett

The most significant change that has taken place over the past 10 years is the amount of time a GP gets to spend with his or her patients, which is significantly less today than it was at the beginning of the decade. This is frustrating as doing hands-on work with patients is the reason why we all became GPs in the first place.

Another major change has been something known as the new GP's contract, which every practice has to fall in line with. A lot of it comes down to ticking specific boxes. A few years ago, if a patient came into the consulting room with a specific problem, we would spend the duration of the appointment helping them with that. Now we're expected during the same appointment to deal with any other, more general, problems they might have. If someone comes to see us because, say, they have been suffering from depression, but they also have asthma, then we're supposed to spend time there and then checking up on their asthma. Although it is important to keep on top of general health concerns, this system is putting us in danger of not spending enough time dealing with the immediate issues.

There have also been ongoing changes in the provision of care for patients in recent years. Here at the Caversham Centre in north London, we used to look after our own patients after surgery hours according to a rota system. One of the GPs from this surgery would be on call one night, and another the next. In the past 10 years, these out-of-hours calls have been overseen by a wider out-of-hours service. This is a cooperative of GPs who cover maybe 100 or more practices in an area. A doctor from any one of these practices will now be sent out to tend to our patients if they fall ill outside of our opening hours.

While our cooperative still provides a high level of care, it does mean that in most cases a patient won't be able to see a doctor from their own surgery, and the doctor who visits them will not have access to the patient's notes. This is bad for the patient, who wants to see someone who is familiar with their history. But also, it's harder for the doctor, who must simply rely on the information that the patient gives them.

The Caversham has always been a teaching practice, where we train medical students and registrars, training to be GPs, who spend a year working here after four years in a hospital. In the past 10 years, we've been accommodating more of these temporary trainees. And in the past two years, we've been getting some who come in for just six months at a time.

The Government is very keen on patients having new ways to access care. We now have walk-in centres and "poly-clinics", groups of GPs working together to provide a service for their own patients and for those from other practices. This adds a lot of pressure – particularly for smaller surgeries.

The biggest drain on doctors' time at the moment is administrative work. Everything you do now has to be ticked against a box and encoded on a computer. Which fundamentally takes away time that would be better spent working with patients.

The bookseller's story: Lynn Johnston

In 2000, the future for independent booksellers was uncertain. Back then I had a shop in the city of Wells in Somerset. I'd been running bookshops in Somerset since 1989, and felt the first real blow to the industry in 1995. That year, the Government broke the Net Book Agreement. Before that everyone had to sell at the recommended retail price. When it was broken, it meant that supermarkets and chain stores could discount their books, undercutting the price offered by the independent seller.

Since then, things have totally changed for independent book shops.

Chains have grown in strength over the years. Now there is no point my shop even carrying the titles you find at a discount rate in bigger shops. I had to become more specialist. I started focusing on more upmarket titles, and I was very careful with my spending. But then it couldn't go on any longer.

In 2003, a chain which was subsequently purchased by Waterstones moved into Wells, which made it impossible for me to survive there. I lost £30,000 that year. I couldn't carry on where I was and in 2004 I moved to Castle Cary, where there is no supermarket or chain store nearby.

Charity shops have also been an increasing threat to businesses like mine over the past decade, cutting heavily into the market as they don't pay rates and have volunteer staff and are given their books for free, which, all-in-all, makes it a bit difficult.

The internet has changed everything, too. Now I sell a lot of stock online, according to the demand. But it has also placed a great pressure on booksellers as so much information is available for free. Other technological advances such as electronic books have been an increasing threat of late, too.

Social trends have also impacted on us. Children simply don't read as much as they used to – and this has enormous implications for the book industry.

They've been saying recently that they are going to reinstate the Net Book Agreement. But I don't think that's going to happen. If I want my store to survive, I'm just going to have to stay in a niche market.

The builder's story: Brendon Daley

I have been in the building trade all of my life – but everything is different now. When I started, people had to go through apprenticeships and all that, so we were all very well-trained and knew what was expected of us. Now nothing is as good as it used to be.

In the Nineties, things hit a real low. There were a lot of "bodge jobs" going on: roofs falling in all over the place; electricians who'd left clients with a faulty supply; plumbing that leaked. Tradesmen seemed to have become lazy. The past decade hasn't been much different in that respect, but some things have improved.

In the past few years, the Government has brought in certificates for central-heating systems and generally things are better monitored. There is more protection, both for the customers and for the people working on the property. You still get lazy workers though. I drive past building sites in the morning and see them all outside, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. In the old days, we used to get in, get a job done. We'd always work out how much we'd get done in a day and would tell our client in advance. Now some of these younger guys just see what they can get away with.

Competition in the past 10 years has grown across the country. With the changes in law, a lot of people are coming in from other parts of Europe and are undercutting our prices. The problem is that the architecture here is different to other countries. Often it pays to get someone who understands the original building work. More often than not, the people I know who have gone off to other cheaper companies come back to me in the end. You get what you're paying for.

Despite the recession, I think there's been a bit of a backlash against cheap, shoddy labour in the past year. People are beginning to appreciate the long-term value in bringing in someone who will use the best-quality paint and the finest tools. I did a job last week and the client wasn't rich but you wouldn't believe the tip I got. People are starting to remember what good hard work is about.

The environmentalist's story: Sarah North

After years of tests, the Government looked in 2001 like it was about to give the green light to genetically modified crops. At Greenpeace, we launched a campaign against growing and selling GM, but the Government went against our advice and gave the green light all the same. In the end, of course, the public rejected it across the board, so there was no market.

In the summer of that year, we also lobbied against the "Star Wars" missile- defence system, and plans for housing a radar system at the US base at RAF Menwith Hill. Nine years later, the Obama administration has shelved plans for the system.

In 2002, a Government white paper appeared to say that they wouldn't be pursuing new nuclear-power stations. That lasted until a new Energy Review two years ago, which re-opened the consultation on whether the future of energy supply required new nuclear power stations. Greenpeace challenged their decision and in 2008 we won our case in the high court.

In 2006, I was an activist at Kingsnorth, shutting down the coal supply inside the power station before chaining myself to the conveyor belt. It couldn't be re-started for 14 hours, when the police finally removed us.

In the past 10 years, grass-roots activity at Greenpeace has become more sophisticated in its analysis and tactics. But the biggest shift has been the increased focus on climate change. When I first joined, we worked on a wide range of issues. Now the vast majority of our resources goes on the climate- change and forest campaigns.

Public awareness peaked a couple of years ago; every other news item was about climate change. Now there is almost a backlash. People are bored of hearing about it and are turning off. This is a very dangerous situation. We are at a pivotal point in history; this is the time when we need political and public action. All my early work was practice for the challenge of our generation. Thank God I've had the past 10 years to prepare for this make-or-break time.

The policeman's story: Jon Ward

I was outed in 1997. I'd joined the Cheshire police as a 19-year-old, during a very different era. In the Eighties, the service was quite backward in the way it dealt with its own officers and with its communities. It policed how it wanted to police. It didn't have any respect for any minority group. There was racism, sexism and homophobia. By the time I was outed, aged 35, things had improved: the Lesbian and Gay Police Association had just come on to the scene and the service had moved on a bit. But there was still a lot of homophobia around, and my outing was received with a mixed reaction from my colleagues.

By 2000, things were changing at quite a pace. There was more recognition of gay officers, but there was still a lot of systemic homophobia. The 24-hour helpline set up to deal with such cases was inundated with calls reporting assault, damage to vehicles, things put in lockers, and so on. Today, things have got better, and the calls have reduced dramatically.

In general terms, policing has only one target these days and that's keeping up with performance pressures which are increasingly focused on gaining public confidence. For the past few years, we've been policing according to local priorities. Justice needs to be seen to be done. We spend a lot more time talking with the community, finding out the issues they care about and reacting to those.

The types of crimes we deal with have generally stayed the same. Most regularly it's theft and burglary; but we are more focused on anti-social behaviour, which is high on the public agenda at the moment. Quality of life issues are often the things people in the community want to talk about.

The police service has started taking more notice of the needs of minority groups, both within its staff and in the community. But it is still evolving. For younger officers moving into the job it's probably a bit easier now. Young people are exposed to different cultures, and in some ways they're more accepting. The organisation doesn't try to mould people quite as much as it used to.

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