Deference has had it pretty rough for the last 100 years – and even rougher in the last 20. A quality that was already finding it difficult to make a case for itself in an age of universal suffrage and egalitarianism found itself undermined even further by the notion that we should instinctively think of ourselves as customers rather than citizens. This took some getting used to, but in some areas it turned out to be a blessing. Instead of approaching a telephone supplier or an energy provider as a humble supplicant we could start to think of ourselves as the paymasters, people who were owed deference rather than expected to show it.
Having stretched our muscles on these nursery slopes, we found it easier to redefine other aspects of society as an encounter between a service supplier and a purchaser. We began to think of ourselves as consumers in hospital waiting rooms and schools as well -- and have been actively encouraged to exercise our new powers. Deference, after all, went with the bad old days of professional arrogance and class cringe. Deference was the tug on the forelock and unquestioning acceptance of those who had no choice.
Not any more. As teachers unions pointed out at the weekend (and as a Channel Four documentary, The Hospital, confirms in a different field later this week) the deference once shown to doctors and teachers has all but disappeared.
Shreds of it cling on but in a lot of schools and surgeries, trained professionals are increasingly treated not as the best available solution to a self-inflicted problem but as potentially defaulting traders, cheats-in-embryo who have to be reminded, roughly if necessary, that they are dealing with a customer who cannot be fooled. Nothing is owed to these people because the bill has already been paid. And any suggestion that the customer might be personally implicated in the failure to achieve a satisfactory outcome is treated as an outrageous affront.
But the death of proper deference – a courteous submission to superior knowledge or skills – isn't only a problem for those whose difficult jobs would be made a little more bearable if it still existed. It's a problem for anyone who uses the services those professionals give us.
The parents who rant and rail at a teacher when she suggests that their child hasn't been working hard enough make it that much less likely that my own children will be forcefully reminded if they default. And the patient who abuses an overworked casualty doctor erodes the possibility that when I turn up in pain I'll be treated as a human, rather than a nuisance-in-waiting.
And all of this doesn't even touch on the deference that anybody owes to anybody – simply as a consequence of them being a person rather than a malfunctioning vending machine.
There undoubtedly was a time when there was too much deference in the world. We're undoubtedly now in a time when there's not nearly enough.
A new museum which misses the point
I'm worried by news that a new James Bond museum has opened in Keswick – featuring gadgets and vehicles from the films, including the original Golden Gun and the Lotus Esprit which featured in The Spy Who Loved Me.
It's not that I mind people spending time gawping at Bond memorabilia, if that's what they want to do, but I fear this gaudy new arrival might threaten the long-term prospects of the Cumberland Pencil Museum – one of those deliciously underwhelming visitor attractions which you imagine could only survive in an area with high annual rainfall and a shortage of rival attractions. The Pencil Museum's website promises you will enter through "a replica of the Seathwaite Mine, where graphite was first discovered" – a section of which, as I recall, consists of a six-foot stretch of ill-lit corridor lined with polystyrene rock.
Inside you can thrill at the sight of the Derwent factory's old "pencil registers" (which recorded what the pencils looked like, and which pencils went into which box). You can also marvel at the longest coloured pencil in the world, and examine redundant bits of pencil-making machinery.
I cherish the memory of my visit, but I fear for its long-term future if children are given a choice between such splendours and the T55 battle tank from GoldenEye.
The irresistible lure of the playground
The Tate Modern has announced that it is to reconstruct a famous 1971 installation by the artist Robert Morris which was obliged to close after four days because it had become too hazardous for visitors.
Bodyspacemotionthings consisted of a kind of plywood adventure playground which gallery-goers could crawl through, clamber up and slide down. Unfortunately, the materials used to build it couldn't withstand the enthusiasm of those who accepted its implicit invitation to regress to childhood, but the new version will be constructed from materials designed to meet health and safety laws.
Like the gallery's giant spiral slide, I predict it will be a huge hit – not because, as the artist intended, we hunger to "become aware of our own bodies, gravity, effort, fatigue" but because there's an untapped appetite for grown-up playgrounds. One day someone will open a soft-play centre for adults only - complete with giant ball ponds, padded trampolines and a really good bar – and they'll make a fortune.
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