The Decline of civilisation
It was recently suggested that civilisation has been going downhill since 1940. I was eight years old then and remember my father returning from seven years at sea and providing the epitome of civilisation – sailing in a small yacht on the River Mersey on Sundays after Mass. The clouds of war were gathering but we had a car, a true mark of modernity, and for a few blissful months God was in His heaven.
Wartime was different, of course. Rationing, then bombs, news of ‘missing believed dead’, sent away to school, and a whole host of personal matters that had nothing to do with civilisation generally but much to do with my own version of it. I didn’t think about the concept of civilisation during those years but I did notice one thing, the relationship between officers and men was changing. This also meant the way in which the middle class, small and well-defined, treated the working class. Where there had been much brutality and suppression there was now more consideration, largely, as I saw it, because the working class were less willing to be bullied.
This class definition was important. I remember a story of my father when young going to draw the curtains as dusk fell and his mother, my grandmother, telling him to call the maid to do it. ‘If you don’t’, she said, ’then tomorrow she will think it is your job’. True even today, whatever you think of the rightness or wrongness of the situation. My grandmother, to get the record straight, was a lovely, kind Victorian lady. But she knew everyone’s place.
Postwar, class was less defined and many aspired to reach the next step up, working class to middle class, middle class to upper class, which broadly meant rich. The socially aristocratic regarded themselves as above all this, as they still do today. I hated the distinctions and fought like any young socialist to blur or eliminate them. This mainly came about from the time I spent on farms in my school holidays when I realised that the wisdom and perception I saw in, and learnt from, the farm labourers was so much greater than what I saw in school or even, partly, at home. However, as my father got older his philosophy and wisdom increased and near the end of his life I felt it was mine as well.
At work in London I quickly realised the streetwise were often light fingered too. Even if they didn’t overtly steal they found ways to make their ‘extra’ by sleight of hand. Usually small stuff at first it became bigger as corporations grew, inflation eroded the value of money and certain skills were in short supply. The law of supply and demand worked, but only crudely. When supported by strong unions the balance was tipped in favour of the workers. Of course, the pendulum swung too far and the disaster of the miners confrontation with Margaret Thatcher became inevitable.
I noticed a greater change in worker-employer relationships around the time of the sad event at Abrefan in October 1966. A coal tip built above the town slipped onto a school and part of the housing surrounding it, killing 144 people, many children. I was with Alf Robens, Chairman of the Coal Board, when it happened. He agonised about whether to go to the site, which would disrupt and delay the rescue work, or whether to wait until all that could be done was completed. He waited because it was the right thing to do. It cost him his job.
Perhaps the biggest change in class structures I saw was in Singapore, where I now live. When I first came to Singapore in 1977 the British were still a privileged group. If there was traffic queue – rare but it did occasionally happen – then my car would be waived ahead of it by the police. Office workers were almost servile and the rich were revered above all others. In the next few years that dramatically changed for the better. Wealth, however, is still the class defining basis of Asian Society, as it is inevitably, I suppose, but to a lesser extent, the world over.
This is a very personal view of some vignettes of my life that have marked or illustrated the changes in civilisation, at least in the relationships between different classes. I could add the decline of civility, of honesty and of fairness at certain levels of society. And the corruption at high levels of control in all walks of life. They are well documented and known and I subscribe to the general concept that civilization is declining.
Most of all I see it reflected in the weakening emotional beauty that life can bring to us. Humans have a capacity for feeling and feelings can be beautiful.
Let us hope that the butterfly of happiness does not depart this species forever.
It is a rare and precious gift.