I recently re-read Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom By The Sea, his account of travelling around the coastline of the United Kingdom in the summer of 1982.
It’s interesting to compare the state of the country at the end of the 20th century with how things are in the early 21st century. Reading Theroux’s observations, many of them are disquieteningly familiar.
One interesting parallel between the 1980s and the 2010s is in our reaction to terrorism. Theroux describes the boredom of the people of Northern Ireland at all the inconveniences of daily life brought about by ‘The Troubles’: roadblocks; frisking (the modern equivalent might be the theatrics of security at airport check-ins); evacuations; and reports of atrocities committed by one group or another.
In Theroux’s analysis:
Chapter 16 – The 10:24 to Londonderry
Women had assumed so many domestic and social duties here that a situation had arisen in which the men had no responsibilities. It was idleness more than religion that made Ulstermen fighting mad…
At home these men were treated by their overworked womenfolk as if they were forever boys and burdens. The shame or guilt this dependency inspired made men aggressive; but they had all the time in the world to ventilate their aggression…
I wonder how much of this could also describe the rise of Al-Qaeda, or Boko Haram, or Daesh, or any other individuals slaughtering people for perceived slights?
Living with the past
Throughout the book, the older people Theroux encountered came of age when the British Empire was at its inter-war zenith. By the time he was making his journey, the UK was going through its nadir: strikes, massive unemployment, deindustrialisation; it still hadn’t fully healed its wounds from World War 2; Northern Ireland was a militarised zone; the Falklands War took place over the course of his journey.
Attitudes of the recent past form reactions to the present. The British counted themselves among the ‘winners’ of the second world war, but what sort of victory results in decades of declining relative wealth, power and influence?
This feeling of decay permeates the journey. The seaside towns and resorts – the places of escape and recreation for so many city folk – were falling apart and underused. Railway lines were in a similar sorry state (the end of the journey is disrupted by a strike), and bus connections were poor.
The feeling is of a country that had come to the end of trying to maintain the habits of its past, and hadn’t adapted to deal with the present (let alone the future).
Theroux hadn’t ventured much from London since his arrival eleven years previously. It’s clear he didn’t care much for the state of the country outside the bubble. He only brightens when visiting the remote far north of Scotland, too distant to have been affected by decline – they didn’t face the loss of fishing, mining or heavy construction. Here, everyday life continued as it always had – largely through each community’s self-reliance.
Living in the present
Everywhere else, he sees the effects of money being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, in ‘defunct viaducts, former stations and ruined bridges’:
Chapter 23 – Disused Railway Line
The railway had not been profitable, only useful… small, dismantled England seemed simple and underdeveloped – and too mean to save herself – deceived by her own frugality.
It certainly makes me wonder about the equivalent ‘age of austerity’ the UK is going through (could the NHS fall victim to a similar fate to that of the UK’s railways after the Beeching report?). One of the things that makes it hellish for people bearing the brunt of it is not knowing when – or if – it will ever come to an end.
In the decades since Theroux’s journey, first-generation unemployment in a number of deindustrialised areas has continued into a third generation. The punks, mods, rockers and rioters of 1982 have grown up or grown old (and look like they won’t be repeated, barring the riots of 2011). The oil money that made Aberdeen an obnoxious boom town to Theroux’s eyes looks like it can’t be guaranteed any more. Employment patterns have changed. We no longer have waiters serving food on trains, but we probably have the cleverest, best-educated, and most heavily debt-ridden baristas and bar workers of any era in history.
Instead of a period of decline, I perceive an era of near-stagnation. Having been through the incredible advances, changes, destruction, and economic boom-and-bust cycles of the 20th century, maybe ‘Austerity Britain’ in the 21st century can look forward to improvements so gradual and minor that they are imperceptible?
Instead of living in decay and wishing things could be as good as they used to be, we could become used to living in a perpetual ‘now’ – glad things aren’t as bad as they used to be, but we are unable to see a way forward. In those circumstances, nobody’s really thinking about a bright and shiny future.
Yet I do believe life is better than it was back then (largely thanks to cheap technology and communications), and in thirty years’ time life will, undoubtedly, be better than it is now, despite whatever problems will exist.
I’m an optimist that way.