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Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Friday, 29 August 2008 17:25 UK

Things aren't what they used to be

Foggy London street
Katharine Whitehorn in 1950s London


And thank goodness for that. Because the liberty, equality and comfort most of us enjoy today was hard won by those who had far less, says Katharine Whitehorn.

If you're a journalist, one of the questions you're asked about twice a week is "Why don't the press print any GOOD news?"

Sometimes what they're really saying is "Why were the press ready to report it when we were going on a protest march about our Scout hut being demolished, but won't print anything now it's to be allowed to stay?"

We do say "Massive delays at Heathrow again". We don't say "Many aeroplanes take off on time". It wouldn't actually be news. At least it shouldn't be.

Katharine Whitehorn

Even people in their 40s can remember when a married woman who told her boss she was pregnant was told: 'How lovely for you. But we'll miss you'

So I guess we do tend to stress the doom and gloom - which is why all these Olympic gold medals, the highest number since 1908, have been so splendid; even people who aren't really interested in sport cheer up a bit when something goes so right.

And it's not just the medals, actually - there were other things. Last weekend was full of pleasant frolics. There were games of beach rugby over the weekend at Lusty Glaze beach in Cornwall; a teddy bear's picnic in Hampstead and the Notting Hill Carnival was at least relatively peaceful.

Nature notes report that wild carrots with a pretty white flower are growing on the banks of motorways; and Channel Four is doing a programme based on surveys that show that the family hasn't collapsed after all, with a remarkable number of teenagers saying they actually love their parents. There now.

Maybe we should be counting our advantages, the things to which people will look back wistfully in years to come. A friend of mine used to muse that his grandchildren would say "Tell us again, granddad, about how you used to have electricity every day."

Grass is greener

It bothers me that we don't appreciate what we've got, and it's not just that I tire of people my age endlessly grumbling that Fings Ain't Wot they used to be.

Children watch preperations for the coronation street party
East End children in 1953

I've just been reading a book Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth which reminds me that if things aren't what they used to be, then thank heavens for that.

It is a reminiscence of her time working in the half-bombed out East End of London in the 1950s.

I tend to defend the 50s against those who think of them as just a damp patch between the battlefield of the 40s and the fairground of the 60s, and they were certainly great for people like me - subsidised college fees, the freedom to hitchhike alone around Europe, jobs easy to come by.

But this book describes a very different scene.

Not sunny little children in short trousers as in the Hovis ads, but toddlers dressed only from the thigh upwards, no nappies and squalid outside privies used by half a dozen families. There's a description of a death from an abortion which is not the fairly sanitized account shown in the film Vera Drake, but steel prongs and floods of blood.

Don't you DARE be ill, we can't possibly afford a doctor

The author describes a mad old woman who lives in one room with a hole in the roof, with toenails curling round inside the boots she hasn't taken off for years. The author saw her as just a local nuisance until she found out about her history; a long grim tale of poverty and abuse and despair that ended with her being taken into a Victorian workhouse separated entirely from her children who died one by one. Well, at least the workhouses had gone by the 50s.

Look back, and there's so much distance gained. We can enjoy debates about the advisability or otherwise of gay bishops. What must it have been like if you were gay and lived in constant, year in year out in fear of being put in prison? Or lived when a mother would tell her children (as a friend of mine's did) "Don't you DARE be ill, we can't possibly afford a doctor"?

Lady to ladette

And what about women? Nowadays the Daily Mail can enjoy its regular explosions about whether women having jobs and children is a Bad Thing - often written by women who have at least got away from their children long enough to write the article.

Zoe and Sarah
Ex-ladettes Zoe Ball and Sara Cox

But how about when you automatically had to leave your job if you got married? Even people in their 40s can remember when a married woman who told her boss she was pregnant was told: "How lovely for you. But we'll miss you."

Jenni Murray, of Woman's Hour, has recently been trying to get schools to include in their message the extraordinary revolution that has taken place for women, even how we stand before the law.

We think that being tried by a jury of your peers is an immemorial British right. But before 1919, no woman was tried by her peers because there were no women on juries, and there were certainly no judges or lawyers to defend women against the prejudices of men. We may loathe the drunken young ladettes and the shrill sluttish layabouts, but even the ladettes now have a choice over their own lives.

There may be bad times just around the corner - and then we shall be kicking ourselves that we didn't appreciate the good times while we had them.

Hanging on the line

Maybe we will sardonically remember the dire predictions that didn't happen.

Performer at Hay on Wye 2006
Book lovers flock to literary festivals

Once we were assured that, apart from a few fusty academics hunched over their tomes, television was going to wipe out books. Yet little literary festivals are springing up all over the place.

And Hay on Wye, which has an established literary festival, has just been named the happiest place in the UK. Local people are involved, they buy books, listen to talks. Even the small booksellers are not, after all, being wiped out if they have the wit, as does my local one, to start selling second-hand books over the net.

We hear laments about the decline of craftsmen, but I've just found out about an enterprising bunch of young artisan men who aren't drop-outs. They're educated - some are old Etonians, some farmers' sons - but they prefer to live in converted vans and go around laying paths and pruning trees and building yurts for summer festivities.

Keeping in touch with each other and the people who might need them would be nearly impossible without mobile phones.

Crowded campsite at Glastonbury
Another place a mobile is invaluable

We all know they can drive us mad ("HELLO I'M ON THE TRAIN" - why do they always shout?) but mobiles have been an immense boon to builders and plumbers and electricians; not to mention Africa where there are so few landlines.

And what about the girl who saved her party adrift on the China Sea by ringing her boyfriend in England, who contacted the local coast guards who rescued them.

Personal passions

I'm always cheered, too, by those agreeably daft people such as the man who collects all the tax discs he's ever used, the woman who collects dolls' house figures from magazines, the people who make images of the Taj Mahal out of match sticks, and the revivers of old steam trains that can go puff puff for as many as 10 miles on a good day.

Steam train
Enthusiasts aboard a steam train

I even have a friend who goes round trying to rescue RAF hangars - not the planes, just the hangars. The last one he tried to protect turned out to be more of a shed, but I think he's hoping to protect it anyway.

I don't need reminding that all this freedom and opportunity applies to those of us who are legally in this country, have something we can use for money, who aren't all but imprisoned by bigoted families, or torn apart by abusive ones, or not starving in another country.

The question remains: do we have any right to sit back and say we're doing pretty well, without excoriating ourselves over the plight of those who aren't?

Knowing, as we can't help knowing, that most of the reforms and freedoms we enjoy were achieved by people who wouldn't count their blessings, wouldn't wash their hands of other people's troubles - the suffragettes, for example, whose appalling sufferings are being celebrated in Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play Her Naked Skin at the National Theatre.

If there are things we can do, we shouldn't comfortably sit back. But for the rest, the things we can't help?

In Nicholas Freeling's book A Dressing of Diamond, a doctor says: "When a patient walked into my office saying the world was too grim to be borne, I treated him as a sick man. He was right of course and saw life clearly. But he was ill in the immunological sense, having lost certain basic defences… that keep us sane."

Now I'm no Pollyanna. And I'm certainly not Candide. But I think we still have plenty of defences left to aid our sanity - and we might as well make the most of them.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I am extremely dissatisfied with life in Britain today. Too many shady organisations intrude into our lives too often and we have a government that abjectly refuses to play fair with the general public's expectations of justice. The fact that I can indulge in whatever eccentric pastime I fancy is scant compensation for the erosion of my privacy and dignity.
Paul, London, UK

Couldn't agree more... as a historian I think that to be living in the UK in 2008 is one the best places to live ever. When casting an eye back to the past, so many people fall for the trap of forgetting about all the very bad things.
Tom Simon, London, UK

Like the pic of Katherine in '50s London; bit like me in short pants in '50s Manchester, all cold and wet. But I didn't get knifed, or shot, or sold to European fascists. Dad didn't get locked up for sorting out a local villain. Forties diet was quite healthy; no fat kids. Didn't have busybodies everywhere snooping on me. Didn't have government TV ads threatening: "We've got you on the database"; didn't have TVs. "Government" was far away. Today it screams in my face, and I LOATH it.
John Lee, Ellesmere Port Soviet Socialist Republic, England

An excellent article, well done! I sometimes get exasperated with people bemoaning their lot all the time, when even a look back twenty years will show them we are so much better off. Unfortunately, good news is not really news at all since no horror or scandal is involved. Please write again in the same vein that I may have some island in this sea of crises.
Anthony Ward, Montrose, Scotland, UK

I too have read the grim but hugely entertaining book about East End midwifery and it gave me a renewed sense of how fortunate I am to be a woman in contemporary Britain. We need now an enormous, non-censorious debate about the family fragmentation which has been at the other end of this much-welcomed personal freedom for women. Somehow, so many men have taken this freedom as permission to abandon or never commit to the women and children in their lives. Single mothers now have to work, parent and live up to impossible aesthetic ideals - whilst our kids never know whether the man who is Daddy today will even be around tomorrow.
Helen, Scotland

People hark back to memories of when life in Britain was less hectic, people had time to be more courteous and it was less crowded. However, when one focuses purely on material wealth and services, then there's no comparison with the past!
Iain, Tokyo

It's hardly surprising that Katherine Whitehorn wrote for the Observer and is now writing for the BBC. What a load of claptrap she's written. I remember the 50s and the 60s when, where I came from, a woman would not be walking down the road with a load of cases without a gentleman (and ones from the working class)would be rushing to offer to carry them. Now she'd be mugged in many a place carrying as much a 10 pence piece. I lived in a street where at least hundred families lived and knew each other well and where the very idea of a person committing a criminal offence would have shocked and horrified them. In those days we did not hide behind hype, euphemism and political correctness.
Martin Horan, Perth, Scotland

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