So, This Is Progress?

Vernon Coleman

I am so weary of reading about the wonders of progress that I sat down today and tried to think of the ways in which our world today has changed from what it was like when I was a boy 60 odd years ago. I know that what I’m about to write will doubtless be dismissed as the senile, ‘better in my day’ ranting of an old man who should buy his fawn coloured elasticated trousers and shut up and leave the world to the Enlightenment Generation. But bugger that. This is my book.

1. We have become far more judgemental than we were.

2. There is much more violence on our streets. This may, or may not, be linked to the fact that there were, in the bad old days, heaps of policemen wandering up and down preventing crime. These days nearly all our senior policemen spend their days sitting behind desks working out ways to be more politically correct while the lower ranks sit in motor cars waiting to catch drivers exceeding the speed limits. (Sadly, this obsession with forcing motorists to obey speed limits has coincided with a noticeable increase in road traffic accidents.)

3. In the bad old days you really could leave your door open (and your car unlocked) and expect that everything would still be where you had left it when you returned.

4. Children could and did walk or cycle happily to school. They got good exercise, the air around our schools was not polluted by thousands of short car journeys and parents could get on with doing more important things. I doubt if there are more adult perverts or lunatics around these days but parents think there are and that’s what matters. I suspect that the number of children dying today from obesity related illnesses is far greater than the number of children who were molested, attacked or kidnapped back in the bad old days.

5. The incidence of illiteracy and innumeracy has rocketed in recent years. Curiously, the rise in these two problems has matched the increasing reluctance of teachers to teach pupils the basic principles of reading, writing and arithmetic. However, I’m sure it must just be a coincidence. At schools, children older than infants were very often segregated by sex with boys going to a school for boys and girls going to a school for girls. Sexual offences of any kind were pretty well unknown. Today, many schools are now unisex, even having unisex toilets, and by the time they leave school a substantial proportion of male pupils will have their lives ruined by their being placed on the sex offenders register.

6. Half a century ago or more, the council would send round a large vehicle, called a dustcart, into which metal dustbins would be emptied. People kept their dustbins in their back yard or near their back gate and the dustmen would collect the bins, empty them and then put them back where they found them. These days, councils no longer do this. Instead, citizens are expected to sort their rubbish and put it into a variety of bags and boxes. Some of the rubbish will be collected once a fortnight, some will be collected once every three weeks and so on. Lucky citizens, who still have any sort of rubbish collecting service, have to keep charts so that they know which rubbish will be collected when and they must spend an hour or two every week washing, sorting and filling their containers. When the rubbish has been collected it is all mixed up again, put on large container vessels (the ones which brought over television sets, cars and washing machines) and sent off to China to be dealt with.

7. Administration of all kinds used to be done by clerks who worked on ledgers and accounts books. Appointments were kept in the same way. Very occasionally they would make mistakes but generally speaking they were quite fast and efficient and many found the work worthwhile and rewarding. There was never any problem with ledgers breaking down or ‘operating slowly’ and the clerks who did the work took responsibility for what they did.

8. Patients who needed to see a GP would simply turn up at the doctor’s surgery. There were no appointments systems and patients only telephoned the doctor if they had an emergency problem which needed to be dealt with by a home visit. (Doctors would visit patients at home, on request, any time of the day or night for 365 days a year.) When a patient arrived at the surgery he or she would be given a number and the receptionist, who often knew him or her by name, would tell him or her how long they would have to wait to see the doctor of his or her choice. If there was likely to be a wait of more than 20 minutes, the patient would pop out and do some shopping or visit the public library or pop into the local council offices to pay a rates bill.

9. Every reasonably sized community used to have its own hospital. The management of the hospital would be organised by a matron and each ward would be managed by a ward sister who would be assisted by a ward clerk. The matron would also have a secretary and probably a couple of filing cabinets. Hospitals were run very efficiently. There was little waste and most patients who entered a hospital left feeling considerably improved. Hospital infections were virtually unknown and if a patient did acquire an infection or a bedsore while in hospital, the nursing staff would be quite ashamed. Patients’ social problems (finding someone to feed the cat or arranging for a fresh nightie to be brought in) would be managed by the Hospital Almoner. Nurses always seemed to have time to attend to the hair and make-up of their female patients and they would do this regularly just before visiting time. After visitors had gone, the nurses would put the flowers which had been brought into vases and place them on the patients’ lockers. It was generally agreed that having flowers in a hospital helped to make the place look warmer and friendlier. Several thousand years earlier the Greeks had shown that having flowers in a hospital contributed enormously to the well-being of patients.

10. Most food was grown organically, though the word wasn’t really in use half a century ago. Most areas had their own farms producing basic produce, though much food was imported from other parts of the Commonwealth. Food was sold fresh in small shops where customers would be invited to sit on a chair and point to what they wanted. The shopkeeper would then select the appropriate items and an assistant would place the purchases into a large, brown paper bag. At the end of the shopping, a boy would deliver the purchases in a basket fitted to the front of a bicycle. Most bizarrely of all, the customer was always right. Foods contained neither carcinogens nor genetically modified material and nor did they contain chemicals, drugs or hormones.

11. Most small towns and even villages had their own railway station though if it was a small village it would probably have a ‘halt’ rather than a fully blown station. The train services were good and it was possible to get from a small village in the far south of the country to another village in the far north of the country with only a couple of train changes. Local bus services were excellent and even people who lived in small villages could rely on an excellent daily bus service to their nearest large town. Most people took their holidays in Britain and those who did not have motor cars could rely on travelling from home to their holiday destination on public transport without any difficulty. Those who wanted to go abroad could fly if they wished, though it was usually necessary to arrive at the airport 15 or 20 minutes before take-off.

12. Roads were well made and usually kept in good condition. Potholes were few and far between. It was generally accepted that a journey across country could be completed at an average speed of between 40 and 50 mph, which meant that it was possible to move around the country rather more speedily before the introduction of motorways than after their introduction. Cars were simply made and many men enjoyed working on their vehicles at the weekend. It was possible to do most things, including change an engine, with a reasonably well-equipped garage at home.

13. Entertainment was often made in the home but the radio and the television were available. Most programmes (even dramas) were broadcast live and no attempt was made to shock or frighten the viewers. The aim was to educate or to entertain or, ideally, to do both at once.

14. Accidents happened occasionally, both in the home and at work, but there were fewer accidents then than there are now. The introduction of a mass of health and safety legislation has led to conflict and confusion and an absence of common sense and when accidents do happen they are often far more damaging than in the past.

15. All cities were well equipped with parks, flower beds and public lavatories. There were playing fields available too, so that people with an interest in sport could book a pitch and organise their own game of football or cricket. Parks invariably had public tennis courts where amateurs could hire a court at very little cost. Parks were well kept and there were often plenty of birds and squirrels to be seen. There would invariably be ducks and swans on lakes and ponds and mothers and fathers would take their children to the park to feed the ducks. This was considered a good way to spend a weekend afternoon.

16. Public buildings were well-designed and well made in a stout, solid Victorian style and when new public buildings were erected they were designed to fit in with their surroundings.

17. Professional sport was played in good humour and with all players showing respect for their opponents. Cheating and unfair play were unknown. There were very few professional sportsmen around and even the country’s top footballers would have full time jobs and play football as a secondary occupation. So, for example, Tom Finney, who was one of the country’s leading footballers, was also a plumber during the week.

18. Mail was delivered twice a day on six days a week and occasionally, particularly in the month of December, as Christmas approached, there would be deliveries on Sundays. Every street had its own post box from which mail would be collected two or three times a day. Letters posted one day would invariably reach their destination the following day. (This was not as good as the postal service provided in the days of Queen Victoria, when a letter posted in the morning would invariably produce a response before the evening and housewives would frequently post their shopping lists to the local butcher, grocer and greengrocer in the morning and expect deliveries of the ordered items by late afternoon.) Post offices were friendly, well run places.

So that was then and this is now.

Today we have supermarkets with low prices and lower than ever quality food, motorways with their inevitable and often unnecessary holdups, reality television, mobile telephones to annoy us day and night, social media and all its attendant joys of constant carping and criticism, satellite television with 500 channels but nothing worth watching, a failing public transport system, failing hospitals (with the only waiting lists in the world and the worst risk of contracting a deadly infection of anywhere on the planet), a failed primary health care service, failing schools (so bad that thousands now scrimp and save in order to send their children to private school) and three hour queues at airports. We have the highest fuel taxes in the world, massively increased road fund licences, an ever increasing smorgasbord of taxes and an ever decreasing assortment of services and facilities. Town and city roads are pockmarked with massive potholes (which concerned citizens are invited to repair themselves) and street lights are turned off in the early evening in order to save money. Modern health and safety regulations mean that firemen and police officers, hired to protect us and traditionally expected to take on hazards in the execution of their duty, run the risk of being severely disciplined if they expose themselves to even the slightest risk of personal injury. Policemen don’t attend or deal with burglaries or muggings but seem to spend all their time shooting innocent people and arresting 85-year-old men who have been accused of historic sex crimes, often by seemingly deranged complainants. Senior police officers seem unbalanced by their sense of arrogance and self-importance, have adopted an attitude of supreme authority and completely lost touch with their responsibility to the public. Our roads are blocked with pointless and damaging speed bumps and with endless queues of recycling lorries, spewing out deadly diesel fumes and we must spend hours every week sorting and cleaning our rubbish and, at pain of imprisonment, forced to put each discarded item of packaging into its designated container.

Where, oh where, did we go right?

Copyright Vernon Coleman
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