A privileged generation — reflecting on life at 70

by
01 June 2018

Ted Harrison marks a personal milestone with a look back over the past seven decades

Contraband Collection/Alamy

The Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury, 22 June 1948

The Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury, 22 June 1948

THREE score years and ten, that is our allotted span on earth — or it was in biblical times, assuming that one survived the perils of childhood. This year, I have reached the Big 70: an achievement of no small significance, given that, for 28 of those years, I have lived with a donated kidney.

Here, in Britain, my generation has been especially privileged. We have not had to fight a war. Most of us have never experienced hunger. And we have lived through what has probably been the most significant single era in human history.

Arguably, in retrospect, those born in Galilee in about AD 1 could have made that claim, but I doubt that many did at the time — except, of course, for a few early Christians who were expecting the imminent dawning of an even more significant age.

John Henshall/AlamyVintage 1948 Philips television set with 12-inch screen

Since 1948, in the fields of technology, medicine, popular culture, and communications, the changes have been astonishing. We live today in a manner that, 70 years ago, was beyond science fiction. All this has come at considerable cost to the planet: species have been lost, environments devastated, weather patterns altered, natural resources exhausted, and populations increased, in a way that was never forecast or envisaged.

Much of the change is described as progress. Crop yields have risen, life expectancy has increased, infant mortality has fallen, and social attitudes have liberalised. I am especially grateful for transplant surgery.

Much that was familiar, however, has been lost, and the world is a sadder place for that.

 

I LOOK at monochrome photographs of my childhood and I am astonished that I was once part of history. I lived in a house without central heating. We travelled by steam train, before motorways were built. There were no supermarkets. In those days, we used shillings and half-crowns, and coins turned up in change bearing the head of Queen Victoria, and sometimes even of William IV. A loaf of bread cost ten old pennies and a farthing (about four new pence).

In 1948, three years after the war, many foodstuffs were still on ration. There were then 690,000 coal miners working in Britain; in December 2015, Britain’s last deep mine closed down. In January 1948, there were 14,500 television sets in the UK and a single channel; today, there are 26 million sets and a plethora of networks.

When I was born, one quarter of British homes had no electricity, nor was there a National Health Service: it did not come into existence until I was two months old.

 

IN 1948, Parliament debated the abolition of hard labour, penal servitude, and corporal punishment. Murderers were hanged. Gay men were often imprisoned. Today, same-sex marriages are legal.

Improvements in sporting performance have been so significant that, had the current women’s 100m world-record-holder, Florence Griffith-Joyner, taken part in the 1948 men’s Olympic final, she would have won the bronze medal.

Nick Higham/AlamyManchester Mark 1: first stored program computer, run on 21 June 1948

On 15 September 1948, Richard Johnson reached an unprecedented 671 mph piloting an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. Today, the International Space Station travels at 17,150 mph, orbiting the earth once every 92 minutes.

Now, there are approximately 3900 tigers living in the wild; in 1948, the number was just under 100,000. Animal species that have become extinct since 1948 include the Barbados raccoon, the Caribbean monk seal, Goff’s pocket gopher, the Little Swan Island hutia, the Mexican grizzly bear, the Pallid beach mouse, the San Martin Island woodrat, and the Smith Island cottontail rabbit.

Then, there were 61 member states of the United Nations; today, there are 193. The State of Israel came into being on 14 May 1948.

In 1948, a research team at Manchester University built a computer that they nicknamed “Baby”. Its first ever program consisted of 17 instructions. Currently, the most powerful supercomputer in China is capable of performing 33.86 quadrillion operations in a single second.

 

Lluís Real/age fotostockLluís Real/age fotostockTHE digital age has resulted in a massive increase in the availability and exchange of information. Consequently, governments and international corporations are accumulating a wealth of data about us as individuals, with no guarantee that that information is being used wisely.

The digital revolution has brought about speed and convenience in communication, but has not, it seems, resulted in a comparable increase in wisdom. “Wisdom is more profitable than silver, and the gain she brings is better than gold,” the book of Proverbs says. Seventy years ago, my father would have taken a heavy concordance from a library shelf to source and check that verse (Proverbs 3.14); I simply Googled “Bible wisdom”.

Back then, three times as many people attended a Church of England service on a Sunday as do today, despite a significantly larger population. Shops were closed on Sundays, and the average weekly wage was less than £4; so there were fewer alternative attractions.

Worship was very different. All priests and bishops in the Church of England were men. They used the Book of Common Prayer, and read from the King James Bible. As a young boy, I was explicitly forbidden from ever eating anything in church; now, coffee and biscuits are normally served as a liturgical extension to the Common Worship communion service.

 

IN THE past 70 years, almost everyone has seen a massive, inflation-driven increase in earnings, although there are a few exceptions. The Bishops have seen a significant drop in real earnings. Back then, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s annual salary was £7500 (the equivalent of £250,000 today).

Other eras have been famed for both good and bad reasons. The English language, it might be argued, was at its most beautiful and creative in the late 16th century. In the 18th century, the greatest music blossomed in central Europe.

What the seven decades of my lifetime have brought, indisputably, has been the most rapid period of technological change ever witnessed; and yet so much about human nature has made no progress at all. There are still vast differences in life expectancy between the rich and the poor. Jesus once said, “The poor are always with you.” What was true 2000 years ago remains, sadly, true today. Nations still go to war. There are still abusers and victims. Human nature has altered little.

Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/AlamyNetherton Parish Church’a bell-ringers, 1948


AND yet there is still laughter to counter the tears. There is still kindness in the world. Couples fall in love, babies are born. Thank God, too, that those things eternal have not changed. God remains the constant.

He is not, as Elijah learned, in the earthquake or fire. He is not in the roar of the jet aircraft taking off for New York; he is not found in the cacophony of the call centre, or the clattering of the supermarket. He is — as he has always been — the still, small voice, waiting to be heard when “the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done.”

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