The past has always interested me more than the future. This backward-looking tendency has only been reinforced by reaching, somewhat unexpectedly, the age of 70. I can’t say that I don’t feel my age because I don’t know what feeling any particular age is like—but one repeatedly hears that 60 is the new 40, 70 is the new 50, and so on; certainly, the human aging process has slowed since I was born. When I look at photos of people who were 50 in the year of my birth, 1949, they look much older and more worn-out than do 50-year-olds now; and if I had lived only to my life expectancy at birth, I would be dead these last four years.

So progress must have occurred in the intervening time, despite the pessimism that infects those who, like me, are of retrospective temperament and hypersensitive to deterioration. It is not hard to enumerate many things that have improved. They relate principally, but not only, to material conditions. My best friend when I was very young was one of the last children in Britain to suffer from polio, which paralyzed him from the waist down. The quickest form of written communication was then the telegram, and anything other than local telephone calls had to go through an operator. To call across the Atlantic required a reservation and was ferociously expensive; the resultant conversation always seemed to take place during a violent storm. In England, the food was generally disgusting, and meals were to be endured as a regrettable necessity instead of enjoyed (it puzzles me still how people could have cooked so badly). Cars broke down frequently, and every November, pollution produced fogs so thick that you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face (I loved them). Rationing continued for eight years after the war, and disused bomb shelters, present in every park, were where illicit sexual fumbles and smoking took place. Incidentally, for an adult male not to smoke was unusual (75 percent did so); we must have lived in a perpetual fog of foul-smelling tobacco, to judge by the distaste caused by even a single lit cigarette in these virtuous times. Poverty, as raw necessity, still existed. Murderers were sometimes hanged—as well as, more rarely, the innocent. Overt racial prejudice was, if not quite the norm, certainly prevalent.

Yet not everything has improved, though the deterioration has been less tangible than the progress. To give one example: by age 11, I was free to roam London, or at least its better areas, by myself or with a friend of the same age. The sight of an 11-year-old child wandering the city on his own did not suggest to anyone that he was neglected or abused. I remember, too, the evening papers piled up at newsstands; people would throw coins on top of the pile and take their copy. It never occurred to anyone that the money might get stolen; nowadays, it would never occur to anyone that the money would not be stolen. The crime statistics bear out this sea change in national character.

The enormous progress and increase in prosperity notwithstanding, I have not been able to rid myself of a nagging awareness that I was born into a country in relentless decline, of the kind, say, that Spain went through from the latter two-thirds of the seventeenth century to the present day. Of course, Britain’s decline has been relative, not absolute, but Man being a creature who compares, it is felt all the same; and whether an increase in life expectancy compensates for an increased, and justified, fear of crime is a matter of individual judgment.

In an effort to assess what has changed, for better or worse, and what, if anything, has remained unchanged, I thought it would be interesting to consider three English novels published in the year of my birth. I am aware that this is not a scientific procedure: I chose the novels simply because they had long rested unread on my shelves and were the first ones published in 1949 that I came across. A novel, moreover, is not necessarily a true reflection of anything, let alone a complete depiction of a complex modern society. Indeed, the very difficulty or impossibility of grasping such a society whole is one of the causes of a prevalent anxiety, for no one can truly say that he knows what is going on in his own society, or that he fully understands it. Still, we feel impelled to try—and novels, whether they intend to or not, reflect the time and place of their writing, and therefore may help in our understanding, both as to the way things were and the way they are.

Two of the novels were by, respectively, Nigel Balchin and R. C. Hutchinson, writers well regarded in their time but now mostly forgotten, while the third was by Ivy Compton-Burnett, who still has her admirers. They were quite different authors, but each had an unmistakable quality of unreconstructed English national identity, such as no writer about London—where two of the novels are set—or anywhere else in the country could now convey.

It is not that foreigners could not be found in 1949 London, which was then still a port city of some importance. In Hutchinson’s book, Elephant and Castle, set largely in the East End, one of the main characters is half-Italian, and foreigners of various nationalities have walk-on parts. But they in no way affect the strongly English character of the city. Today’s London, by contrast, seems more like a dormitory for an ever-fluctuating population than a home; even much of its physical fabric has been completely denationalized by modernist architecture of a sub-Dubai quality. It is not a melting pot, for little is left to melt into; a better culinary metaphor might be a stir-fry, the ingredients remaining unblended—though, with luck, compatible.

The other two novels are Balchin’s A Sort of Traitors and Compton-Burnett’s Two Worlds and Their Ways. Balchin was a scientist by training, Compton-Burnett a classicist; Hutchinson had studied politics, economics, and philosophy. They were not a perfect cross-section of the population, perhaps, but they collectively had a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience.

The action of Balchin’s novel takes place in a bacteriological laboratory, where scientists have made a discovery that can serve either civil or military purposes—to prevent or to spread epidemic disease. It is not long after World War II, and a reaction has set in against the kind of unthinking patriotic feeling that characterized the war years. An excess of patriotism was blamed for the military cataclysm, and now the scientist-protagonists of the novel wonder whether the proper locus of their moral concern should be their country or humanity as a whole. The question would not have arisen for them four years earlier.

Their laboratory is a government one, and officials want the work to be kept secret, in case the enemy (now, by implication, Soviet Russia rather than Nazi Germany, though never named as such) gets hold of it and uses it as a weapon against the scientists’ own country; the scientists, however, are thinking of the epidemics that could be prevented in India and China. The lab director, Professor Sewell, wants to publish his results; the chief scientific advisor to the government, Sir Guthrie Brewer—not himself a bacteriologist—comes to persuade him otherwise, but fails.

Sir Guthrie is a hybrid, a scientist-turned-apparatchik. “I’m sorry to be a nuisance,” he says, in that suave, hypocritical English way, which is at once admirable and disagreeable. This manner of speaking, of never saying quite what you mean, was illustrated in a French book of the time, La Vie anglaise, which tried to explain English manners to the French. When an Englishman says, “We must meet again,” the author explains, he means: “I hope never to see you again”; and when he says, “I know a little about,” he means: “I am an expert in,” or possibly even “the world-expert in.”

Alas, this indirect way of speaking, always tinged with irony and humor, has almost disappeared in favor of a cruder and less amusing manner of communicating. Literal-mindedness has replaced subtle codification, and with it, a people who were once subtle, if sometimes perfidious, have become crass and often aggressive. Irony, which the whole population once both understood and employed, and was so strong an aspect of the national character, has now disappeared, replaced by a disposition to querulousness and indignation.

Professor Sewell says things that would nowadays see him hounded out of his job, as Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist, was hounded out of his position by a mixture of simulated outrage and official pusillanimity when he said, en passant and as a joke, that he thought men and women often did not work together well in a laboratory because sexual attraction got in the way. In the novel, Sewell’s deputy says that a female laboratory worker has “rather a tough personal life.” Sewell responds: “Women always have. . . . [They] are either in love or not in love. In either case it makes a complicated private life and interferes with their work.” He continues: “And this feeling about time. Men haven’t got it. But women are all clock-watchers. Only about thirty years, you see, to have their babies in. And anything which isn’t to do with having babies is a waste of time. That’s why they’re no good to science.”

No one would dare utter such a sentiment today, even if he thought it true. Walls and phones have ears (and now video cameras), and we live in fear not of the secret police, as did, say, the East Germans, but of the vastly enlarged ranks of the intelligentsia that obtain their sense of purpose from feeling outrage and can spread it round the world in an instant. Unlike our forebears, we hesitate to express ourselves. This fear undoubtedly does prevent some unworthy or even disgusting opinions from being expressed, but our need to be thought good by our peers, or at least not bad, is now far greater than our desire to be free.

A Sort of Traitors is set during a period when Britain had elected an avowedly socialist government—as it might again—but with an important difference: the postwar socialist government was patriotic, whereas a new socialist government would, at least if led by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, make hatred of its own country the beginning and end of its political morality.

In the novel, the government minister in charge of research, Gatling, calls Sewell to his office to persuade him not to publish. He is an old socialist, but (though a working-class autodidact) also a sophisticated man. The war and governmental responsibility have changed his ideas. Sewell says to him:

I am not a patriot. I have never felt that because I was born in this country, it was the only country that mattered. I have tried to give it a fair return for what it has given me. But after that my loyalty is to the world. I seem to remember a time, sir, when you and some of your colleagues in the Government felt the same in your sphere. You seem to have changed your minds. I haven’t.

Here Sewell is referring to the Labour Party’s pacifistic opposition to British rearmament before the war, an effective contribution to the country’s unpreparedness when war came. But unlike Sewell, Gatling has learned from the experience. “Professor Sewell,” he asks, “do you realise the present state of the world?”

Sewell’s attitude is summed up when he tells Gatling, “I might easily feel that since an ignorant Government was acting against the interests of an even more ignorant society, it was my duty to defy both.” In private, Gatling is contemptuous of Sewell: “He’s bogus all through, but he doesn’t know it. . . . He can’t even sit down sincerely. And all this stuff about humanity. He wouldn’t know humanity if he met it in the street.”

In the conflict between Sewell and Gatling, the minister triumphs—temporarily. But in the longer term, in cultural influence, Sewell and his like have won. With the decline of patriotism and the spread of tertiary education, loyalty among the intelligentsia has detached itself from the nation and attached itself to large abstractions, such as humanity and the planet, with the European Union as the only intermediate political body between the individual and the world that now attracts its loyalty.

Ivy Compton-Burnett was a very English figure—the upper-class conservative subversive. All her novels, including the one published in 1949, took place in the seemingly golden age of Edwardian upper-class England, but she was intent on finding the worm in the bud—and for her, it was the institution of the family, upon which her literary work was a concerted attack, lasting 45 years. She might have been shocked if someone used in her presence the lower-class word “mirror” for “glass,” but she brought her little charge of dynamite to the foundation of the society that she probably thought would, in essence, last forever.

Compton-Burnett’s novels are extremely distinctive. They consist largely of dialogue and require intense concentration to read, for the author sometimes does not help out with interjections such as “he said” or “she said,” such that after 20 lines, it can be difficult to work out who is saying what to whom if one’s attention has wandered even momentarily.

The conversations are always brittle, a mixture of pedantry and Wildean aphorism. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote in 1941 that “to read . . . a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up, one of these London mornings after a blitz.” Here, taken at random, is an exchange in Two Worlds and Their Ways:

“Come, my pretty, let us go downstairs. We have done our best and must leave it. No one can do more.”

“We have done nothing,” said Maria.

“Well, that is usually people’s best,” said her stepson. “Their worst is something quite different.”

“Well, let us say good-night to the victims of our indecisions.”

The indecisions in this case are over whether to send two children, a son aged 11 and a daughter, 14, to school, or to continue to have them tutored at home in a country mansion: a matter of small consequence, one might think, in the years leading up to World War I, but taking place in a family atmosphere of tension, cruelty, power struggle, and petty snobbery. By the high standards of Compton-Burnett’s novels, the family depicted in this novel is not particularly vicious or dysfunctional, though it’s bad enough: all conversation is like an ill-tempered cross-examination in court, except that all the participants are barristers waiting to pounce upon any lapse into foolishness or inconsistency. Everyone talks for victory rather than for meaning or communication, and while Compton-Burnett could not be described as a social realist, she undoubtedly captured an aspect of conversation in England—brittle, conducted with asperity, apparently unfeeling but with a deep undercurrent of emotion—that has now all but disappeared, which is both loss and gain, the two often being united in a dialectical relationship.

The novel by R. C. Hutchinson is sprawling, far too long (692 closely printed pages), and, in places, badly written and full of wind. Alone of the three novels, it attempts to portray lower-class life in the East End of London, though the story is that of an upper-class girl who marries “beneath” her and allies herself to an inarticulate working-class man, in whom she espies deep qualities—the nature of which, however, the author fails to convey. When not actually grunting, he speaks throughout in mere fragments of speech and is no better in this respect at the end of 15 years covered by the narrative than at the beginning.

The young woman, with the unusual name of Armorel, early on witnesses an episode in which the man whom she later marries, the half-Italian Gian, attacks and severely injures a policeman. (In the course of the novel, policemen are several times depicted as patrolling the streets, a vast change from today, when they fill out forms rather than patrol.) Actually, Gian’s attack is unjustified, but when he receives a three-month jail sentence, Armorel thinks it unfair. She decides to marry Gian and then to make something of him by badgering him to undertake education and training. But his horizons remain limited: unlike her, he is content to rise only a little in the world. For him, earning a respectable living and getting by with some minimum of comfort is enough.

The difference in what they want eventually estranges them. The denouement of this almost-interminable novel is the murder of Armorel by Gian’s father, who thinks that she is at the root of his son’s misery. At the end, as she lies dying, she realizes that she should have loved Gian for what he was, not tried to mold him into a creature of her own choice.

The story is implausible, though I wasn’t reading it mainly for literary pleasure, but for what it might tell me about changes in national character. And there were two that struck me. The first was that, despite the poverty depicted being incomparably greater than any known now, the inhabitants of the East End, as Hutchinson writes of them, had as lively a sense of irony as their social superiors. When, in the story, a hearse on its way to an interment nearly runs over a boy, he shouts, “Off t’bury the one you knocked over last week, eh cock!” Nowadays, as likely as not, the vehicle and its driver would be physically attacked.

Second, most of the poor people whom Hutchinson describes have an intense desire to be and remain respectable—that is, to be independent, living within the law, not foulmouthed, and to have their children within marriage. Of course, Hutchinson might have been mistaken, or exaggerating, but I doubt that he was: other sources suggest the same thing. What his characters consider bad language would now be almost genteel; and nowadays, the very notion of respectability probably would not be understood, self-esteem having triumphed over self-respect as the desideratum of the population.

One last thing: all these books testify to the astonishing decline in the value of money. In A Sort of Traitors, for example, one of the main characters considers buying himself a full meal (almost certainly not a good one, but a meal nonetheless) for one shilling and ninepence. In nominal terms, the cost of that meal would now buy you about one-ninth of an inland postage stamp, or a 40th of a cheese sandwich in a gas station. Not everything has risen in price so drastically as cheese sandwiches, however. To buy a novel such as A Sort of Traitors or Two Worlds and Their Ways would cost you, in nominal terms, only about 25 times as much as in 1949, the year of my birth.

The author earlier this year (COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR)


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