Thursday, 2 June 2011

Festival Of Britain

I went to the South Bank yesterday and grabbed a quick half an hour at the exhibition there to mark the 60th anniversary of the Festival Of Britain. As often seems to be the case these days I found myself thinking about my parents. What has happened in this country since the festival of 1951 - and to to them - seems like a melancholic metaphor for the decline and dead-end of our society.

I know Mum and Dad both visited the festival - at the time they  would have been in their early to mid twenties: Having been kids in the 1930's, teenagers in the war and then  coming of age in the glow of the 1945 Labour government - they represent precisely that  generation filled with the optimism and faith in the future that the festival was trying to capture.

The festival was a scheme of the 1945 Labour government - a project inherited by Churchill's  Tories that they couldn't cancel. It was intended to be a celebration of the 1945 vision of a post-war reconstruction - continuing the idea of a People's War into building a fairer society with opportunity for all. 

With the perspective of sixty years the faith in social democratic reform seems pretty naive and flimsy. But my parents - and many of their generation -  brought into it, and for a while at least it looked as if it was working. Their parents had known hardships before the war that they would never experience. Education, home ownership and  foreign holidays would blur the demarcation between the working and middle classes - creating a murky hinterland between the two. This was seen as 'getting on' - not just in terms of opportunist individual social mobility but collectively as a society. Aneurin Bevan - still one of my Dad's heroes - articulted this vision explicity with 'In Place Of Fear'.

It probably never occurred to them how precarious this would prove - but it is dawning on them now they are elderly and having to call upon that infrastructure of the welfare state they played their  small part in building. 

Mum is probably having to go permanently into care and Dad is reeling as social services telling him that after a lifetime of working their modest savings will have to be swallowed up before the state will help. They are not particularly well off  - but inevitably after nearly fifty years of working they have the modest assets that you would  typically expect to find amongst the skilled working or lower middle class.  And this is becoming a fairly universal predicament for their generation, most affecting that  very section of society that the brave new 1945 Labour meritocratic project - and the 1951 Festival - were built upon.

For my Dad it's not really about the money - there are many other more powerful emotional tugs in his mind at the moment, but one underlying thought - although he would never express it in these terms -  is that after a lifetime he is now left wondering 'what the fuck was it all for?'.

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