LM Archives
  8:45 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

When were the good old days?

Today's nostalgia for the values and the safety of yesterday has a strangely familiar ring about it, says Tracey Lauder

During the latest round of panics about child crime and delinquency, every other newspaper editorial seems to have been devoted to the decline of the nation's morals, harking back to the days when children were innocent, 'decent' people were not terrorised by hooligans, and you could leave your front door open.

The present discussion about crime and moral responsibility has emphasised a desire to return to the 'good old days'. Christina Hardyment (Sunday Telegraph, 21 February 1993) thinks that the difference between today and yesterday is so great that 'young people may seem alien, rough-spoken and generally disorderly to generations who remember wartime discipline and restraint'.

Tory grandee WF Deedes agrees that his prewar youth 'seems a golden age compared with what lurks in the shadows for the young today'. Although he admits that children wandered the streets ragged and barefoot, Deedes assures us that 'physically, they were safe' (Daily Telegraph, 22 February 1993). While different commentators identify with different golden ages - Victorian morals, Edwardian gentility, prewar innocence, wartime discipline, and so on - they all agree that 'then' was better than now.

All our yesterdays

In a Gallup survey carried out for the Daily Telegraph in February, 85 per cent of those interviewed thought it was safer to walk the streets at night 20-30 years ago. There is a widespread perception that we are now reaping what was sown in the 1960s with a departure from old-fashioned values. John Major seemed to have struck a chord with his invocation of the security of yesteryear.

It seems that the past is now the source of authority on everything from cricket to childcare. Indeed, with the past being elevated in this way, you could be forgiven for believing that the past two centuries have been a stable continuum of British fair play, high moral standards and well-behaved children. Typically, in searching for an explanation for the latest panic about child crime, Robert Whelan of the Family Education Trust asks 'why can't [children] enjoy being young for longer and do things that all youngsters used to do?'.

Surely, then, the archives should be full of reports congratulating the youth of yesterday on occupying themselves in such a responsible fashion? Well, not exactly.

Today's moralistic commentators and politicians like to give the impression that things were much better in the past. The funny thing is that in the fifties they were giving the same impression. In 1957, for instance, amid press hysteria over the emergence of 'the Teds', Sir Thomas More commented 'would not the proper description be "young thugs", leaving it at that?'.

The Teds were seen as the epitome of society's decline, with their strange clothes and milk bar culture, 'a sort of spiritual dry rot amid the odour of boiled milk'. Back then, the problem was said to be that 'the British way of life' was being destroyed by 'Americanisation'. That, said the experts of the day, couldn't have happened 20 years previously, when wartime discipline kept young people in line. Or did it?

In 1938 an account of English juvenile courts regretted that children were starting to grow up in 'an atmosphere of restlessness and pleasure-seeking' which was not 'morally healthy'. Another report of 1939 noted 'a growing contempt by the young person for the procedures of juvenile courts'.

In the thirties the decline of moral values was blamed on the new forms of popular culture such as cinema, cheap novels and radio. Every new fad seemed to undermine respect for law and order. In fact there were more middle class panics about the behaviour of football fans during this period than at any time since. The popular fears and desire for past values expressed in the thirties are strangely reminiscent of the nostalgic wishes expressed today.

Probably the age which crops up most often as an example of upstanding morality is the Victorian era. It was then, everyone agrees, that individuals exercised the most restraint and society was cohered around the highest of values.

However, a brief scan of the contemporary press reveals that the good citizens of Victorian Britain lived in fear of the Velvet Cap Gang who pushed people off the pavement and used 'filthy language', and of the 'roughs' who were 'armed with thick leather belts, on which there were heavy brass buckles'. In fact, it was a frequent lament of the time that whipping was not employed enough to teach the working classes respect for the law. The upper classes yearned for the safety and peace of what they recalled as the days before 'the excessive leniency' of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Flogging a dead horse

The Victorian era was characterised by all manner of fears and panics and nostalgia for the 'goode olde dayes', including concerns for the detrimental effects of bicycles on the nation's youth and the 'sentimentality of judges' in dealing with ruffians who required flogging. The fear of moral decay was captured by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869): 'The outbreaks of rowdyism tend to become less and less of trifles....And thus that profound sense of settled order and security, without which a society like ours cannot live and grow at all, sometimes seems to be beginning to threaten us with taking its departure.'

There is nothing new about pining for the past. Flogging has been prescribed for every generation since it was abolished, likewise the workhouse, conscription and juvenile prison. The golden age of '20 or 30 years ago' has always seemed attractive in comparison to immediate fears about the breakdown of order. The only difference today is the wider appeal of such moralistic nostalgia.

Harping on about the past has normally been the preserve of the Conservative clubs and the British Legion - Tory MPs have always had a thing about whipping. Previously, calls for the return of corporal punishment were dominated by the likes of Brigadier Medlicott, Wing Commander Bullus and Sir Marcus Lipton referring to 'these louts who, long ago, should have been smacked on the behind by their parents'. But, in the absence of an explanation for the social and economic breakdown that we are experiencing today, such appeals to the past can become more common parlance.

(Historical references from G Pearson, Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, Macmillan Education, 1983)

The original hooligan, Daily Graphic, 5 December 1900
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk