Epilogue (1998)

Reflections on a Full Life

1998 has arrived and it is now, amazingly, over fifteen years since my retirement in 1982, when the previous chapter ended. The story of a long life ought to end with some sort of summary, a distillation of the lessons and wisdom of years, and a few helpful observations for those now preparing for work or already carrying the heat and burden of working life. Unfortunately, age does not bring such confident clarity of vision. The lessons of one’s own experience are sharply and often painfully clear, but as to the meaning of life itself and an understanding of the complex actions of human beings or where the world is going, time seems only to bring more confusion. Youth is in fact a time of greater certainty in one’s beliefs and desires, whether they be right or wrong. Which is why younger readers are probably no more likely to want my opinions than I did those of my parents. However, let us try.

On a personal note, the years of retirement have been happy ones in which I have seen Brian achieve success in his chosen field of Information Technology in Schools and become a warm, strong and attractive personality who gives me the greatest satisfaction that any father could wish for. Carolyn, too, is an eternal joy to me, possessing immense vitality and a bubbling charm which enable her to combine supremely competent motherhood with a wide range of valuable work in Education and the Community. Brian’s two boys, Michael and David, have grown to become fine, good-natured young men of integrity, while Carolyn’s three young children, Rowena, Alexander and Gregory, are sheer delight to Freda and myself. To cap it all, Brian’s wife, Hilary, and Carolyn's husband, Alan, extend to us a genuine care and affection which few parents-in-law can be so lucky as to enjoy.

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Britain in a Changing World
While the world about me has certainly changed a great deal over my lifetime, many of the forces which have shaped Britain today were already at work when I was born, even, in retrospect, the demise of the British Empire. In fact in many ways the Nineteenth Century had seen innovations whose impact upon human society were more fundamental than the marvels of the Twentieth Century - for example electricity, photography, good roads, railways, steamships, motor cars, domestic gas and water supply and efficient drainage, together with a revolution in education, medicine and the structure of our public services. None of these featured significantly in the overwhelmingly agricultural society of 1800 and some were quite undreamt of. Yet all were widely established by 1900 and had shaped the lives of everyone.

When I was born, British society had already seen a considerable levelling as a result of the First World War, notably in extension of the franchise - the right to vote in elections - to all men and women. This process continued during and after the Second World War, assisted this time by legislation on the welfare state, equal opportunity and the rights of employees. In general, therefore, it is true to say that the 20th Century has been the Century of the Common Man, in the democracies of the Western World at any rate. By this is generally meant the ability of ordinary men and women to understand, regulate and change much of the world they inhabit - something that was formerly a prerogative only of princes, priests and the very rich. Most ordinary British people in the 1990s enjoy personal freedom of expression, behaviour and choice unequalled in our history; but the process was well under way by the mid-1920s, so that throughout my lifetime, in spite of the Depression of the 30s and the ensuing war years, there has been steady progress towards higher standards of living and freedom. We were indeed fortunate to be born in Britain in this era and to have escaped the miseries of famine, civil war or foreign invasion which other countries have suffered.

Of course, it does not always follow that the world is a better place when the common man has power. The folly, selfishness and downright evil inherent in much of human nature do not seem to have changed much over the centuries of recorded history, and it is only the ability to recognise and control these base instincts which in different eras makes one country more civilised, more worth living in, than another. I and my fellow citizens in Britain inherited a just and stable society, resting on public institutions and a legal and moral code developed over centuries. It has been our duty to sustain and if possible improve that society and hand it on to our children. We have done our best in this respect although, along with many others, I naturally wonder whether we have done enough. Some moral attitudes have changed, especially in the last few decades, and this has affected the outward appearance of society. This not necessarily wrong. Each generation has a right to make its own rules, and much of today’s thinking is a refreshingly honest and open acknowledgement of human behaviour to which I and my forebears tended to shut our minds.

Law and Order
But in one particular direction life has not improved, namely in the area of public safety and behaviour. Through most of my life until well into the 1960s - even through the war years - men, women and children of all ages could generally walk the streets of our cities and traverse the length and breadth of our countryside at any time of the day or night without fear of being molested. And they could leave their homes and property with little risk of being burgled. Whether this was due to the drastic penalties of the time and the certainty of punishment, including physical pain or death, or to quite different factors, is still hotly debated. Certainly the authorities in my youth, whether parents, schools, Government or the Courts, were far less inclined than today to accept excuses for wrongdoing, especially where injury to others or the carrying of weapons were concerned. What cannot be denied is that the fear of physical assault has profoundly restricted the way of life of many of today’s citizens. On the other hand, the salutary attitude of earlier times towards those who transgressed also found expression in an almost callous attitude to the poor, the unemployed and the disadvantaged, contrasting unfavourably with the “caring” face of British society today, where the duty of the community toward all its members for their health and the basic necessities of life is accepted by most people. And if the latter is carried too far, encouraging too lenient treatment of transgressors, some could argue that it is a price worth paying. So it must all be seen in perspective. Britain is still generally a very peaceful and civilised society. Every century has seen periods when social or economic change has outstripped the resolve of its people or the ability of their rulers to maintain “law and order”, whatever the punishments for infringement may be.

The decade of the 1980s certainly saw some far-reaching changes, which modified some of the ideas of personal and communal responsibility introduced in the pioneering atmosphere of my generation after the trauma of World War II. These changes were mostly engineered by a Conservative Government, led by the towering personality of Margaret Thatcher and driven by a belief that over-dependence on the State for employment and support weakens people’s will to work and survive, and that the discipline of market forces was a healthier basis for society. Some of these measures seem with hindsight to have been introduced rather quickly and without adequate thought as to what could go wrong, with consequent discontent and resistance, but others have certainly been beneficial.

Economic Changes
Disappointingly, after over half a century of increasing prosperity a period of economic stagnation suddenly returned to Britain in the late 1980s, and with it a blank refusal by the Government to help ailing British Companies or to invest in much-needed public works to relieve the burden of huge unemployment, starkly recalling the miseries of the Depression in my 1930s youth. The same pursuit of a “balanced budget” by restricting public expenditure was evident in spite of the work of the economist John Maynard Keynes in showing its counter-productiveness in times of economic down-turn. Despite, too, the experience of the 1930s when the country was brought out of depression only by enforced but wasteful public spending on armaments for war; and the similarly effective programme of more useful public works in President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the USA. While Companies reduced staff to save money - and were often quite proud of what they called “downsizing” - the nation paid a heavy price in unemployment benefits and the demoralising effect on willing people of being thrown out of work. That made little sense to me.

Electronics and the Coming of the Internet
The most significant influence throughout my lifetime must surely have been the development of electronic devices. When I was born, the telephone had just started on its journey to become the universal accessory to daily life which it now is. It was followed by national radio broadcasts which reached their peak in the 1950s, when television began to dominate most people’s lives. Now the computer, little known outside large organisations up to 1980, has moved into very many homes and the magical micro-chip controls most of the machines which serve us. Oddest of all and potentially the most dramatic influence on our lives is the Internet, not a scientific discovery at all but an ingenious invention of Man to cope with the chaos which might follow a nuclear war. Its ramifications were then totally unforeseen and its operation is still not fully comprehended by most of the world. It will transform civilised life in ways which we still cannot yet foresee.

Like all major advances, the “communication” revolution, which includes newspapers, has offered both advantages and dangers. Because of it, most ordinary people now know much more about their fellow-citizens and share a common identity with them. We are encouraged to buy and sell the same sort of things; to travel, play and enjoy ourselves in similar ways; to share joys, sorrows, anger or outrage; and to question and judge our leaders on a nationwide basis, and sometimes even on a world-wide one. During World War II the British Government used the media of public communication to create a spirit of national unity. They were highly successful in this, assisted by strict censorship and the universal dangers and deprivation of modern war, so much so that those who lived through that time recall with nostalgia the sense of common purpose which inspired everyone, conveniently forgetting the lack of quite elementary personal freedom which went with it. In time of peace this was reversed, and those same media which once united us are sometimes used to incite one section against another, to create doubt about our national institutions, to question people’s motives and actions or even to urge anti-social activity, to the point where there is again talk of the need for Government control of the unfettered freedom of the press. But this diversity is nothing new: I seem to recall that when I was at school similar complaints of “Press irresponsibility” were directed towards the then quite modest antics of the daily newspapers.

One other major difference from pre-World War II Britain has of course been the large influx of immigrant people from the former Colonies and Europe. Except in its scale, it is not a new development. The original inhabitants of our islands have, over nearly two thousand years, been diluted or supplanted by successive additions of Romans, Saxons, Danes, Vikings, Normans, French Huguenots, Jews and Central or Eastern Europeans, so that the average “Englishman” must have an ancestry more diverse than almost any other nation on Earth. All of these immigrants were absorbed and from them, over many generations, the uniquely strong and resourceful modern Briton emerged who created the Industrial Revolution and dominated a large part of the world. Although many recent newcomers to our Islands are distinguishable by the colour of their skin, they, like previous newcomers, bring with them deep traditions of hard work, honesty and integrity from their own cultures within the old British Empire. In my view they will, if allowed to, create an “Englishness” (or Welsh-ness or Scottish-ness) as unique as that produced by the previous amalgum of peoples. And, like their predecessors, they also contribute new energy, ideas, determination and a will-to-survive which I consider can only enhance the native character of our nation.

Loss of Empire
In the first chapter of this book I referred to the demise of the ancient Empires of Austria and Turkey, and the consequent reduction of those countries to minor roles on the world stage. With the dismemberment of her own Empire, Britain now faces a similar painful re-assessment. Today’s young people, most of whom have been taught little about the British Empire, cannot imagine how just a few short years ago life in our country was dominated by the history and splendour of this vast assembly of territories across the Globe, or how the opportunities and demands of administering and protecting them reached into every aspect of British life. The Army, Navy and Air Force provided adventure, travel and action. The Colonial Service offered a lifetime career for educated and dedicated young men in far-flung outposts of the continents; and numerous local Police Forces and Colonial Defence Units also had British officers. British companies in the Colonies produced tea, rubber and many other commodities, while industries of all kinds in the Motherland made artefacts to supply the needs of the Empire’s millions, including materials for roads, bridges, railways, hospitals and many other communal facilities. Our Merchant Navy, the largest in the world, transported the artefacts and produce of this huge protected trading group from country to country. And in the days before air travel, the mighty ocean liners of P & O, White Star, Union Castle, Cunard and other shipping companies carried thousands of passengers in the service of the Empire. Almost all of this vanished within a single generation and history will, I believe, marvel at the way the British people faced up to such a colossal social and commercial transformation and turned to other ways of supporting themselves.

Fortunately, a totally unforeseen bonus was the discovery of huge deposits of oil and natural gas in the North Sea which from the late 1970s contributed immensely to our national wealth. But another alternative and important role for Britain appeared in the concept of a European Community, initially mainly a trading group but now rapidly moving towards political and monetary union. An indication of the quantum change in perspective of the people of Britain has been their acceptance of the rules of the European Community and the enforced loosening of historic preferential trade links with the old Dominions and Colonies - notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This has not been universally favoured, and there exists at the moment a tide of opposition, particularly among politicians of the extreme right and extreme left, to movement towards an integrated or Federal Europe. Of course, there are unforeseeable difficulties in trying to amalgamate all the ancient cultures of individual European nations, but I think that the danger of halting the forward progress of European unity is that things will go backwards, to the great peril and disadvantage of us all.

So my own impression of Britain today is of a nation moving into the next millennium prepared to exchange many age-old customs for new and untried ideas, yet retaining much of the unique character of these Islands. In particular, science and education have between them so equalised both the physical and intellectual power which women at all levels can exercise, that there are now few occupations which are the domain of one sex only. The Armed Forces have not been slow to follow this lead by disbanding their Women's Arms and allowing both sexes to work together on land, at sea and in the air. This is a revolution whose implications are as exciting as they are unpredictable.

Reflections on Religion
I’ve said very little about Religion. I have mixed, not to say confused, feelings about it. Religion seems to me to exert two quite distinct influences which are often difficult to reconcile. The first is to assert and explain the existence of a supra-physical entity or entities - a God or Gods - which most human beings tend to believe instinctively anyway. The second, and more significant, is in interpreting the requirements of those entities regarding human behaviour. There are as many variations of both these roles as there have been different religions in history. Thus, one religion will say there is only one Deity while another asserts that there are many. One sees a benign, loving spirit while another sees a jealous, unforgiving Master, or sometimes a pantheon of gods each exhibiting a particular characteristic. Since no-one really knows, or can possibly know, what form a Supreme Being might actually take; it probably does not matter too much how different cultures choose to visualise it. But it is the second role of Religion, the regulation of human lives, where the real or assumed words of prophets and the priestly interpretation of them display limitless and confusing variety. One Belief says we should not kill a fellow human in any circumstances while another finds slaughtering enemies, criminals or even unbelievers a totally acceptable and praiseworthy practice. One will have a code of allowable or even compulsory marital and sexual conventions which another regards as contrary to the supposed word of God and to be severely punished, even by death or torture. And the countless prescribed rules for dress, diet, prayer or otherwise placating one’s god in everyday human activities are impossible to list adequately.

Having been brought up as a Christian, and an Anglican at that, with little or no knowledge of other religions, I was naturally persuaded to accept its teachings; and even though I am careless about attendance at Church, I still satisfy myself that most of its precepts are reasonable and morally right. If I were a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, a Buddist or perhaps even an American Indian or a native Australian, many of my beliefs and moral values would still be much the same, but some would be very different. At the end of the day I perceive the only really common ground in the World’s religions as being the belief in a supernatural Something governing the Universe, and in a non-material part of each human being called a soul. Almost all other features of religious belief, in spite of the profound and sincere convictions of individual adherents, depend upon the race, nation, community or geographical circumstances of the believer.

As some cynic said, if God did not exist, Man would have had to invent him (or her, as some “primitive” religions and modern feminists say). For myself, ignoring the dogma and ceremonial of organised religion, I do believe in a God, perforce a benevolent one, though in what form and with what ultimate purpose towards this turbulent and violent world is not easy to discern. The concept of the “soul” I find more difficult. The prospect of an after-life, and potentially a happy one, is not peculiar to any one religion but is a universal human belief, taking a multitude of forms and promised by every prophet, priest or medicine man who ever lived. In my heart I believe in it too, not only because my own Prophet whom I so neglect said so, but also through the hazy, anecdotal but surprisingly widespread experiences of many people which cannot be explained in a purely physical world as we know it. When I try to apply logic to the case, however, it makes very little sense that an object so insignificant as myself should be preserved in the vast, eternal panorama of Time and Space; in fact it is arrogant in the extreme to expect it. Contemplation of the nature of that other world is equally bemusing. Human existence is utterly conditioned by the needs of survival and reproduction; these processes and their ramifications fill almost all of everyone’s life and thus make us what we are. What, then, happens in the life after death? If people still have to eat, reproduce and avoid pain, dying or being killed, they are unlikely to be much different from, or better than, those on this side of the veil. But if, as we are assured, these things no longer apply in the Other World, then of course people can afford to live better, holier and more peaceful lives in an environment far removed from our present existence (and presumably without the complication of being either male or female). In the latter situation, our unfair this-world life must be intended to give us certain experiences and learn certain harsh lessons, which we need in order to move on towards some Great Purpose and which we cannot acquire elsewhere. That at any rate is how most religions explain the paradox.

There is a variation on the idea of learning lessons in this evil material world - the concept of reincarnation. This, too, has a long, probably prehistoric, popularity. Given an assumption of Divine Purpose in a material lifespan, reincarnation has a stronger logic to it than the doctrine of a one-off chance at this world, where some people have an extraordinarily easy life while others suffer appalling pain and misery. It appears there may be evidence, too, that some people have lived previous lives, inasmuch as they recall with uncanny vividness events of long ago where they say they were present. Confusingly, not all the Prophets have given the idea house-room, and in fact it is anathema to some religions while being the cardinal feature of others. I am inclined to think that if life does continue after physical death, and this-world experience is important to it, then reincarnation and continued pain and trial make more sense than the one-off theory. On the other hand, I am rather at a loss to explain why a constant flow of regurgitated, improved souls on their umpteenth visit to Earth has not noticeably improved the stock of goodwill and kindness among mankind. And how, one wonders, does the increasingly possible creation of a cloned human being in a test tube deal with the concept of the soul - or shall we have to ask the Almighty to supply one?

In the search for the meaning of life and death, expecting logic or proof simply takes one round in circles. It may be better, and it is certainly easier, simply to have faith in what one’s particular Religion happens to teach. So I can say that in spite of all I have said above, I do still believe in God and an after-life, trusting that my doubts and questions are not meant to be answered - indeed probably cannot be answered in a way that the physical brain can understand.

And so to end this story. I was born under the zodiacal sign of Sagittarius. Sagittarians are reputed to be optimists, and indeed I have always been and still am an optimist with, I hope, many more years to be so. This may also be because I consider I have been very lucky throughout my whole life in that my untold mistakes and follies have somehow never led to real disaster; and while I have worked hard, I have had the greatest good fortune in my personal life and career without the failures and disappointments or disasters which many people suffer. I have also been blessed with good health and a strong constitution. But by far my greatest debt to Providence lies in the host of good, kind, generous and trusting people who have surrounded me throughout my life.

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