Thursday, 12 August 2010

Review - 'What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?' by Francis Beckett

this book (What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?, Francis Beckett, Biteback 2010) starts out plain wrong, as I knew it would.  "The baby boomers saw themselves as pioneers of a new world - freer, fresher, fairer and infinitely more fun [sounds like a Katy Perry lyric, Ed.].  But they were wrong.  The world they made for their children to live in is a far harsher one than the world they inherited.". (p.ix, introduction).  Yes, OK.  We did see the world like that.  But we were right.  Because we were pioneers for ourselves.  We had no idea what kind of world our children would live in.  Our parents were responsible for it, not us.  Because we all make the world our grandchildren live in, not the one our children live in.

"The baby boomers casually assumed that it (free health care) was 'the ordained order of things'" (p. Xi).  Of course we did.  We had never known anything else.  Every generation fails to question what it is born into.  "The freedoms the baby boomers fought for, they deny to their children" (p. Xiv).  Here he is talking about student grants.  What bollocks.  We didn't fight for those, they were provided by a previous generation.  "When the baby boomers were young, they believed society could afford student grants" - we knew it could, because we knew not many of us were getting them, and many of us (especially the girls) were sneered at by our elders for aspiring to university education, because, we were told, it had been denied to our elders, and we should be content too.  Especially if we were girls.

"Now they are old, they think society can afford pensions".  No.  We are not. We are not sure it can.  And we know that our freedom from fear caused too many of us to squander our time, and to fail to build up what the French call a "patrimoine" - some assets, a heritage.  "Almost none of the baby boomers learned to value the extraordinary legacy they had, and today most of them sneer at it.". Utter bollocks.  The moon landings?  We didn't make those happen, they were part of the legacy we inherited, and we didn't, and don't, sneer at them either.  This bloke is a big Attlee fan.  As I think I am.  He says that with the ending of Lend-Lease most prime ministers would have watered down their reforms, but not Clem.  School milk - of course boomers remember it and we mostly didn't like it.  In my first two years at school, in my class of about 40 there were probably two children who appeared to need the milk.  Our parents, children in the 1930s, would have needed it more.  Now it has become a political sacred cow, about 70 years after it should have done.  Each generation tries to provide for the next what it lacked itself, not understanding that it is no longer needed, but that other things are.  At the same time it fails to provide correctly for its grandchildren, which is the generation it actually is in a position to provide for.  This however is not Francis Beckett's premise.  The NHS has its detractors, and I am sometimes one of them,  But he is wrong.  What about polio?  My grandmother was terrified of polio and I was born in the first year of polio jabs, provided universally, and free, by the NHS.  People just three or four years older than me have often had polio.

"Many of the baby boomers grew up on Bevan's council estates, [including me until I was seven].  If they had been born a generation earlier they would have been children in grim urban slums [like my mother, who turned out all right, though free school milk and welfare orange juice would have made her generation healthier] and if a generation later, in terrifying tower blocks [they're not terrifying actually, unless you are a Guardian reader].  They were indeed a blessed generation.". Yes we are.  And what is wrong with that?

Here we go again.  "In 2003 Britain was living in good economic times, but that year a baby boomer prime minister, Tony Blair, went to war in Iraq at the behest of Washington and against the wishes of his own people" (p. 10).  Bah.  Too wrong.  Wrong twice.  Where to start?  Not at the "behest of Washington"  and not against the wishes of his own people.  Guardian readers didn't like it.  But most MPs voted for it and at least half the coutnry supported it.

He is right though about food.  Food was boring in the 1950s when we were children.  But it was what there was, and we grew to like it.  We didn't eat tasty food, but we didn't eat junk food either.  He mentions white bread and pork pies, and my mouth fills with water.  My nine-years-younger husband, a 1960s child, is revolted by my private food longings.  He also argues, with some foundation, that the war babies and those born in the mid-1930s were the real radicals.  Perhaps. There is another whole book in that.

Oh. (p. 32).  Suez going wrong for Britain was all the fault of Ariel Sharon being over-zealous.  He seems a little confused here.  If Suez was a bad idea (and I think it was, but that is easy to say now) then the zealousness or Ariel Sharon is neither here nor there.  But this bloke condemns Britain for being the poodle of America, and yet when we do something, without telling the Americans, that the Americans don't like, like Suez, then we are somehow Bad People.   

" ...people think of Harold Macmillan as the last prime minister of the fifties... but he was the first prime minister of the 1960s" (p. 61).  Spot on.  Telly friendly, dismantling Empire, still relevant well into the Thatcher years.

Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965 (p. 86) - despite the pomp of it, or perhaps even because of it, my parents were unimpressed - too young for wartime service, their early childhood had been pre-war, their adolescence in wartime, and their young adulthood in austerity Britain.  Churchill was no hero to them, though perhaps he had been to their parents.  I know my maternal grandmother, a Londoner who had been "bombed out" in the Blitz, always referred to him as "Mr Churchill".

Pop songs, and pop stars, were not about changing the world.  Beckett sets up the scenario that  they said they were, or should have been, but did not live up to it (p. 90).  But why should they be?  Not even Bob Dylan was.  Nor did he ever say he was.  It wasn't so much that we wanted to change the world, it was more that we knew the world was new, and that there were endless new things we could do in it.  What on earth was wrong with that?

Beckett says the 60s began in 1956, with Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary, and ended in 1968, with Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia.  But he is a bit older than me.  For me the 60s began in 1963, when the Beatles hit it big (I was eight and we girls sang Beatles songs in the playground) and ended in 1972, when glam rock was all you saw on Top of the Pops and all the hair was layered. (p.97).  Allegedly (p. 100) Tom Driberg (for you young people he was a flamboyantly gay Labour MP of the time) tried to get Mick Jagger to go into politics.  "We wouldn't expect you to attend to the day-to-day ephemera of the House" etc.

Beckett says (p. 106) that the Beatles' song "When I'm Sixty-Four" is cruel.  I always thought it was affectionate, with a touch of relief that things weren't like that any more.  That was how many of us saw our grandparents' lives.

The notions of the Sixties came from America.  Bennett says this baldly, without analysis, as if
coming from America was a Bad Thing.  Yes the notions of the Sixties did come from America, pretty much.  The Beatles, arguably, were the greater pop group, because they made the musical influences they had their own, adding to skiffle and blues the English music hall, which Sergeant Pepper spelled out for anyone who had not quite got it yet, while the Rolling Stones just whitened the black man's rhythm and blues.

Beckett has an excellent turn of phrase at times though.  "Thatcherism... had been crouching beneath the bridge of the seventies like a demented troll".

He is wrong about business too.  For some reason he makes Germaine Greer the villain of the piece here, when she was and remains so far as I know publicly funded and employed to this day.  He does not even mention Richard Branson, the squillionaire boomer entrepreneur, who probably called his company Virgin because in the 60s that was a slightly shocking word.  Instead he goes on all the time about someone called Paul Mackney, of whom I confess I had never heard until I read this book.

Our generation lacked political courage, he says.  That is why we got New Labour.  Well, maybe.  He may have a point about political courage.  It is certainly true that the best minds of our generation mostly did not go into politics.  But have they ever, in any generation?  On courage he notes that boomer Greg Dyke was forced to resign as Director-General of the BBC.  Indeed he was.  But to say it was just because "the government put pressure on the governors" is just arse.  Of course they did.  Governments always have put pressure on the BBC and always will.  But there was a bit more to it than that this time.  The lack of fibre posited by Beckett might have been behind the disgraceful journalistic mispractice of the Andrew Gilligan broadcast which probably led to the suicide of Dr David Kelly.

"Why, when we were sure things could only get better, did they get worse?" (p. 195) My answer is that they didn't, and also that we, who were young at the end of the Vietnam war, when half of Europe was totalitarian and most of Latin America was under military dictatorship, were not at all sure things were getting better.  And all those things were put in place by our elders, not by us.  Things did get better.  And they will get better still.  This book is arse because Beckett makes the elementary error of holding us, the generation which came of age in the 1960s, responsible for how things actually were then and for a decade or two afterwards.  No.  We do what we can with our parents' legacy, our children do what they can with ours, and our grandchildren are the ones who benefit from we actually do.

So yes, Francis Beckett, we are still crazy after all these years.  We are the generation who would never get old - we were wrong about that, but we are the first to feel good about our older years.  Yes, we have had the best of everything, but why shouldn't we?  And some of us at least have been trying to make the world better.  With a bit of help from the war babies just before us, we gave the world the most fabulous pop music there has ever been.  And a whole swathe of socially liberal legislation.  And we're not finished yet.  


dreamingspire said...

It was free healthcare that kept my brother alive from 1949 and allowed him to live a productive life that continues to this day.

Anonymous said...

rock on, Jane!

And, wow - pork pies!

If I was on Death Row and requested a last meal, it would include a pork pie and Branston pickle.

Jonny said...

Francis Beckett is 65

Anonymous said...

Until the late 1970s money went a long way - train and bus fares, rents, basic foods were cheap, and wages were low - they then multiplied. The country could afford paying grants and student fees because they did not amount to much.

I was brought up to believe that as the state paid for my education, I should pay it back by having a steady job, paying taxes, and then earn a decent pension.

Repeated redundancies and the collapse of pension companies put paid to them.