England's perished cultural sun
On our first trip to London some 35 years ago, my husband and I sought directions to a point of interest from two obvious City denizens, bowler-hatted gentlemen in three-piece suits, carrying briefcases and tightly rolled black brollies.
One of the otherwise impeccably turned out gents' suit collar was sticking up in back. As he limned an expedient trajectory to our goal, my husband casually reached out and turned his collar down to its default position. "Oh," gasped his companion with admiration and evident relief, "thank you. I've been wanting to do that all morning."
Lately I've been recalling that vignette with chagrin for having (later) laughed at this quintessentially British tic of excessive respect for others' personal space and privacy. I now realize that gentleman's diffidence was the last flourish of a precious social decorum that was already, unbeknownst to us, in sharp decline.
I'm glad we were privileged to go to England frequently when the going was good, and the English so ... English. It's been over a decade since our last trip. I daresay the theatre scene and other tourist attractions are as alluring as ever, but behind those increasingly Potemkinlike facades, as any close observer of British and world media is obliged to deduce, normative English culture has imploded.
Whether it is a function of socialism's too lengthy tenure, a surfeit of obeisance to feminist and multicultural pieties, secular hedonism run amok, a moral leadership vacuum, or a combination of the above, England, once a byword for bourgeois prudence, civic order, social tranquillity and cultural confidence, seems to have fallen into a societal death spiral.
Consider the following news items I have gleaned from a perusal of English media just in the last few weeks:
-Two brothers from a former mining village aged 10 and 11 tortured two other boys almost to death. These "feral children" had been raised by a drunken, violent father and a drug-addicted mother with no control over her seven sons born to three different fathers. They terrorized neighbours and ate from garbage pails. When told of her sons' arrest, the mother said: "It's nowt to do with me";
-A 36-year old Luton woman will soon give birth to her 14th child. She and her similarly unemployed partner take in £1,082 a month in benefits. All previous 13 children were taken into care before the age of two because of parental neglect. When asked why she keeps getting pregnant, she said: "I don't give a s----I just want the government to pay for them";
-As part of the National Literacy Strategy, English teachers have been given a training manual on grammar and punctuation. It offers advice such as: "Verbs are very important. They are the words that tell you what is happening in a sentence," and "In writing, we mark sentences by using a capital letter at the beginning, and a full stop ... at the end." I repeat, this is a manual for teachers.
-A recent survey cited in The Guardian noted that only 42% of those polled felt a caregiver would be wrong to persuade an elderly patient to revise a will in their favour, while 14% said they would try it themselves.
-Ten percent of the population in the UK has not worked since 1997. Twenty percent of British children grow up in households in which no adults work.
For heritage Canadians, England is still a special place. It is to England we all once looked for the gold standard in courtesy, fairness, reason, honour, courage, literacy, social civility and general human decency. But now, even as we enjoy tidily solved countryside English murders on Mystery and lovingly recreated Jane Austen novels on Masterpiece Theatre, one has the ominous impression of feeling warmed by the surviving rays of a perished cultural sun.
The deterioration of other great nations may be regarded with dispassion. But England's cultural collapse, if such it is, makes Canadians something like civilizational orphans. And it raises the disturbing question: If it can happen to mother, will it happen to us?