by Roy Kerridge
At one time, there used to be a wonderful strip cartoon in the Daily Mail called “Rufus and Flook”. Drawn by Wally Fawkes, with many an inky thumbprint by way of shading, it was scripted by George Melly. Posterity, if in a kind mood, will excuse George Melly’s singing, forgive his opinions on art, and remember him as a great storyteller. “Flook” was his finest hour.
In one of the late episodes, in the ‘seventies, when the strip was past its peak, Rufus and Flook (boy and magical animal) discover the old air-raid sirens in the London Underground. They set these off, and the result is curious. The sound of the warning affects only the elderly working class, who forget all else and crowd into the subways, mesmerised into believing that the nineteen-forties and the war have never ended. Cheerful and contented, they settle down for the night on the platforms. Some begin to sing. H.G. Wells used the same idea in his novel “The Time Machine”.
I was born in 1941 and do not remember the war very well. But I remember its long-drawn-out aftermath, and how surprised everyone was when rationing ended. It seemed to me, at the time, that ration books and National Service had aiways been part of English life. Much as I was relieved at missing the latter, I still felt somehow scandalised at these post-war changes. They seemed immoral.
Illogical as the public may once have been, in facing the inevitability of the end of war, the Government has found it even harder to adjust to life without a single National Purpose. In my opinion, Britain has remained on a war footing, the absence of war a perplexity to our rulers. Every aspect of life, from Food to Sport to Entertainment, still has its Ministry in charge. Why should there be Ministries for absolutely everything — Health, Art, Education, Tourism (or Heritage) and Agriculture? Most of these Ministries churn out propaganda with wartime zeal, and nearly all of it is nonsense.
As the wartime National Purpose of defeating Hitler was a courageous and noble purpose, people then accepted the Government’s control of their lives, as they felt at one with the Government’s single-minded aim. Ever since the war ended, governments have sought for a National Purpose. It is as if the machinery of government remains fixed to a National Purpose standard. Veering wildly from one idea to another, governments have floundered from abortive Purpose to Purpose, none of the Purposes meeting with the full wartime approval of the public.
We have had Building a Welfare State, Creating a Permissive Society, Building up the Economy, Going into Europe, and Privatisation. Education, revealingly enough, appears to have as its aim the creation of a workforce that can “beat Germany and Japan”. Not “trade with Germany and Japan” (of all countries), not even “compete with Germany and Japan”, but always beat Germany and Japan. Careless talk costs lives, Be Iike Dad, keep Mum…..**
Needless to say, with Ministries staffed by “experts” running on wartime lines of secrecy and propaganda, none of the peacetime aims ever hit the target. Schools do not turn out a “workforce” at all, since they are schools, not industrial apprenticeships.
Since run by a Ministry, many schools turn out pupils who might not even spell “Germany” or “Japan”, or find those countries on a map. There is a Ministry of Art (I think) and dead cows in our galleries; there is a Ministry of Agriculture, and dead cows in our farms; a Ministry of Health and hospitals with no beds….
I am told that not all wartime propaganda was taken very seriously. People couldn’t help noticing that when there was a bread shortage, experts proved that bread was an over-rated food. Foods moved rapidly from “healthy” to “unhealthy” depending on whether there was a glut or a shortage. When experts pronounced potatoes to be uniquely healthy, housewives took it as a sign that potatoes were in the shops that week.
Obliged by apparent iron laws of folk-custom, the Government still bombards the people of Britain with propaganda, mostly about Health. Who can forget the anti-Aids poster that showed a beautiful woman together with the caption “frightening isn’t it”? (now supplied with a question mark for the first time). One set of propagandists put out posters concerning “sexism and racism”, another a series stating that women are bad for your health. At the moment, Government propaganda takes the shape of a poster claiming that “racists” have smaller brains than other people… if this were so, then why did it take such a great effort to defeat Hitler?
Is it time, therefore, for Ministries and Propaganda to go the way of Rationing and National Service? Would Art, Health, Education and so on be in better shape if artists, hospitals and schools were free from Government sponsored exams, standards, experts and propaganda? This is easier said than done, for almost every aspect of professional life has become a “dependency culture.” So-called “privatisation” has created the pretence of autonomous schools and hospitals, where managers decide how the money is to be spent. But the money still comes from the Government and comes with strings attached to ever-changing guesses at a National Purpose.
Fear of imaginary U-boats may have prompted the Government to insist, with all its power of bribe-grants, that Britain is intensely farmed, with food-forcing chemicals, just as if we still stood alone. By now, most farmers hardly dare to move or breathe without asking a Government scientist for permission. I remember when cows were fondly called Bluebell and Buttercup… names of cows then gave way to numbers, and now their very days may be numbered.
A new generation of grant-fed farmers has arisen who look on scientists and government experts with child-like trust. How can they now be changed from serfs to sturdy yeomen? Medieval serfs lived in the Age of Faith, and modern serfs live in the Age of Misplaced Faith. The priest with his Latin prayerbook has been replaced by the Government-sponsored mad scientist with his gobbledegook. Five decades of make-believe war have changed our farmers into timid souls who trustingly expect scientists and experts to get them out of every mess that scientists and “experts” have got them into.
When the war ended, the British people’s faith in their Government showed itself to have been justified. In those days the Government seemed personified by Sir Winston Churchill. Since Churchill’s death, most Prime Ministers have tried to copy him. Will we have to wait till our folly takes us into another war before we realise that the Second World War is over?
** both were propaganda slogans during WWII