Sixty Years On

Clearly this is a time for looking back as the Webmag reaches a watershed. My original plan was to look at how times have changed for children in England since the mag started on 1st January 2000. I will still try to do that but a few other milestones have occurred to me as well, as it is a Jubilee year.

One is the death of King George in February 1952. The main means of mass communication for the vast majority of people in those days was the wireless, which was definitely not WiFi. I was almost 10 years old, but I have a very vivid memory of the Headmaster calling all of us children (Junior Mixed and Infants) together about mid-morning to tell us the King was dead. (Mr. Arnold must have been busily occupied listening to the wireless in his office to get this news.) He then closed the school for the rest of the day and sent us all home!

This gives an insight in a different world. The assumptions were that (a) every child could walk home safely, and (b) all mothers would be at home, or that every child would be given safe haven with a relative or neighbour in the same street.

The next big event was the Coronation in June 1953.The major milestone associated with this was the growth of television ownership which followed it. At the time my aunt was the only family member with a TV. The screen was about 9inches wide and set in a huge wooden cabinet. About 12 of us spent the whole day, mostly with the curtains closed, watching the flickering pageant.

What we could not guess at then was that there had also been an early demonstration of news media manipulation. The news of the conquest of Mount Everest was held back to make a big story on Coronation Day to enhance the jingoistic feelings of heading into a new Elizabethan Age. We did not know and could not guess how this would escalate in the years ahead.

My own children have got tired of me saying that from around the time of the Coronation things got steadily better for ordinary people, until about the 80s when the balance shifted. We moved from families getting improvements in pay and working conditions, greater availability of fresher and more varied foodstuffs, more by way of home comforts, space, heating, lighting and furnishings, less hand-me-downs for clothing etc., no more make do and mend, to a consumer driven throw-away society. Horizons opened up with cheaper travel abroad. Consumer goods became freely available on freely available credit.

But along with the improvements in physical standards by the 80s came a decline in what some would call moral standards. Society seemed to be less safe and dependable, especially for children and young people. Pressures started to be felt, especially following the new media invention ‘teenagers’, so that by 2000 devil-may-care rebellion, aggression, dropping out and consumerism seemed to be their growing norms.

If we thought things were tough for children and young people by 2000 I think they are even worse now. What has happened in the lives of the young since the Webmag started? What are their norms and expectations now? Do our grandchildren feel happier, safer and more optimistic than the Junior Mixed and Infants in 1952, or those in some Key Stage in 2000.

In 1952 my family’s life was lived around a big table, which dominated the only living room. All meals, game playing and conversation took place there. No other room was heated, so no-one went off to pursue personal interests. The main source of information was the one wireless and the most exotic entertainment was Radio Luxembourg or may be the American Forces Network (AFN). Forces Favourites was a Sunday morning ritual and I learned the names of a lot of German cities where troops were stationed by listening in.

We have moved from one TV in the extended family, past more than one TV, radio and CD player in 2000 to a general expectation that all family members have their own (heated) room equipped with TV, DVD player/recorder, the latest laptop, games player etc. The key word in that sentence is ‘latest’, because the development of technology is so swift that electronic equipment HAS to be replaced regularly.

I used to worry about the impact constant use of earphones would have the hearing of the young. Now I worry about the lack of concentration on social interaction when so much time is spent on texting, reading texts and game playing on a mobile phone under the meal table.

Mobile phones, I-Phones, Blackberries, I-Pads, Androids come and go. The news media are now fed by photos taken by mobile phones, so that horrific scenes can be fed directly and unchecked to solitary children, on their own, in their own rooms.

Something that was a useful means of contact in case of emergencies has moved to producing who knows what consequences. One thing which we do know is that e-mails and texting have been used by some children to bully other children and make some lives unbearable. The bullying has sadly been aimed at children who do not meet the norms of their peers – they are too fat, do not have the latest ‘must have’ clothes, the right parental car, the right electronic equipment and so on.

One thing which horrifies me with my love of books, which was nurtured when I was a Mixed Junior, is the use of electronic books, which will of course in time affect the availability of libraries and book shops. But by far the worst experience has been giving my grandson a copy of The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. He said that his class had started to read it English lessons, but then somebody brought in the DVD, so they didn’t need to read anymore.

At nearly 70 years of age I worry about what someone might write in 10 or 60 years time. I try hard to embrace change and welcome and enjoy the many changes I have seen in my life so far, but I have to admit regret that so many changes do not mean improvements.

I have not even touched on the free availability of junk food, the lack of organised exercise at school, the impromptu games playing out of school, 24 hour TV and the total impact on children’s health, but they could be even more fatal than electronic developments.

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