Sunday 25 July 2010

Robert Burns, Table Tennis And Teenagers

Long ago on Sunday 6 June 2010 when the world was a less complicated place there was an item on this blog about being by the statue of Robert Burns and with tourists. Yesterday, we were there again taking advantage of the weather and time to spare. The elephants had gone to whoever was the highest bidder. They were replaced by two table tennis tables staffed by skilled players on a scheme to encourage young people to take up the sport in the name of Olympic Legacy subsidies.

As no young people were coming forward I lurched out of my seat and knowing that Burns fixed gaze was on my back and wondering as a man who had a sharp eye for the follies and foibles of man what he might have made of table tennis picked up a bat; explaining to the appointed player that it was around thirty years since I last played and the old eyes were not quite as sharp.

It took a couple of minutes to get used to the metal table and the spongy bat and the other player was trying to be fair but then one went fast to the end of the table and I had to take it with a running back hand drop shot which he managed to return for me to work his corners then finish the point with a sliced fore hand which he missed. He remarked that I had played before and asked if I had played in a league.

I admitted it with the excuse that it was around sixty years ago when I was only a teenager. This was in an age before TV and the big recording and media companies had managed to get control of young people to organise, manipulate and segment their interests according to their production and marketing requirements.

The one TV channel; that of the BBC, was even worse than the present. No youngster with any self respect would be caught watching it. In Coronation Week of 1953 the sole sop to the masses was a Burl Ives (wikipedia) programme. I missed both having other engagements.

The baby boomer generation and others like to claim that it was in the 1960’s that it all changed and that somehow before then it was all innocence, ignorance and strict class differences and all the rest. But these are all people who never worked on a factory floor or in manual work or served in the Armed Forces.

It is difficult to explain how flexible we were about things and how little we worried about what to listen to or what entertainment to enjoy in the age before TV. It is also difficult to explain how we managed to enjoy being young without all the technical kit, advertising junk and attention grabbing visuals there are today.

We did what we did and what we liked doing with others of our age. The idea of going to a concert of music from the 1920’s with our parents to suit the promoters back catalogue and media men would have had us rolling about with laughter.

With most of the post war and 1950’s generations of teenagers leaving school at 15 to go into industrial or commercial work and almost all of them having had a lot of experience of street play and/or going about in groups of one sort or another. We may not have said much but we may have known a good deal more about the world.

In the 1940’s and earlier was a generation who had left school earlier and had gone through two world wars. There is a good deal of cinema and newsreel footage featuring largely suburban families and images of what people in authority either wanted it or imagined it to be.

Reality for the masses was very different. There was scant coverage of them and all the disrespect, cynicism and raucous aspects of their lives were heavily censored out. There are some fleeting but bowdlerised references in films but always from film makers and script writers looking down rather than around.

What had changed by the 1960’s was the idea of what life might be had. By then the antibiotic and sulfa drugs had begun to transform medicine and life expectancy. Again it is difficult to explain what it was like before modern drugs existed. This was something that connected us to past generations to the time of Burns and beyond. Life could be a very fragile thing.

It was at the beginning of the 1960’s that National Service ended and many men no longer had to work out their angst in a barracks or abroad. There is an unrealised effect of this in that with the end of Empire and major reduction in the Armed Forces large numbers of public schoolboys were coming into industrial and commercial management and the public services in the UK.

Suddenly we were being managed not by men who had worked their way up but by well connected chaps with alleged leadership capabilities. The trouble was that my lot did not like being led like this by men whose attitudes related more to simply giving orders to underlings than to being aware of what was what. It is little wonder that the class war began to rear an uglier head at this time.

Another problem was that the limited number of university places became more contested by candidates from public and private schools. With the ending of the London social season as the old agricultural aristocrat order and its provincial equivalents had finally collapsed, this meant more daughters looking for an education beyond and distinct from finishing schools. The Universities were duly expanded.

In London it was substantially these groups with a few special additions recruited from below that promoted the Swinging Sixties, always a more RADA and West End phenomenon than Rotherham or Worcester. Groups that had never had an ordinary urban or rural teenage existence began to tell us all how to be a teenager.

On 6 June I mentioned that by the Burns statue is a memorial to the WW1 Camel Corps that served in Palestine and Arabia between 1916 and 1918. In the picture above you can just see a part of his statue. This time I took a close look at the names. As well as those from the UK there were many from Australia and some from New Zealand.

Amongst all of them are a number of surnames that Burns would have recognised and many would have been teenagers or very little older.

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