My song today is ‘Call Me Irresponsible’. This 1962 song was composed by Jimmy Van Heusen, with lyrics written by Sammy Cahn. The song won the 'Academy Award for Best Original Song’ in 1963. It is believed that Van Heusen originally wrote the song for Judy Garland to sing at a CBS dinner. At that time, Garland had just signed to do ‘The Judy Garland Show’ on CBS, and the intent of the song was to parody her well-known problems. Garland later sang the song on the seventh episode of the show. Another account was that the song was originally written for Fred Astaire to sing in the film ‘Papa’s Delicate Condition’, but Astaire’s contractual obligations prevented him from making the film and the role went to Jackie Gleason who introduced the song. The song is filled with five-syllable words of which Cahn was said to be particularly pleased.
PLEASE CONSIDER THE LENGTHY PASSAGES OF WRITING BENEATH OPTIONAL TO READ.
We are all free to choose but none of us is freed from the consequences of our choice, and it is the bad consequences of some choices which label us ‘irresponsible’. Given the better part of a lifetime working with people’s problem behaviour, I am only too aware of how often most of us choose the easier option as a means of avoidance as opposed to confronting problems. I learned that the greatest part of people problems is our tendency to avoid, evade or even deny the consequences of our actions and the part we play in producing our own problems, or at least aggravating and intensifying them!
The single thing most frequently denied by these problem makers is the truth/facts of the situation. Truth is often like unwanted surgery; it cures but pains and is not always comfortable to live with afterwards. They find self-deception to be an easier option, which is likened to taking a painkiller that can provide more instant relief but never addresses the cause of the pain and can leave the taker living with adverse side effects. I believe that most people would learn from their mistakes easier if they stopped spending so much time and energy denying them.
Then, there are some people who live their lives as drama queens by turning every inconvenience that befalls them into a personal crisis. It is as though they cannot function without creating social storms and then complain and whine when crisis after crisis rains down on them. They make sure that they are always a part of an explosive situation as they are the ones who plant the bombs of self-destruction. They bring down upon their own head a crown of chaotic consequences which evoke the ‘look-at-poor-me’ cry of whinge and complaints. Give me honest to goodness ‘truth’ over insincere conscientious convenience any day of the week. My mother used to say, “You will hurt me less, Billy, if you slap me across my face with the truth than kiss me with a lie”. One of the reasons people do not always want to hear the truth is that to acknowledge the existence of a bad situation requires changing it!
I was born in November 1942, during the ‘Second World War’ years, and although I was a mere child at the time, there was little of its aftermath that we were protected from. There was still rationing of food until 1950, and it took several decades before the British economy recovered and a more acceptable standard of living came into being for the working-class families in the country.
The contrast in the standard of living for the entire country over the past seventy years could not be greater. Things that full-time welfare claimants with a couple of children to bring up today take for granted and constantly complain is ‘insufficient’ would have been considered the height of luxury by the ordinary working classes of the 1940s with the breadwinner in full-time employment!
The increased prosperity in any nation brings with it an inevitable corresponding increase in citizen expectation, plus a lengthening of individual life span. Yet, few can claim to be starving in this country today, and from whichever source their food is derived, at least provision is made to the bulk of the population. None of this is to deny the current-day experience of perceived poverty by many citizens, but neither can I deny my own experience and those experiences of others of my age who formed the working-class households of my childhood years.
I hear the deafening outcry by every man, woman and child who believe themselves to be inadequately resourced and provided for in this country today, but let me tell you that however scarce your supply of food is today, it is a feast to what I had when I was growing up just after the ‘Second World War’. Those who complain about inadequate housing conditions never had to fetch water from a pump half a mile away instead of turning a tap today for their instant supply. Neither were they obliged to bathe in a tin tub of second and third-hand water because of the lack of money to heat up clean water for the next bather in line. Even the rough sleepers of today do not wear trousers with patched arses or have to walk in holed shoes with nothing but cardboard strips between the sole of the foot and the stony ground or damp pavement. Even refugees fleeing the poverty of third world countries across the other side of the world are seen wearing designer gear and footwear that costs more to buy than my parents ever had to provide for the family food any month of the year.
There is simply no comparison with either the material expectation and the poverty of the late 1940s and today, and people who imagine that they are worse off now than the population was then are simply living in a world of make-belief. Many were the nights when the young in large families were sent to bed early because of having no food to eat. As for bed blankets, I still recall when I wore my coat during the day, and it added extra cover to my bed at night.
Indeed, there were many times in my day when children from working-class households who became patients in the hospital for a broken leg might not go home immediately after hospital discharge. Many children were considered undernourished and would spend a few weeks at a Convalescent Home before returning home. What was the purpose you may ask? It was to feed us up with nourishing food that we could never afford at home in a large working-class family. I recall two such Convalescent Home experiences which I welcomed as a holiday; one in Arthington, and one next door to the beach holiday camp of Butlins at Skegness on the Lincolnshire coastline of North England. On each occasion, I arrived back home much weightier than I had been when I left.
As for millionaire footballers like Marcus Rasford agitating that the government paid for children’s meals during school holiday periods, pull the other one. Incidentally, I am not saying that my own father was as good a footballer as Marcus Rashford, but at the same age as Rashford, dad also played soccer for County Kilkenny and even went on to play for the Irish national squad. The biggest difference to then than now was that my dad did not earn millions of pounds monthly like Marcus. Indeed, none of the National squad was paid a wage. All they ever received was travelling expenses and the glory of being selected to play for one’s country!
I do believe that the average citizen took greater responsibility for the consequences of their own actions in the immediate post-war years, which is often alien to the present time. When you broke the law of the land in my youth, you received a punishment commensurate with the gravity of the offence committed. The punishments might range from a physical cuff around the head (the equivalent of a policeman’s warning to an apple thief raiding a private orchard of another) or a fine for not having a wireless (radio) or a dog licence, or a few years imprisonment for burglary, or thirty years for a Post Office or Bank Robbery, and a life sentence for rape or the molestation of a child, and the capital punishment of hanging for killing a policeman in the execution of his duty!
And even if the law of the land did not punish the offender, the community in which the offender lived did! If you stole from an employer, you would be instantly sacked and all pension rights forfeited, and if you stole from a neighbour you would be instantly shamed in the community where you lived. When a young man fathered a child, he did the only thing expected of him and married the young woman, and she was also expected to accept the marriage proposal before bringing approbation on the ‘respectability’ of the family name. When a newly-wed man or woman fell out with their marriage partner and returned to their parent’s house for a bit of sympathetic support, the parents told them to get back to their husband or wife and sort things out themselves. Self-reliance was a parental expectation of all their children, and when their children did wrong, it was an explanation that the responsible parent sought and not the provision of excuses.
And, so it followed that as the child grew into adulthood, their sense of responsibility and duty also grew alongside them. Once an individual was an adult, a married person, and a parent, they were expected to deal with their own basic situation and not to look to one’s parents, friends, or the state to give them a ‘hand out’ because they refused to wear clothes to the cut of their cloth. Adult married children were not bailed out every other month by the bank of mum and dad. All children grew into adulthood understanding the crucial distinction between a ‘hand up’ and a ‘hand out’! It was considered that holding any type of work was honourable and being workshy was to be wholly disapproved of. I still recall what my father said one evening when the politician Norman Tebbit was talking about getting on his bike to look for a job. My father retorted, “Even bikes were scarce when work was short. They would be sold to buy food. Anyone wanting a job would have to walk up to ten miles a day asking at every firm they passed!”
Yes ‘self-respect’ and one's good name’ were the only things a poor person possessed. Either could be forfeited by one’s misconduct, but neither could ever be taken away from an individual by another. Neighbours losing community respect would be shunned by one’s neighbours during their period of penance. Respect for children, pregnant women, one’s parents, one’s elders and widows were inbred characteristics of the entire population, whatever their social class. These were the days when a handshake between two men and a spoken promise were as legally binding as any solicitor’s contract.
Naturally, there is progression and regression that takes place in every generation, and my generation was both better and worse (in some respects) than today’s generation. In the main, society was more racist and sexist in my day, and more intolerant toward gays, more unaccepting of unmarried pregnant women, and despising of all violent and sexual offenders.
Where my generation and the generation today are undoubtedly the same is in the following. Both generations are more favourable toward the native than the foreigner, more favourable towards the richer than the poorer, and more deferential towards the more educated than the illiterate. In these three areas, little has changed despite superficial claims to the contrary.
Where I believe we were better then than now was in the’ social cohesion’ of society. We had more in common with whatever social class we occupied then than we do today, and each class structure represented a set of values that were more acceptable to that class. As for anyone who believes we have no class structure today and have deconstructed all social class-difference, I am afraid they deceive themselves. The style of the garment that cloaks a person may have changed from generation to generation, but the person beneath the clothes still treasures the differences between themselves and another, along with their aspiration to climb any social ladder placed at their feet. Difference, distinction and discrimination will always remain a constant in any society of any generation; such is human nature. Some people will always believe themselves to be better than others and lesser than some.
Take for example an English person’s home which their labour, sweat and hard-earned earnings allowed them to eventually own outright. Now, place that old person in a ‘Residential Home when they become senile and are unable to be safely looked after by their family, somewhere in a country where neither national nor local government has sufficient funds to pay for their continued care and upkeep. Let us assume that they will never live in their own house again, and also allow the local authority to sell the home of their resident, and pocket all the sale profit to pay towards the old person’s future Residential Care. Imagine the outcry? It matters not whether it is a house to the value of £50,000 or £1,000,000, the uniformed outcry is one of ‘unfairness’ as the expectation of all classes in England is that we do not pay taxes on the same earned income twice and that what we have purchased with our own taxed money will be left as an inheritance to our children when we die. That is the intrinsic expectation of every Englishman and woman of all classes.
Where we were better in my generation than to the generation of today was in having a more cohesive and self-reliant society. We also enjoyed a common code that was embedded in community values that were agreed upon and accepted by all. There was an indisputable community spirit that does not generally exist as widely as it did then (but has been witnessed in the present Covid-19 crisis). As I grew up, the neighbour looked after neighbour in times of need without being asked to, and the only time the neighbour pulled their curtains on during the day was to signify a death in the household. We looked out for each other’s back automatically, and as far as family responsibility went, it stretched throughout all living generations of the same family unit. We considered our children, ourselves, and our older family members to be the responsibility of the nuclear family and not the responsibility of the state.
We should never forget that poverty and wealth are ‘relative’ terms and always will be. What is poor to you, might be rich to another. Merely think about the third world countries in relation to our nation. One is less likely to consider oneself as being poor if you have more than the people around you, and vice versa.
However, what should not change and arguably does not change, however poor or rich we believe ourselves to be, is our responsibility to self, others, and the world in which we live. Though times change, and relative prosperity and poverty levels alter, personal ‘responsibility’ for both the ‘individual’ and the ‘collective’ should remain a constant trait in every generation, but unfortunately there has been nothing constant about the growth or maintenance of individual responsibility over the past seventy years. As the state has been pressed consistently to assume more financial responsibility for the individual, the individual has assumed less financial responsibly for themselves. Coming to expect and accept more state responsibility has unfortunately led to individuals paying a heavier price than they can know.
Have we never heard the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune!” We see day after day in our current pandemic crisis, our basic freedoms being taken from us one by one, by governments across the world overreaching in their desire to control our very daily movements. When this pandemic crisis passes by, these governments which took our freedoms will be most reluctant to return them to us, I strongly suspect. That is the real price our 'irresponsibility has cost us since the Second World War years.
Love and peace