Tuesday, March 5, 2013

England Today: As Myopic & Insular As Ever

British Europe

England was once a grand nation, ruling an empire, but that was long ago before the Second World War. Despite it being a financial-services centre, and thriving in arts and literature, England has suffered decline over the years as a liveable nation, due in great part to its lack of vision, says Lorna Salzman: "Thanks to the union-assisted neglect of manufacturing and production of decent consumer goods, domestic production of just about anything except Stilton cheese has almost entirely disappeared, replaced by financial services, and has allowed the working and lower middle classes to continue to live in a squalor unknown on the continent."


by Lorna Salzman

There is the famous if apocryphal British weather report: "Fog descends over Channel; continent cut off". Since then, England has pretty much refused to acknowledge the continent's existence.

England's passive citizenry and its proverbial "stiff upper lip" may have gotten them through World War II but also allowed the country's formerly admirable institutions such as education and transportation to fall into disarray and deterioration due to privatization. It has allowed the enrichment of the yuppie generation in greater London and southeast to help itself to everything on the dinner table and turn much of formerly charming London into a huge faceless collection of high-rise office buildings, with squalid industrial estates and council (public) housing on a par with the old Soviet Union spreading east and south. A recent British film, "Fish Tank," showed this slice of life in all its ugliness.

Thanks to the union-assisted neglect of manufacturing and production of decent consumer goods, domestic production of just about anything except Stilton cheese has almost entirely disappeared, replaced by financial services, and has allowed the working and lower middle classes to continue to live in a squalor unknown on the continent. The country blithely blunders on, in its tunnel vision (pardon the pun) pretending that it is as advanced and cultivated a country as any in western Europe despite the fact that western Europe's quality of life AND standard of living for all classes is the best in the world and about 100 times better than the UK (or the US for that matter).The major advance in living standards since the war seems to be the disappearance of green coloring from the peas on the plate.

Hardly a squeak was ever heard when Thatcher and Major were giving away the transportation systems or when the price of travel became so prohibitive (not to mention unreliable and downright dangerous) that everyone was forced into their private cars despite the high cost of fuel. Hardly a squeak is uttered when new major highways and airport expansions are planned that will further destroy what little is left of the countryside, or when upscale "improvement" with massive parking lots and new structures is proposed for Stonehenge (horrendous). A Neolithic tea house cannot be far behind.

And of course there is the deplorable deterioration, due to lack of government funding, of the magnificent cathedrals, arguably the most beautiful in the world, which is ignored by the government because they are technically church property even though hardly anyone attends church and the churches are England's major tourist and cultural attractions. I need not underscore the highway/truck/car nightmare that characterizes greater London and the incredible blight of second rate residential development in the south east and of course the disfigurement of almost the entire east and much of southern coast of England. Much of England since the 1950s now excels in its special brand of ugliness. You know things are bad when the local cathedral towns hold raffles and hold out the hat for contributions in order to make urgent repairs of these superb monuments.

Having lived for long periods in Italy and France, having visited eastern Europe and every western European country except Portugal, Sweden and the Baltics, and having spent weeks at a time on numerous visits to England since the 1950s (one of our daughters lives in London), and comparing England of the 1950s to England today, I find little has changed there. England is still living as it did in the post war period, both materially and culturally. It must be a shock for the English when they visit the continent and realize that they have been deprived of beauty, amenities, and general respect for the requirements of a civilized society.

Perhaps, like the US, not having suffered from the mass destruction of World War II, it was never able to muster any compassion or dedication to social justice and to the needs of citizens. Nor has there been much resistance against anything except fox hunting, which I agree should be banned but which hardly compares to the cultural collapse of the whole country. (London has one thing in common with Paris: a "retro metro" which stops running every night at a little past midnight, thus forcing people to drive into the city centers on weekends when they plan a big night on the town. However, it is reported that Paris has extended the weekend hours.)

In the immediate post-war period the English were arguably the most civilized, decent people on earth, not materialistic, very tolerant, compassionate. But once capitalism and the free market took control, the country descended into cultural and environmental barbarism. Aside from its accomplishments in theater and literature, it remains the west's equivalent of the third world. I marvel at the stoicism that is needed to put up with it today. Stiff upper lip is what you call it, right? I call it submission.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.