Reflections On Growing Up In A Victorian England!

When I was a young boy, looking back I think that it would be fair to say that I was born at the end of an era. The values that were instilled into me, my siblings and most of our generation were traceable directly to the Victorians. Indeed my dad would tell a little family story that involved Queen Victoria herself, and my grand father. Who, when he was aged about ten was walking in the grounds of a stately home in Nottinghamshire with his mother, he was dressed in the uniform of a young sailor of the then victorious British navy. The story states that a rather grand horse and carriage approached the couple, it drew level and stopped. The window was opened and the Queen herself spoke to my grandfather and told him how smart he looked.

Now, this can of course be dismissed as imaginary nonsense, but for many years the family owned a rather grand portrait of a certain Nottinghamshire based Knight of the realm who had served in high office and was a known friend of the Queen and royal family. Apparently back in the day a senior member of the Birks family had been a highly respected aide, hence the family being allowed to walk the grounds. Either way fact or fiction, the simple truth was that we were taught from a young age to always say please and thank you. Never speak unless spoken to by an adult. The consequences of breaking this code were swift and memorable, back then a sharp rebuke was one thing but a short, sharp, smack on the backside was taken for granted. It was the done thing, everyone knew that and it was never challenged by society as those were the rules, as upheld by such classic TV programmes of the age like Dixon of Dock Green. This was always introduced by a friendly but stern local “Bobby”. He would then explain the nature of the next hours show, where normally justice was administered to the wayward young by a member of the Constabulary, who would then take the naughty lad home, where his dad would give the Bobby a well deserved beer and then deliver a second beating, just to make the point. Funny thing that it seemed to work, back then and was accepted as a social norm.

Indeed when I was 13 years of age the whole of the entire third year, of Saint Philips Boys Grammar School were punished by then head of PE, a certain Mr. Jim McPhee, formally a professional footballer player, who was injured early in his career. This left him bitter and sadistic in equal measure, I can’t recall whatever heinous crime had been committed that meant that all 130 boys had to line up, extend our left hand, one at a time and then wait for Mr. McPhee to use his favourite weapon of choice, an exceptionally large slipper, or trainer, or huge very hard piece of plastic shoe, to hit you as hard as he could. I can still recall the shock of the pain to this day. And because this was the era of stiff upper lips, and chaps doing the right thing and playing the game, the test of character was simple. When Mr McPhee came down the line (stopping at one point to have a well deserved drink of water, after all this hitting people was thirsty work), he would stand before the next boy and say put your hand out, if you removed it, as instinctively you felt like doing, then the next lad next to you would get two. So, it was a first class wheeze to get chaps to stick up for each other. This of course was a long held school tradition, and the plaques paying respects to the former old boys who had laid down their lives in both world wars were testimony to the ethos of looking out for each other.

So, what then would the ghosts of yesteryear make of todays modern Britain in 2019? I honestly don’t think that they would recognise any of it, except maybe the iconic and noble institutions that have survived hundreds of years of history. As typified by the mother of democracy, respected around the world, I speak of course of the Houses of Parliament, where no matter what crises has befallen this great nation. The House has always been the home of debate, disagreement, and ultimately invoked the laws and policies to guide this once great nation. Or so I thought.

Last night as usual I was awake most of the night watching the late BBC news where they have a special show that follows the live events of everything that is said and done in the house of commons. The 3 minutes of national news coverage only ever shows the highlights, which were frankly appalling enough, but the detailed analysis was actually on a different level of awfulness. Indeed the Speaker of the House today tabled a debate to discuss codes of conduct to prevent a repeat of the shocking scenes. So, what has actually happened that we have descended into this pit of anger, vitriol, and abuse, never seen before in living memory. It is not my job to offer reasons as to why we at this point, but I suppose that it maybe reflects what sort of a society we have become. Good manners and common decency are hard to come by, young school children carry knives and kill each other, old people once cherished and respected are marginalised and lonely. Neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone has their head down reading what ever Steve Jobs built to stop real people talking to each other. However, I personally prefer to believe in the positivity of the human condition, this blog started talking about my father, so it is apt to end with a favourite quote of his. He used to say “Hope Beats Eternal In The Human Heart”……..Enough said.

Written by Austin Birks

September 25, 2019

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