1 OCTOBER 1988, Page 23


Ihave now got into the habit of making remarks on whatever changes I notice in English life, whether in the shops, streets, buses, or homes. This should not be set down to my having stepped into the tenth decade of life. Before I was 50 I saw changes for the English people which were far more revolutionary than those I am impatient about at present; for instance, the disappearance of British rule in India and of the British Empire on which the sun never set. I complain about the changes now because, looking at them in a spirit of philosophical inquiry, I am puzzled both by their nature and by the attitude to them taken up by the English people. In fact, the attitude is in itself a change which I do not understand. Let me explain that. Whenev- er I speak about them with implied dis- approval I get a stereotyped answer: `Times have changed.' Those who give this reply to me do not realise that it is no answer at all, for every change must be either for the better or for the worse, however small either way. Till 1800, every change was regarded as a change for the worse. I shall give an example of how extreme that sort of judgment could be. In 1772, the editor of the London Magazine said this about the morals of English- women in his times: Nell Gwynne, though she was the loosest harlot in the king's bedchamber, was yet the modest lady in the drawing-room, and wore the chastest look. But our women, so distant are they from being ashamed of their follies, are sometimes the first to publish it; they glory in their infamy, and come forth in the fair face of the day, with all those lascivious airs which they carried from the adulterer's arms.

This was written, of course, in obedience to a European tradition almost 2,000 years old, for Horace had written that, 'our fathers, worse than our grandfathers, bore us who are still worse, and soon a more profligate generation will take our place.' But this attitude almost totally disappeared In the 19th century. Then every change was regarded as a forward step, due to science, sanitation, education, humanitarianism, and democracy. 'I believe in progress', became the opening words of a new credo. It was challenged only in 1920 by Dean Inge in his famous Romanes Lecture. But

he did not even then carry much convic- tion, and was given the cognomen of The Gloomy Dean'.

At present, however, there is another change of attitude: an acceptance of changes without approval or disapproval. This is the state of mind of the Englsh people which puzzles me. But before I mention a few of the changes, I would give an example of no change of attitude. I

came upon it very recently after having forgotten it. When I came to Oxford in 1970, I at first lived in the centre of the town and went for my morning walk to Christ Church Meadow. Even then I used to be amused to read a notice in the cobbled lane leading to it. It ran:

The meadow Keepers and Constables are hereby instructed to prevent the entrance into the meadow of all beggars, all persons in ragged or very dirty clothes, persons of improper character or who are not decent in appearance and behaviour.

The notice was still there when I went to the meadow recently, and what a joy it was to me to see the notice surviving in days when the entry of such persons even into the rooms of the undergraduates can no longer be prevented. I almost felt like Matthew Arnold.

How changed is here each spot man makes or fills!

In the two Hinkseys nothing keeps the same.. •

But suddenly he saw the elm on Ilsley Downs, and heartened by that wrote:

Roam on! the light we sought is shining still. Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill. . .

I have seen greater changes not only in the two Hinkseys, but even in the colleges, which Matthew Arnold would not have thought possible. Nevertheless, upon seeing that notice I did say to myself that even if only by a notice Oxford still proclaims her loyalty to lost causes.

Ishall now come to the actual changes which have made me set down what I have written so far. I came first to England in 1955 at the age of 57, and was bound to visit Stratford-upon-Avon. There I saw a Shakespeare play, but also bought some Regency silver. I made out a cheque and said to the lady who ran the shop: 'Please send the goods to my London address after you have cashed this cheque.' She replied at once: 'I am giving you the goods now.' I told her that I was only a visitor for two days and she knew nothing about me. She only said: 'We know our customers.' To- day, I am asked to show my bank card even if I give a cheque for £5. I do not have a cheque card, nor shall T ever get one. But also I do not make use of the cheque book for only £5.

In the same year, when staying at Cam- bridge, I was discussing the shopping facili- ties with the young lady who was showing me the place. In the course of the talk I mentioned a street in London, and spoke about its shops. She observed: 'Frightfully cheap!' Nowadays when people see some- thing on me they ask me where I got it. I give the name of my shop. I can do so because one thing I never do is to 'shop around'. Immediately, I get the exclama- tion: 'Isn't that shop expensive!' Again, nowadays, when I give a note, the change is counted penny by penny on my palm. I say impatiently: 'Please shove that in. In my time no gentleman ever counted the change.' I might add that even in India I never looked at the change. Again, in almost every shop I see 'Thieves will be prosecuted,' or some such notice which proclaims that I am a potential thief. I get so irritated that I say to the shop assistants, pointing to that notice: 'In my time no gentleman would have entered a shop which displayed such a notice.'

In 1968, when I stayed in England for six months, I went to a Bond Street tailor to order a jacket. After the measurement was taken I asked if I had to give an advance. The assistant replied: 'No, for the cheque will not go to our accounts until the order has been complied with. We shall send the jacket to your address and the bill.' That was done, and, of course, the goods were left without any payment.

Iwent to the Bodleian regularly from 1968 to about 1980, and was never asked to show my admission card. Now I have to show it every time I go there. I am told that there have been thefts from it, and admis- sion has been made stricter. So, even in the Bodleian I am treated as a potential thief. I would ask those who give the standard answer to my remarks on such changes to consider if only saying 'Times have changed' is an adequate reaction to them.