Since this column last appeared three weeks ago, my family has been blessed with two great causes for celebration. The first, on July 25, was my revered mother-in-law’s 98th birthday.
Then, three days later, at 5.45 am, our daughter-in-law was safely delivered of our first granddaughter — an exceptionally beautiful baby girl (and I say this as a flint-hearted curmudgeon who has never been much into babies… until now).
But that’s enough soppiness. The conjunction of these two events has set me thinking as never before about the passage of time and how close every one of us is to history.
After the astonishing changes my mother-in-law has witnessed over her 98 years on this Earth — many for the better, many for the worse, most of them unpredicted — I’m not fool enough to try to predict what will happen over the course of what I pray will be Etta’s similarly long life [File photo]
Indeed, it is far from improbable to suggest that between them, the lifespans of these two members of my family — the lovely Etta Rose Utley, born on Tuesday last week, and her great-grandmother, born in 1922 and still going strong in 2020 — may turn out to cover at least 200 years.
To put that into perspective, think back a couple of centuries from today and you’ll find yourself in the reign of George IV, formerly the Prince Regent, just five years after the Battle of Waterloo and three after the death of Jane Austen.
Or consider how much has changed in the lifetime of my dear mother-in-law.
On the day of her birth, Lenin was in charge of Russia, Warren G. Harding was President of the United States, the British Empire covered 24 per cent of the world’s land area, the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Great Depression were still seven years into the future — and in Germany, a little-known rabble-rouser called Adolf Hitler had recently been appointed leader of the newly formed Nazi Party.
This upstart was not to achieve much global notoriety until the following year, when he launched the failed Munich Putsch. World War II, in which Mrs U’s mother served as a military ambulance driver, was not to break out until she was 17.
In the extraordinary circumstances of the times, of course, neither her 98th birthday nor Etta’s arrival in the world could be celebrated with the fanfare they deserved.
To mark the former, there could be no traditional gathering of my mother-in-law’s enormous clan of daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, nieces, cousins, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (Etta is the 14th of her ‘greats’).
But I’m happy to report that all five of her daughters were with their mother on that momentous occasion, doing their best to keep their social distance — though I suspect with only limited success.
Don’t ask me if this was strictly within the rules, as they applied on that particular day. Like most of us, I’ve long lost track of the ever-changing diktats from Whitehall about how many of us are allowed to meet, and where. Frankly, I’ve stopped caring.
But before you cart my wife and her four sisters off to jail, let me testify in mitigation that after all these months of isolation, the ancient matriarch herself was overjoyed to see them — and I bet she would have been miserable if she’d been condemned to spend her 98th (and, the way things are going, perhaps the rest of her life) cut off from them.
Here at home, in the year Etta’s great-grandmother was born, David Lloyd George (above) was the Prime Minister. George V was on the Throne, the first of four monarchs under whose reigns my mother-in-law has lived
Whatever that scaremonger-in-chief Professor Neil Ferguson may say, when he’s not breaking the lockdown rules himself, it would have been downright cruel of them to stay away.
As for the beautiful Etta Rose, Mrs U and I had the joy of our first meeting with her at the weekend, though we were careful to keep our distance in our son’s garden. I’d love to have held the new arrival in my arms. After an anxious pregnancy in lockdown, however, our daughter-in-law is understandably strict about these things, and I didn’t dare beg for the privilege.
But back to the broad sweep of history. Here at home, in the year Etta’s great-grandmother was born, David Lloyd George was the Prime Minister. George V was on the Throne, the first of four monarchs under whose reigns my mother-in-law has lived.
OK, that’s not as impressive as the record of my late grandparents, who lived under six reigns — those of Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI and our present Queen, God bless her. But it certainly beats the one reign I’ve experienced, as a mere stripling of 66, born in Coronation year, 1953.
When the 98th birthday girl entered this world, motoring and aviation were still in their infancy, few people had telephones, nobody owned a TV, an inside lavatory was seen as a luxury and the National Health Service wasn’t to come into existence until she was well into her mid-20s.
Oh, and it was not until she was three months old that a small outfit was formed, with a handful of staff, in two rooms on the second floor of an office block in London.
Who could have guessed at the time that the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then called, would mushroom into the bureaucratic BBC behemoth we know today, with well over 22,000 politically correct employees on what is effectively the public payroll?
After the astonishing changes my mother-in-law has witnessed over her 98 years on this Earth — many for the better, many for the worse, most of them unpredicted — I’m not fool enough to try to predict what will happen over the course of what I pray will be Etta’s similarly long life. But I will say what I hope for my granddaughter as she grows up.
I’m not just thinking of the obvious, by which I mean that I fervently hope she will enjoy happiness and fulfilment in a world that finally turns its back on war (a fat chance, I grant you).
No, I hope, too, that she grows up to experience the freedom of thought and speech that my own fortunate generation of Britons enjoyed, before the venomous tyranny of social media cowed so many of our abject institutions into submission.
Indeed, I find it chilling that, these days, people risk ostracism — or even losing their jobs — for stating what I regard as the obvious truth that there are clear biological differences between the sexes.
Meanwhile, woe to the academic who dares suggest, after weighing up the evidence on both sides, that the British Empire did much good in the world, and not only harm.
In the minds of far too many of those charged with educating our young, truth doesn’t seem to matter any more.
It’s the same with the wretched BBC. Imagine the outraged fuss Auntie would have made — and rightly so — if a Right-wing political group had marched through Brixton the other day, wearing stab vests and paramilitary uniforms. The story would have led the bulletins for days.
Special features would have been commissioned to highlight the 1936 Public Order Act, introduced in response to Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts, which outlawed the wearing of uniforms to promote any political object.
But since the sinister black-shirted marchers in question were members of a group calling themselves the Forever Family Force — and they were demonstrating in support of the anti-capitalist, anti-police Black Lives Matter campaign — our national broadcaster reported the news with barely a hint of disapproval.
Perhaps it’s just because of my advancing age that I’ve come to think the BBC’s Left-wing bias has grown ten times worse since lockdown began.
But could it also be that the legions of bureaucrats responsible for complying with the Corporation’s Charter have been too busy sunning themselves in their gardens to care what the woke young programme-makers get up to?
Since the sinister black-shirted marchers in question were members of a group calling themselves the Forever Family Force — and they were demonstrating in support of the anti-capitalist, anti-police Black Lives Matter campaign — our national broadcaster reported the news with barely a hint of disapproval
Let’s just hope against hope that some sort of balance and historical perspective is restored when the lockdown ends.
I said earlier that I wouldn’t presume to predict what will happen over the span of my granddaughter’s lifetime.
But one thing I’ll forecast with at least a degree of confidence: the Corporation that came into existence in the year of her great-grandmother’s birth cannot, and will not, exist in anything like its present form by the time little Etta comes of age.
With a heavy heart, as one who grew up to love the BBC, I’ve come to believe that democracy and my granddaughter’s generation will be far better off without it.