Whatever happened to Peter?

Suddenly I feel very old!

The other day, I stumbled across some film footage shot just weeks after I was born. It was a shaky Super8 film of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee parade processing along Grasmere Road in Lightwater. This was where we lived until I was just six years old. Did Surrey County Council mark my birth? No, but it did open a brand new bypass!

Indeed, nothing much of interest ever happened in this sleepy backwater. In an era when civil rights activists were marching through the streets of Londonderry and anti-Vietnam War protesters were thronging university campuses in America, the residents of Lightwater did find themselves ineffably drawn towards the intoxicating excitement of political agitation. Many local residents recall with pride the day that they took to the streets to protest against the proposed bus route up Ambleside and MacDonald Road. As you can see from the photograph above, the fearless citizens of Lightwater lived life on the edge and often engaged in heroic acts of civil disobedience. This image captures the beginning of a minor insurrection which occurred in 1973 when the local council threatened to withdraw the Lightwater to Bagshot School bus. Imagine growing up in such a politically tense atmosphere. Such excitement would not be seen again in Lightwater – not, at least, until Brian Blessed agreed to open the local library in 1997.

All joking aside, I often feel a little nostalgic for my childhood. I do not remember much about the 1970s; not least because I was only two and a half years old when the decade concluded. However, I am tempted to fall into the trap of thinking that, somehow, life seemed much less complicated. Of course, that is because I am viewing this period during the distortive prism of early childhood memory. In reality, I would argue that the world has improved immeasurably since the Seventies. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The average life expectancy in the UK has risen by over six years since 1977.
  2. Equality has become enshrined in law and we now live in an increasingly inclusive society that celebrates diversity.
  3. The digital revolution has led to a democratisation of knowledge which is as revolutionary as the Reformation itself.
  4. Only about 6% of School leavers went to university in 1977. That figure now stands at over 50%
  5. The twenty-first century is one of the most peaceful periods in human history.
  6. The Fall of the Berlin Wall liberated many from the yoke of tyranny, and the end of Apartheid gave hope to millions in South Africa and around the world.
  7. IVF has allowed more than 8 millions childless couples to experience the joy of parenthood.
  8. Environmental issues are now firmly on the agenda.

I would suggest that these are all reasons for us to celebrate. Until 1970, Britain was still sending child migrants to Australia and, at the time of my birth, a war of independence was raging in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia – one of the last remnants of the British Empire. Society was still censorious in its judgement of unmarried mothers and mothers returning to the workplace. However idyllic my own childhood, it is difficult to conclude that socially or culturally, the 1970s constituted some halcyon period for people who were marginalised by reason of their gender, race or sexuality.

A group of children from a school in Stevenage were among those sent to Fairbridge School in Australia.

If you ever want to measure how far we have progressed in terms of education then I would suggest watching The Best of Days, a 1977 Panorama fly-on-the-wall documentary which was filmed in Faraday High School, an East Acton Comprehensive.

This programme was hugely controversial for it portrayed a troubling school environment which served to highlight the fault lines that had emerged in the British education system after the Second World War. Out of 170 Sixth Formers at Faraday High, just six progressed to university. A sense of hopelessness pervades the film and for those who wanted to criticise comprehensives and hark back to the days of secondary moderns and grammar schools, found plenty of ammunition in this film.

‘Mini’ is a documentary which dates from 1973. It considers the case of eleven-year-old Michael Cooper who was kept under lock and key due to his tendency to light fires. Louis Theroux selected this documentary as one of the most important pieces of television to have been made during the Seventies. Set in a County Durham young offenders home, the film follows the efforts of kindly psychiatrists and social workers as they probe the mind of Michael and struggle to make sense of his behaviour. Michael was charismatic, intelligent, articulate and yet deeply troubled. Watching this fascinating documentary, I was struck by how our capacity to respond effectively and compassionately to mental health issues has undoubtedly improved, though there is still a long way to go.

Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper

Finally, the first teenager I ever knew was a boy called Peter. Home-tutored by my mother, Peter had served time in a young offenders institution for stealing motorbikes. From what I remember, Peter was an affable and charming boy and, occasionally, he would kick a ball around the garden with me, once his lessons had concluded. I imagine Peter was something of a reluctant scholar. I last saw Peter in 1981 and I have often wondered how his life has turned out in the forty years that have passed since. Peter would be in his mid-fifties now and I dare to hope that he has charmed his way through life. The same could not be said for Michael Cooper, who has struggled in adulthood despite a brief career as an actor and professional magician. Both Peter and Michael were dealt with by a bleak criminal justice system which seemed conditioned to marginalise them rather than rehabilitate them.

It is worth remembering that many aspects of our lives have improved. It is a blessing that some of the bleaker aspects of the 1970s are now consigned to history. In all realms of life, not least education and social care, we have made vast strides in recent decades and this should fill us with hope and a very real sense of confidence in the future.