Monday, 14 July 2014

Past Imperfect

I just finished a Julian Fellowes' novel (see the title of this post). I've passed it up time and again in charity shops as I wasn't that thrilled by his novel Snobs.  I'm a simpleton in my story preferences: I want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. Fellowes is far more complicated than that. Long ago I worked out that American-style thinking takes the practical A to B route. Things don't work that way in Britain or in Europe as a whole. I get the feeling they don't trust simplicity here.  In spite of having the end of this book reflecting complex social consequences that avoid white and black hats, I have to say I think this is perhaps my favourite of his works, including my beloved Gosford Park (he wrote the screenplay) and even Downton Abbey.

I'm thinking that Past Imperfect is a book to read at any time in your adult life, but perhaps best appreciated after the age of 50. I say this in part because as part of a prologue about the story behind this book, the author says

...each of us - those of us who live into our fifties anyhow - must negotiate our way through three, or even four completely distinct historical periods before we are allowed to rest. Periods with different philosophies, different truths, different social mores, different clothes.

Of course the underlying theme of most of Julian Fellowes' work is about the changing / unchanging fate of the upper classes in Britain. Other than living where I do and touring grand houses, my life has zero to do with Britain's upper classes, but it instantly hit me that I have actually experienced - negotiated - several historical periods. It's an odd realisation.

Growing up in suburban Oklahoma we were behind the times by about 10 years. I remember the stringent social rules of the 1950s/early 1960s, when ladies wore headscarves and my school clothes were shift dresses Mom made from my aunts' discarded circle skirts.  Children were seen and not heard, respectability was everything and most mothers were at home.

Then there were the late '60s and the 1970s. Fellowes remarks in his book that most of what is attributed to the sixties actually happened in the 1970s. I was so pleased to read that, as this is how I remember it.  As my year at high school edged towards draft age during the Vietnam war, we all seemed to split into groups with labels: hippies, bookworms (the pre-nerd word) jocks, cheerleaders, rednecks, soc's. The rich kids only came to my school in the summer to make up classes they'd failed at their private schools. I took up with a few of them as I worked towards early graduation. Funnily they seemed to find comfort in my mother's company. I was undecided where I fit with these labels and changed my clothes like costumes, drifting briefly everywhere except among the athletes; who knew I would one day run marathons? After high school I favoured ragged bell bottoms, peasant blouses and long hair, but had ambitions to attend college, not 'drop out'. I rebelled against the prim and proper rules, against having authority lean on me, but not against learning or earning.

Desk at Dyrham Park

Then the eighties, nineties and naughties all seemed roughly the same to me: my corporate life in suits and bobbed hair.  I loved my work and put most of my energy into it. Making poor choices of spouses meant work life  was usually more pleasant than home, at least until Bill.  It seemed to me that when I came to Britain in 1995 they were just really getting into the swing of 'work hard, play hard, spend it all' when I had settled more into the frugal lifestyle which didn't pick up here again until the Great Recession. There were apparently other recessions but they were under my radar. I was busy at work during the day, busy at night school evenings and weekends. Busy working to improve my future, to keep my brain engaged on something other than my home life. Most people I knew worked long and hard at whatever they did, trying to get ahead. Those with families struggled to balance work and family commitments. Eventually I realised that work and home had finally reversed for me: work was a nightmare, sucking my time and energy for its own purposes. I finally preferred to be at home.

I retired in 2007. I don't dress up much these days. I don't allow others to use me to to their own ends. As soon as I have that creepy feeling of being dragged against my will, I leave. Frugality is fashionable again, at least it is in my crowd.  I get the feeling that labels are 'important' again: politics are polarized, you either have or you have not. I don't see this as positive at all.  Here in Britain religion seems more about enjoying community than about exercising power, but I can't say I'm well informed. I feel wealthy not to have to work any more but I live carefully, conscious of my erratic income. My perception of society today is from the vantage of retirement and this has to be a skewed point of view. I'm not sure what are the social mores, the truths of today except that people seem to worry more about their employment security. The social safety net that existed in Britain for the past half century is eroded. I'm grateful to be out of the rat race, but though I'm reasonably far from the financial edge, I feel these are precarious times.  I wonder if there will be another period of relative tranquility in my lifetime.

Do you ever have the sense that you have 'negotiated several distinct historical periods'?


sanda said...

A thought provoking post. I must mull over the question and get back to you on that. Enjoyed reading your history. PS. I didn't even know Julian Fellows had authored books; I'll investigate them. Only know him from downton abbey!

Unknown said...

I am so delighted to have discovered your blog whilst on the hunt for more info on another "blogger" shall we say, Elizabeith Shackleton author of 1925- Touring Through France- which has been a delightful companion for a week as I keep going back and reading different sections. The post of yours from May 29, 2013 IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK came up during my search... I was enchanted to read the details of word origins and customs as they fit right in with the "antique" journey I had been reading and her remarks on French culture, customs, history, etc. I read several of your other fascinating posts,and couldn't believe I have found someone who actually many say they read but really don't, or don't have anything to say about what they do read. I feel like I have met "a kindred spirit." MDQ

Shelley said...

MDQ - So pleased you liked what you found. I had to go back to read what you were talking about and I must admit I enjoy reading my own blog, if that doesn't sound too terribly conceited! Hope you'll visit again.