The common life in Britain has been on the wane for over half a century and may, if we’re not careful, be finally killed off by the pandemic.
British people used to live, work, worship, drink, eat, and travel together, but now they increasingly do so alone. This development underpins the phenomenon of modern alienation and isolation, which has led to an increasingly unhappy and unharmonious nation. In virtually all walks of life, activities which we once undertook communally with friends, associates, or in family groups are now done alone and in private. Where we once shared we now hoard, what was proximate is now remote, and what was experienced in common is now encountered alone.
The first victim of our war against the COVID-19 pandemic was communal office life. The closure of workplaces is merely the latest example of the doors being closed on our life in common. We used to live together; often in extended families, or as lodgers, or in houses in multiple occupancy. Now we seem to aspire to be like the Swedes and enjoy total privacy in our studios or one bedroom flats. That the public washhouse, which convened entire neighbourhoods in Victorian and Edwardian times, gave way to the private bathroom was undoubtedly progress. However, the family bathroom is now itself giving way to a modern fetish for ensuite bathrooms which are, weirdly, often furnished with two separate ‘his and her’ wash basins. Why it is beyond some contemporary couples to share something as trivial as a sink is a matter for the psychologist. What’s next? His and her beds or houses?
Gone are the packed matinees on a Saturday afternoon – now replaced by people staying indoors, breathing stale air and gazing at screens all hours of the day. We’re entering the age of private cinema as surely as we are the private gym. What was a grand shared experience has become a narrower private one. Even sex, the data shows, is becoming a private matter. The ubiquity of pornography is making the old joke ‘sex is ok, but I prefer the real thing’ a reality. Perhaps this provides a clue as to why Britain’s Total Fertility Rate has plummeted well below replacement level – which if it continues will eventually result in the country simply fading away. Those who govern us are indifferent to this and to its impact on our culture, preferring instead to simply import new human ‘commodities.’
And then there’s the loss of our pubs. With each pub closure, part of the fabric of British society is diminished. It removes from the public scene a forum of warmth, open debate, friendship, and possible sanctuary. Inns have also played a vital role in establishing and reinforcing our embedded rights for pubs, which have made a greater contribution to the development of English democracy than is generally realised. Genuine free speech and the ventilation of unpalatable facts must occur face to face rather than via some dreadful app. The making of a political point in a pub requires one to be able to justify it, the cowardice of an anonymous persona being unavailable. Pubs are certainly closer to the spirit of the Athenian Stoa than Twitter. Dr Johnson was surely right when he wrote in 1776 that there ‘is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves so well as a capital tavern’. Drinking at home alone is simply no replacement – and is probably worse for general public health.
Remember when children used to walk to school? Now they are shuttled in private cars which competitively fly-park at the school gates. Gone is the walk to school in the fresh air, now rendered impossible in many localities due to noxious car fumes. And what about school dinners? Lunchtimes which used to be experienced – or suffered – in common with liver in gravy on Wednesday and fish on Friday are now replaced by pupils grazing informally from their own lunchboxes on a diet of Kit Kats, Coke, and crisps. A preoccupation with personal choice combined with dietary, allergen, and religious requirements are making the school meal, cooked in the kitchen from basic ingredients and eaten together, a thing of the past. To suggest its reinstatement would, of course, be seen as a rights violation.
As the pandemic ratchets-up further, shop closures contribute to the destruction of the high street, another arena which affords social interaction and human proximity. The city, town, or village centre is the quintessential social hub. The queue at the baker, the butcher; or more frequently the Post Office, is a necessary curative to modern impatience. The town centre is where we interact and see what one and other is doing out in the elements. The shift to soulless online retail – which affords no chit chat about the weather, no gossip, no eye to eye contact – seems unstoppable. As these powerful online monopolies demonstrate ever greater strength year after year, our liberal political class shows increasing indifference to resist them.
Most Sunday mornings I cycle to one of a number of favourite churches in the Northumberland hinterland (St Michael’s at Warden, St John’s at Healey, St Giles at Chollerton.) Apart from the odd occasion in which the rural service rota provides an itinerant Anglican priest, they are empty. As I sit alone and survey the stained glass, empty choir stalls, and brass plaques with the names of members of the important local families; I ponder buildings which were not just places of belief, but were places of comradeship and belonging. I think it unlikely that the parishioners will return.
Those of us who lament the loss of the common life are often accused of wanting a better yesterday. This is untrue. We want a better tomorrow and believe it depends – almost entirely – on what we can still do together.