Over the past few weeks, it has been riveting to discover just how radically our lives have changed since the Queen ascended the throne 60 years ago. Various statistical comparisons provide us with a salutary snapshot of how radically our lives have progressed for better – and in some cases for worse – in six decades.
Starting with the nation’s finances – don’t look away – in 1952, the UK’s wealth was only a hundredth of what it is today – GDP has grown from £15,983 million to £1,507,585 million. The country was just on the launchpad for a huge rocket-boost of growth after the austere war years.
Today, as we know, flat is the new growth – as good as it gets. But the state pension has gone up dramatically: now an individual on a full state pension gets £107.45 a week, then, at current values, they got £37.70. So it is not surprising that adult children in the Fifties were expected to support their parents financially as they got older.
Cue hollow laugh from we boomers who continue to give our grown-up children financial support. Retirement has changed dramatically, and will surely continue to do so. Nearly 40% of people now wish to continue to work beyond their official retirement date and are expected to live a great deal longer than the average 12 years expectancy men could look forward to in 1952. Now, a boy born in 2012 can expect to live at least 20 more years after retirement.
Two more statistics have startled me: 60 years ago, only 4.8% of children were born out of wedlock – now the figure has shot up to 46.8%. Back then only 14% of households had a TV and the BBC was the only channel, so there wasn’t much competition to knock What’s My Line? off its perch as the most popular TV programme during the Fifties. But there is something mildly depressing about finding that currently the most popular television programme is The X Factor.
This year is turning into one of celebration of older women. Led by the Queen’s remarkable performance as a Formula 1 86-year-old, suddenly, everywhere you look, there are women in their seventies and more setting a cracking pace for the rest of us. In the fascinating documentary, Off By Heart, documenting the final of a schools’ competition for reciting Shakespeare, there sprang onto our TV screens Cicely Berry who, at 87, is the revered voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, still conducting workshops with young actors.
Then we have Betty Smith and Beryl Renwick, with a combined age of 176, who walked away with a Sony Radio Award for their hilarious weekly ‘chat’ with producer David Reeves on Radio Humberside. Beryl and Betty are a wonderful double act – utterly natural, warm and hilariously funny. Their shtick is Ealing comedy meets end of the pier. Their pin-up is Michael Bublé, who I am confident to conjecture would be mesmerised by their carry-on.
To read of acts of spontaneous generosity is truly uplifting in an age where money is tight. The philanthropic roll of honour has recently been joined by a retired merchant banker who, looking on the Tate’s website recently, noticed some gaps in its contemporary collection.
With little more ado than a couple of telephone calls and one quiet lunch, the Tate is richer by nine immensely valuable pieces from the private collection of Ian and Mercedes Stoutzker. Works by Lucian Freud, RB Kitaj and Rachel Whiteread will now go to the Tate, which is quickly having to make room to show them this autumn. Mr and Mrs Stoutzker evidently have exquisite taste in pictures and great wealth, matched by generosity, imagination and a spirit of spontaneity.
Then there’s Jonathan Ruffer, yes another banker, but one informed by Christian values – and with not much money left. Last year he prevented the Church of England from disposing of an important group of 12 pictures by Francisco Zurbarán; he bought them for £15 million. After a tussle with the Church authorities that had to be badgered into accepting the gift, he is now spending a further £18 million restoring Bishop Auckland Castle as a home for the pictures and as a centre for telling the Christian history of the North East.
He recently wrote about giving money away. ‘It is the most wonderfully releasing thing – life as a colour film after black and white. If this sounds strange, it is worth remembering that wealth has all the character of a bully: whack it away, and it turns out to be a very insipid adversary.’ Not many of us will ever need to learn this lesson on such a grand scale, but nevertheless, an act of spontaneous generosity, large or small, is indeed a wonderful thing.
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