Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:09 am
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to anyone who ventures onto the pages of A Bit About Britain – provided you have also bothered to stay and read something, of course. I am neither sufficiently organised nor inspired to write a Christmas post this year – though I can highly recommend several from previous years! Instead, I’ve decided to undertake a brief, and highly subjective, retrospective on the year that has gone. It has been a mixed bag, personally – some joy, a little sadness, too much stress and far too much frustration. The main frustration has been not achieving anything like what I had set out to do with A Bit About Britain. I’d like to do more with it before giving up, so perhaps I will do better in 2023!
War in Ukraine
Russia’s President Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. In an unprecedented move, Western intelligence took the decision to go public and had been warning about this for months. This worried me. It is even mentioned in ABAB’s 21st century timeline for 23 December 2021 – “Western Intelligence reported more than 100,000 Russian troops massing on the border with Ukraine, the BBC asked whether Russia was preparing to invade.” The unprovoked attack, when it came, was denounced worldwide – with some cynical exceptions. When it came to a resolution at the United Nations to condemn the invasion, 141 countries voted in favour, 35 abstained and five – North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, Belarus and, unsurprisingly, Russia – voted against. Among the abstainers were Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan and China. As one who has studied a bit of history, I well understand the principles of realpolitik and, of course, some of these places operate odious regimes themselves, or are Russia’s allies. Even thugs and bullies have friends. But, surely, it doesn’t take an enormous brain cell to understand that tolerating naked aggression of this kind does not auger well for the world. Why the Russian Federation is still a permanent member of the UN Security Council is beyond me and this, surely, undermines the credibility of the organisation.
The UK and its allies announced immediate sanctions against Russia, which increased in scope as the days and weeks passed. NATO prepared for potential escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders. The US, UK and others have supplied billions of pounds of arms and other equipment and aid to Ukraine, short of boots on the ground. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, many to neighbouring countries, particularly Poland. Thousands, Russians as well as Ukrainians, have died – though somewhat fewer Russian civilians than Ukrainian.
It is misleading to suggest there has been peace in Europe since 1945; there have been conflicts – but not what most of us would describe as an all-out war. In 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea – part of Ukraine. Most of us took little notice of that, governments seemed to turn a blind eye and – arguably – it has suited national wallets to believe a different reality since the so-called ending of the Cold War. But I confess I thought that the prospect of war in Europe on this scale was virtually unthinkable. Hubris, perhaps? The trouble is that most of us, whilst possibly hearing the words, do not understand Putin’s mind-set. We think logically, according to our upbringing and culture. We see no purpose in what Putin is trying to achieve, beyond the pointless subjugation of an independent neighbour. There was no threat to Russia. He now claims, like an errant child, that the war was not his fault. It strikes me that the Russian President is fighting a war that, apart from the weaponry, belongs in another age. He has clearly failed – but where will it end? For me, the only satisfactory outcome would be the replacement of Putin and his acolytes with a fully democratic government that wants the best for its people, to be a positive partner in the international community and immediately withdraws its troops from Ukraine. In the last century, the world relied on nations – Britain and France – coming to the aid of one that was invaded – Poland. It is a different world now. The allies did little to prevent the invasion of Poland in 1939, but one crucial difference is that back then neither Germany nor the Soviet Union was a nuclear power. The fear of escalation, should Putin feel an existential threat, currently prevents outright military assistance. What other countries, such as China, would do in those circumstances is a further consideration. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, founded on the principle of mutual help, is enormously powerful, but of course Ukraine is not a member. One consequence of the Russian invasion has been that Finland and Sweden, both hitherto neutral countries, have applied to join. Given the borders of these two countries, this actually increases the risk of a general European war. This tragic story has a long way to go. Meanwhile, people are still dying, homes are being destroyed and the economic consequences are felt all over the globe.
Government in the news
I don’t know about you, but time was we generally relied on government. We may not always have agreed with it (which is fair enough) and did not always believe it to be entirely honest, but on the whole we had a degree of respect for it – and, for that matter, most politicians. It was usually assumed the institute of government more or less acted in the public interest. That was undoubtedly naïve. However, whilst there have always been scandals in government, 2022 seems to me to have been a year when government has succeeded in achieving a new low. This is not about policy, as such. We will always have different opinions – and the increasing intolerance of other people’s and political parties’ views is, actually, a matter of real concern. No, the thing about 2022 is that it has been a year when government itself has all too often been the news. Rather than politicians being in the headlines for being seen to deal with the issues of the day, they have themselves become the issue of the day.
This is not entirely an invention of the Conservatives. Mistrust of politicians as a breed has been growing for some time. There are, of course, some good, honest, capable people in politics, of all political persuasions, honourable people who want to do their best to serve their constituents and the UK. However, I have reached a point where I regard the majority (possibly unfairly) as incompetent twits, out of date class-war warriors, single-issue nutters, or slimy overpaid middle managers. There are few leaders. My votes in recent years have gone to the candidate whose party I believe will cause the least amount of harm, if elected, rather than one I positively support. I cannot be alone in my disillusion. Though trumpeted for being a massive swing to the victorious Labour candidate, turnout in the Chester by-election in early December was a mere 41%. Almost 60% of the electorate were so disengaged that they couldn’t be bothered to take 10 minutes to put their hard-won mark on a piece of paper. To be honest, for the first time I can remember, I did not vote at the last local election. Election turnout in general is derisory in the UK. “Don’t vote,” ran the graffiti when I was at university, “It only encourages them.”
Anyway, in 2022, we witnessed the incongruity of a government with a sizable majority in the House of Commons becoming increasingly mistrusted by many of its own Members of Parliament. Headlines regarding the ongoing ‘partygate’ scandal in which the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, not only defied the advice he had given to the public but compounded the sin by lying about it, reached a head. The issue of lobbying and conflicts of interest did not help. By July, even the Prime Minister’s own supporters had had enough. He was forced to resign as leader of the Conservative Party (and therefore Prime Minister) following the unprecedented resignation of more than 50 members of the Government (including members of the Cabinet).
Sadly, it did not end there. We were then treated to a two-month campaign for a new leader of the Conservative Party during which government was more or less neutered. The press was full of it – and much was made about the process being ‘undemocratic’ by people who either don’t understand parliamentary government, or who were simply being mischievous. Eventually, the beauty parade was whittled down to two, uninspiring, candidates, the most potentially dangerous of which won. Liz Truss became the shortest-serving Prime Minister ever. She assumed office facing rising inflation and increasing energy costs that had been described as ‘a national crisis’. During her brief tenure, she and her Chancellor succeeded in terrifying the markets through a series of unfunded tax cuts. The pound fell dramatically and the cost of mortgages increased almost overnight. When she too was forced to resign, the United Kingdom got its third Prime Minister in a year when Rishi Sunak emerged as leader of the Conservative Party and King Charles invited him to form a government.
You could argue that, due to BREXIT (whatever your views on that), followed by COVID, and then government being the news, we haven’t had focussed governance in the United Kingdom since sometime in 2016. It is particularly galling that we are paying for this. Let us hope for better in 2023.
The Queen’s platinum jubilee
Between 3 and 5 June 2022, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth celebrated Her Majesty’s 70 years as monarch, with beacons, parties, concerts and other events. It was a joyous occasion, except – possibly – for die-hard republicans. Commemorations took place at local, as well as national, level. In our little corner of Britain, we had a nostalgic bridal dress exhibition in the church, classic cars on the green, a beacon on the old castle hill, a seven decades disco, a huge street party with music by Dani Sicari and the Easy Rollers (look ‘em up) and sports on the recreation field for the kids. It was a great weekend, led and inspired by a good friend. My contribution was organising the disco – which took more time than I thought, mainly because it was so difficult to decide what to leave out.
McCartney at Glastonbury
Speaking of music, I was practically weaned on The Beatles. A feature of Christmases past was that one of my big brothers would always receive the latest Beatles’ album (or LP as they were called in those distant days) from our parents or a girlfriend. I still love the music, treasure the memories and have consequently been a fan of Paul McCartney for as long as I can remember. He is a highly talented musician and songwriter, though I haven’t paid too much attention to his later material and confess that, whenever I’ve seen him on TV in recent years, I have thought he should probably hang up the microphone. Nevertheless, I enjoy Glastonbury and tuned in to see bits of it, including Macca. Wow! There was nothing wrong with Sir Paul’s voice as he worked through an astonishing two and a half hour set. It was a fabulous performance for anyone, let alone one who had turned 80 the week before. He was also joined on stage by three special guests – Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and, courtesy of smart technology, a virtual reality duet of I’ve Got A Feeling with John Lennon. What!? Amidst all the depressing news, this little piece of magic made me smile a great deal.
England’s women did us proud
Another big smile event of 2022 was the women’s Euro football competition, which was held in England. On 31 July, a UK TV audience of 17.4 million watched the England team beat Germany 2-1 in extra time at the final at Wembley. A record crowd of 87,192 watched the game at the stadium itself. It was a happy event – great for women’s football and UK sport in general. England player Beth Mead became player of the tournament and went on to win other awards, including BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I’m not a huge follower of sports on TV, but like to watch big soccer matches when one of our national teams is playing. It was a shame that neither the Welsh nor English men’s teams progressed further in the World Cup in December, but they did well anyway. Does anyone else think there is less spitting and fewer fouls in the women’s game?
Death of the Queen
Queen Elizabeth died aged 96 on 8 September 2022. Of course, it was going to happen; but in my experience, any death is a shock. She was a symbol of the nation, of the time, and the only monarch most of us had ever known. Her passing marked the end of an era; Britain is no longer ‘post-war’. It also brought to focus the job she had done as well as causing many of us to reflect on the changes the UK and the Commonwealth have been through during her reign. The United Kingdom in the 2020s is certainly a very different, almost alien, land to that of the 1950s. And so we now have a king, Charles III, whose coronation will be a key event in 2023.
Migrants and refugees
One of the most depressing news stories of 2022 has been that of would-be migrants crossing the English Channel. They set out in small, unsafe, flimsy, overcrowded, inflatable boats and rafts, to seek asylum in the UK. According to the Guardian newspaper, some even attempt to swim across. It is not a new phenomenon, but the increase in 2022 has been staggering. The BBC says that, up to 20 December, more than 45,000 people had crossed the Channel in small vessels since the start of 2022, a 60% increase on 2021. The trips often end in tragedy. We do not know how many men, women and children have died, but the Guardian says that just under 300 people had perished in the first 20 years of this century. In November 2021, 31 people – including a 5-year-old girl – died when their dinghy sank. The trips are organised by criminal gangs who profit from the misery of people so desperate that they are prepared to take such risks to themselves, and their children.
Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about the criminal gangs being stopped.
A scandal erupted in October when it emerged that many of those who had arrived safely were being kept in overcrowded conditions described as ‘dangerous’, ‘wretched’ and inhumane at an old RAF station at Manston in Kent. The government is struggling to process literally thousands of claims for asylum in the United Kingdom and has even embarked on a policy of shipping some male applicants to Rwanda to seek asylum there. This is seen as a deterrent but, as of 23 December, no one has actually been sent there.
The asylum seekers are not necessarily refugees from places of conflict, such as Ukraine, or other places where there is a threat to life. According to the government, in the first six months of 2022, over half (51%) of small boat arrivals were from three nations – Albania, Afghanistan and Iran. Since May, the number of Albanian nationals crossing the Channel has increased significantly – 42% of all small boat crossings to September – and most of those are male. Albania is considered a safe country.
76% of all nationalities are granted asylum in the UK. The debate about asylum will rumble on. I have never met anybody that is not proud of Britain’s reputation as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution or danger – and, let’s face it, we’re all descended from immigrants of one sort or another anyway. Unfortunately, complete freedom of movement is idealistic and impracticable. But, surely, migration is a global issue, which has been an elephant in the room for some time, as more and more people seek Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear?
The UK economy
The UK inflation rate has doubled during the course of the year to over 10.5%. In December 2020, it was just under 0.6%. The last time inflation exceeded 10% was in 1982. The Bank of England raised its base rate of interest to 3.5% in December 2022; the last time it exceeded 3% was in October 2008. So the cost of living, and borrowing, have increased significantly, squeezing household budgets. Fuel prices, in particular, have rocketed. In August, consumer financial expert Martin Lewis warned that the rapidly increasing cost of energy bills was “a national crisis” on the scale of the Covid pandemic.
Massively increasing energy costs is the reason generally given for the current state of inflation. There was a high demand for oil and gas as many countries tried to return to normal after the Covid pandemic. Sanctions against Russia following their invasion of Ukraine took Russian oil and gas out of the market, which pushed up prices. The reduction of available grain from Ukraine – a major producer – has also increased food prices. Some people also blame BREXIT for higher prices in the UK – but prices are rising in the rest of Europe and in the US too.
Wages are rising in Britain, but not sufficiently to keep pace with inflation – particularly in the public sector. For the first time in years, Britain went into December facing a wave of winter strikes – ambulance workers, nurses, train drivers and other railway workers, bus drivers, baggage handlers, highway workers, postal workers, driving examiners – and the border force. It’s not quite the Winter of Discontent, but it reminds me a little of it. Trade unions must, of course, try to look after their members’ interests, although listening to some union officials, there is an element of anti-government rhetoric in their pronouncements. Not everything is the fault of the government of the day, everyone would like higher pay and some workers in the private sector do not have a voice. We do have warped priorities, though, don’t we? How is a politician, or a banker, worth more than a nurse? How do you measure someone’s worth?
Taking leave in 2022
Notable public figures, as well as loved ones, contribute to our lives. If we made a documentary about ourselves, they might make an appearance in it. I have come to think that each death of someone we know, or who has touched us in some way, simultaneously and progressively ends a part of our own life. An alarming reminder of our own mortality. Tempus fugit! Public figures that left Britain in 2022, and who I particularly remember in some way or another, include:
Gary Waldhorn, who played the part of David Horton in the BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley (a show that often made me laugh aloud), died on 10 January 2022. He was born in 1943.
Barry Cryer, wisecracking, often hilarious, comedian, radio personality and screenwriter, died on 25 January. He was born in 1935. Once asked about his favourite joke, he recalled one about a guy who was driving along a country lane when he ran over a cockerell. He knocked on the door of a nearby farmhouse, a woman opened it and he said, “Madam, I believe I have just killed your cockerel. I am so sorry, I should like to replace it.” “Fair enough,” replied the woman, “The chickens are round the back.”
Bamber Gascoigne, the original presenter of TV’s University Challenge, died on 8 February. He was an accomplished author as well and was also born in 1935. I attended a recording of University Challenge once, with a friend. I vaguely remember leaving before it had finished and finding a pub opposite the studios.
Gary Brooker, the voice of Procul Harum and the ever-haunting Whiter Shade of Pale, died on 19 February. He was born in 1945.
Jack Higgins, the pen name of Henry ‘Harry’ Patterson, author of the intriguing The Eagle Has Landed and other thrillers, died on 9 April. He was born in 1929.
Dennis Waterman, who acted often hapless roles in TV programmes such as Minder, The Sweeney and New Tricks, died on 8 May. He was born in 1948 and was also a singer.
Alan White, the drummer with progrock group Yes, and with others – eg the Plastic Ono Band – died on 26 May. He was born in 1949.
Also on 26 May, Andy Fletcher, keyboard player and founding member of ‘80s band Depeche Mode, died. He was born in Nottingham on 8 July 1961.
Lester Piggott, champion jockey, died on 29 May. I’m not a fan of horse racing, but Lester Piggott seemed to have been around all my life. In fact, as was born in 1935, he had been.
Sir David Nicholas, one-time editor and chief executive of ITN (Independent Television News) died on 4 June. I did a large project with ITN once and his name kept being mentioned by the executive I worked with. He was born in 1930.
Bruce Kent, priest and the face often associated with CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) died on 8 June. He was born in 1929.
Deborah James, an astonishingly courageous lady who did so much to promote awareness of bowel cancer (You, Me and the Big C), finally succumbed to it on 28 June, after a brave battle. She was born in 1981.
Monty Norman, composer who will always be remembered for the James Bond Theme (part of the soundtrack of my life), died on 11 July. He was born in 1928.
David Trimble, the Northern Irish politician, died on 25 July. The voices of Northern Ireland have been a backdrop to the news in Britain for as long as I can remember. David Trimble was one of those who sought peace and was the first First Minister of Northern Ireland (1998–2002). He was born in 1944.
Bernard Cribbins, actor, narrator and singer of novelty songs such as The Hole in the Ground, died on 27 July. I will always remember him as Albert Perks in the Railway Children. He was born in 1928.
Judith Durham died on 5 August. She was Australian, but I decided to include her because the music of the Seekers, and her amazing voice, will always be with me. She was born Judith Mavis Cock in 1943; I can’t imagine why she changed her name. Tom Springfield, Dusty’s older brother who wrote some of the Seekers’ hits including I’ll Never Find Another You, A World of Our Own, The Carnival Is Over and Georgy Girl, also died in 2022, on 27 July – just before Judith Durham.
Olivia Newton-John, career singer and actress forever known for the part of Sandy in Grease, died on 8 August. She was born in Cambridge in 1948.
Raymond Briggs, the author and illustrator behind unique works like The Snowman and Father Christmas, died on 9 August. He was born in 1934 and will forever be part of Christmas.
Bill Turnbull, journalist best known for hosting BBC Breakfast and his work on Classic FM, died on 31 August after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was born in 1956.
Queen Elizabeth II died on 8 September.
Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light), died on 22 September. She was born in 1952.
Angela Lansbury, actress best known for TV’s Murder, She Wrote, died on 11 October. She was born in 1925; I will always remember her in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Robbie Coltrane, who played the much-loved role of Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies as well as roles on TV and other movies, including GoldenEye, died on 14 October. He was born in 1950.
Leslie Phillips, the actor who injected innuendo into catchphrases like “Oh, I say” and “Ding-Dong”, died on 7 November. He was born in 1924 and had a distinguished career from the 1950s. My younger reader will know him as the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series.
A string of musicians left us in 2022. On 11 November, we lost two: Keith Levene, guitarist and founding member of The Clash. He was born in 1957. Rab Noakes, singer-songwriter, including with Stealers Wheel, also died that day. He was born in 1947. I saw Rab Noakes perform, years ago.
Wilko Johnson, who I can only ever see as the guitarist making mad dashes across the stage with Dr Feelgood (he was still doing it when I saw him play a decade or more ago), died on 21 November. He was born in 1947 and always struck me as a thoroughly nice guy.
On 30 November, the world lost Christine McVie, songwriter and keyboard player with Fleetwood Mac, who brought us beautiful numbers like Songbird. I love her voice on I Would Rather Go Blind when she was with blues band Chicken Shack. She was born in 1943.
Jet Black (Brian Duffy), drummer with The Strangers – one of my favourite bands in the late ‘70s – died on 6 December. He was born in 1938.
‘Johnny’ Johnson, the last surviving original member of 617 Squadron’s Operation Chastise, the ‘Dambusters’ raid of 1943, died on 7 December. He was born George Leonard Johnson on 25 November 1921.
On 19 December, Terry Hall, singer with The Specials and Fun Boy Three, died. Ghost Town is part of the soundtrack to 1980s Britain. He was born in Coventry in 1959.
Footballer George Cohen died on 23 December. He was a member of England’s World Cup winning side of 1966 and spent his entire club career with Fulham. He was born on 22 October 1939.
Actor and comedian John Bird, who made his name in TV satire in the 1960s, died on 24 December. He was born on 22 November 1936 in Bulwell, near Nottingham.
Vivienne Westwood, pioneer of punk fashion in the ‘70s, who later went on to design “clothes for real women’s bodies” (Guardian 30 December 2022) and build an entire brand, died on 29 December. She was born Vivienne Isabel Swire on 8 April 1941 in Tintwistle, Cheshire.
Lost beyond these shores
As well as Judith Durham, other notable non-British deaths in 2022 included actors Ray Liotta, James Caan, Kirstie Allen, William Hurt, Sidney Poitier and Nichelle Nichols; musicians Jerry Lee Lewis, Ronnie Spector, Irene Cara, Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday), Loretta Lynn and Vangelis; ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; designers Issey Miyake and Nino Cerruti; Australian cricketer Shane Ward and Brazilian football legend, Pele.
RIP to all of them. I will leave you with the late, great, Christine McVie.