Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 3rd July 2018

I’M of a generation that remembers when English Sundays were, to quote one writer, “as much fun as watching Albanian daytime TV and as riveting as watching hair recede.”

That was the view expressed by Kathy Lette, the feminist writer, who, coming from Australia in the 1980s, found our Sundays still hidebound by guilt, religious pressure and some strangely odd laws regarding trading.

Hands up any reader who can recall the name of that chap from the Lord’s Day Observance Society, the organisation’s lugubrious spokesman back in the day. I’ve spent the past week frustratingly trying and failing to remember who he was. If it wasn’t him it was Mary Whitehouse or Malcolm Muggeridge thrusting their moral codes on the nation.

As it happens, the Lord’s Day Observance Society is still going and still fighting the “keep Sunday special” cause. Only these days it’s been rebranded and is now called DayOne and has a swish website.

There are plenty of folk who, and not always for religious reasons, lament the loss of the old-fashioned Sunday and with it the myth that family life benefited from the boredom. Sundays probably prompted more family arguments than any other factor back then.

I remember Sundays as a kid, but only in a grey, composite sense. If it was fine I would probably spend the morning kicking a ball about, then it was the inevitable roast, Two Way Family Favourites on the wireless, and hanging about all afternoon waiting for Fluff Freeman and the pop music charts at tea time.

After tea, once we finally managed to rent a telly, we did gather round for Sunday Night at the London Palladium, then it was cocoa and bed at half nine. Wow, we certainly knew how to live life in the fast lane.

My father worked Sundays, but did try to get in for lunch and a quick read of the News of the World. “Disgusting,” he would occasionally mutter amid a cloud of pipe smoke from behind the pages as he ran the rule over the immorality of the middle classes.

When he went back to work my mother pored over the fashion competition and I got the back page and the football. At that tender age I wasn’t supposed to see the inside pages which invariably carried tales involving women of dubious character and men who ought to have known better.

The NoW professed outrage at falling morals, but secretly thrived on the lurid outcome of the transgressions. Sex and the News of the World were a great British tradition, although by today’s standards it was tame stuff and their reporters always “made an excuse and left” before it got really interesting.

Shops closed all day on Sundays. Pubs shut in the afternoon. Public transport was almost non-existent. It was like living in a cowboy film with tumbleweed blowing down the street. We were supposed to find it relaxing, a break from the working week, but nothing is more stressful than boredom.

In 1994 Sunday trading was legalised, although there are still restrictions on the hours bigger stores are permitted to open. A letter last week in one of the newspapers was what got me harking back to the Sundays of my childhood — a chap complaining that supermarkets are shut by the time he finishes work and saying it’s high time the last Sunday trading anomalies were lifted.

There was stiff resistance from the unions, religious groups and even some of the larger stores like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Extraordinary to think, as we plan our trips to Tesco and the garden centre, that Maggie Thatcher suffered her only parliamentary defeat as Prime Minister over an attempt to deregulate Sunday trading.

Sundays were symbolic. In some of the outlying towns and villages which are part of the Herald’s patch they are probably observed as steadfastly as they were before we became a nation of Sunday shoppers. But did they really promote family life and teach us to be morally upstanding? I’m not so sure.

Ultimately many of us concluded that laws based on religion had no place in a modern, democratic society. And one last thought. A retired British Army officer, in a French work of fiction in the 50s, said: “If England hasn’t been invaded since 1066 it’s because foreigners dread having to spend Sundays there.” Having lived through countless dull childhood Sundays, I know exactly what he meant.

NOT SO SMART

IN terms of modern technology I predate the dinosaur. Last time I had one of those fancy smartphones I accidentally lobbed it into an industrial-sized waste bin. I could hear it’s lonely ring tone as I scrabbled in the muck, but it remained lost forever.

Next time I got myself a cheap pensioner phone, the sort that’s advertised in Saga magazines and The Oldie. OAP proof. Even the dimmest elderly person can work it. And I have not yet chucked it away into a skip in the pocket of an old pair of pants.

I only carry a mobile for emergencies. Most of the time it’s left behind when I go out. Unlike the vast majority of the population, who seem permanently locked to their phones, I can live without it.

Culture Secretary Matt Hancock is calling for kids’ mobiles to be confiscated at the start of the school day. I was surprised, nay shocked, to learn that kids are permitted to bring phones into class — and in some cases use them to tweet their mates. Messaging who’s knocking off who on Love Island beats double maths any day. So does taking the mickey out of teacher and circulating the class. Some parents have even protested that removing phones is a contravention of their kids’ human rights.

Are we really so close to losing the battle of the mobile? Perhaps we should have one day a year when all mobile devices have to be switched off. People would go stir crazy. Some might even start throwing them into the nearest bin. Ah well, you can dream.

WHISTLEBLOWERS NEED PROTECTION

IN the wake of the latest NHS scandal surrounding hundreds of deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital, Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was sometimes made too difficult for whistleblowers to raise concerns.

That’s an under-statement in my view. Whistleblowers, rather than being praised, are turned into the villains of the piece, ostracised, treated as troublemakers and inevitably they are the ones who lose their jobs.

We like to think we live in a more open society these days, but while people in positions of authority have something to hide, and as long people keep quiet about it, then scandals like Gosport will continue happening.

Mr Hunt said the culture in the NHS had to change to help uncover scandals after a damning report that revealed more than 450 people had their lives shortened after being prescribed powerful painkillers at the Hampshire hospital.

It’s still extremely risky for whistleblowers to come forward, although the spread of social media has made it easier for ordinary people to dig behind the walls of silent self-preservation put up by those in positions of authority who have things they would prefer us not to know about, and rumours do take shape on social media.

At Gosport, the prescribing of lethal doses of painkillers went largely unchallenged. A few hospital staff raised objections at the time, but they were dismissed as troublemakers. All too frequently cases of collusion and concealment after tragic events — Hillsborough a classic example — have meant that it’s taken years for the truth to emerge. Only brave persistence by those who blew the whistle and determination on the part of families over a long time has dragged out the real facts.

The Gosport inquiry found that whistleblowers and families were ignored as they attempted to raise concerns about the administration of opioids at the hospital.

Professor Sir Brian Jarman, the head of the unit at Imperial College, London, which compiles health safety data, warned it could happen again. It could be happening somewhere right now. And whistleblowers, he said, were “still being fired, gagged and blacklisted”.

I’m not sure, for all the reassuring words issued by the Health Secretary, that attitudes towards those who raise doubts and bring forward evidence of wrongdoing are any better in offering them protection from the combined forces of those whose cause is served by secrecy.