Tuesday 22 March 2016

Talkin' 'bout my generation

For several months, I regularly visited the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in St Johns Wood – next door to the Wellington Hospital.  I was being treated for an injury to my shoulder, caused by a left-hook incident with a black cab on Blackfriars Bridge. Months of physiotherapy, with an unsuccessful cortisone injection into my shoulder joint, culminating in the unavoidable keyhole surgery which finally fixed it.

The shoulder injury didn’t however prevent me from riding my bike to my appointments, nor did the experience which had led me there discourage me – despite this being my third experience of left hooks, the first two also being with black cabs, which ought to have told any sane person that riding a bicycle on London roads is just plain dangerous.

To return to my office in the City, I would ride down Park Road and turn left into Hanover Gate, passing the Regent’s Park Mosque, to access the Outer Circle. The first time I was struck by how many black cabs turned with me.  I was rather more struck however by the speeds at which traffic (not specifically black cabs) passed me on the Outer Circle – I wasn’t carrying a radar gun but my impression was that they were well above the 30mph speed limit.

Back to the title of this post:  it is also the title of a hit single by ‘60s supergroup The Who – one of their signature tracks, on their 1965 LP “Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy”.  In it Roger Daltrey starts with

“People try to p-put us down.
[Chorus] Talkin’ ‘bout my generation
Just because we get around”
Well, in 1965 Daltrey was 21, and he was clearly talking about the age’s new adults.
A couple lines later, Daltrey sings:
“I hope I die before I get old”
Well, I am not sure he does now, and indeed he might not regard himself as old, despite now being 72 – “old” is more a state of mind than a number of years.
But Daltrey’s generation is also the Baby Boom generation. They are distinguished by many things – the peak of the final salary pensions boom for example, and cheap housing made even cheaper once the early ‘70s high inflation had taken effect.
They were also coming of age, and so becoming eligible for a driving licence, just at the time that the era of mass car ownership was kicking off.
And now? Well, I sense that Roger Daltrey’s generation was probably the most heavily represented, indeed over-represented, demographic at the meeting last week with Andrew Gilligan and TfL about CS11 and the proposals for the Outer Circle in Regent’s Park.
So we see a backlash from the first – and in some ways last - generation of universal car ownership.  If you look at those graphics showing car ownership by age, the peak decade is 65-75.  Now, if you find similar graphics for previous years, what you see is a kind of moving wave – ten years earlier, the peak age was ten years younger, and so on back to the ‘60s.  Certainly the tail-off is quite gentle at first, steepening as you get to the under 35s, but it is nevertheless distinct.
Daltrey’s generation grew up to see the private car as a relief from the postwar austerity of their childhoods and a symbol of personal freedom – the freedom of movement for example enabling them to travel further afield for work and explore opportunities not available to their parents. The trouble is they simply cannot imagine that there may be other ways of achieving the same mobility and the same freedoms, at least within the short distances and congested streets of an inner city. A challenge to their unfettered freedom to drive is an assault on liberty itself, an existential threat. They are frightened.
But it will pass. In another ten years they will be relying on mobility scooters, and they will be grateful then that the superhighways were built, despite their best endeavours to stop them.