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Ken Loach's Spirit of 45: Britain's turn to Labour after the war

What ever happened to Timothy? He was perhaps the embodiment of gentle English civilisation.


Image: BFI

Watching Ken Loach’s most recent film, The Spirit of ’45, reminded me of a letter I received from my fellow film director Lindsay Anderson, written in the last week of his life in August 1994. Anticipating Ken Loach, I had tracked down the surviving cast of Humphrey Jennings’s seminal documentary A Diary for Timothy, described by his biographer as “the best evocation, in film or any other medium, of the reasons why the country ‘went Labour’ at the 1945 elections”, and I had asked Anderson if he would like to direct the sequel, in which the cast contrasted Thatcher’s Britain with their hopes and fears of 50 years before.

Anderson told me that Jennings’s vision had long gone and he could think of nothing to replace it. He concluded, “Things have turned out so very differently from the way Humphrey Jennings hoped. I feel too discouraged by the way things have gone and are going to be. I’m sorry about this.”

Anderson called Jennings “the only real poet British cinema has yet produced”. You may remember A Diary for Timothy (incidentally, it has just been re-released by the BFI). Filmed in the last six months of the Second World War, it is a poetic representation of Britain breaking out of fear into hope, out of darkness into light, out of war into peace. News of the progress of Allied forces comes from radio broadcasts, but the film is really about the lives of four characters on the home front which capture the national mood.

There’s Peter the Typhoon pilot, recovering in hospital from injuries sustained over D-Day. His improving health symbolises national recovery. Geronwy the communist coal miner is determined to maintain wartime improvements: “Once, miners with broken backs were dragged to hospital in flat carts. We’ve got our own ambulance cars now, and nursing services and canteens and pithead baths: nothing at all will stop us after the war.” Alan the gentleman farmer, whose land represents continuity with the past, is digging for victory. Bill the train driver unites the others in the war effort. In the words of the scriptwriter, E M Forster, he is “carrying the miner’s coal, the farmer’s crops and the fighting man’s munitions”. Cut to a gurgling baby, little Timothy Jenkins, born five years after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, and the words of the narrator, Michael Redgrave, “All these people are fighting for you.”

Contrary to this optimism and, indeed, to the euphoria on the home front at the end of the war, recaptured in the newsreels shown by Ken Loach, a mood of anxiety pervades the film. The narrator puts a prophetic question to Timothy:

“What are you going to do? Will it be a world of greed, unemployment and then another war, or will you make the world a more decent place? You will have the power to choose, the right to criticise, so life in a way will be more dangerous. You will have the difficulty of growing up free. What’s going to happen during the next years when you are here and we are not?”

This is the question that lingers in the mind and must make everyone who has seen the film wonder: what happened to Timothy? How did he cope with being a symbol of the New Britain? I have the answers.

His mother, Betty Jenkins, told me that Timothy’s stardom began when she received an unexpected visitor at her bedside in the Queen Mary’s Maternity Home, then at Eynsham, near Oxford:

“Sister hurried in and placed my baby in my arms without any explanation. Then a thin, artistic-looking young man came in and strode about the room looking at us from all angles. After a while, he turned to a young woman I got to know as his production assistant: ‘Well. I’m satisfied, Di, if you are,’ he said. Then he left. He was quite abrupt.”

And then, according to the New Statesman film reviewer writing in November 1945, “a baby begins to grow up knowing even less than we do of the world into which it has thrust itself”. It is interesting to realise that during the making of the film nobody knew how the war would end nor, of course, what would follow. The NS reviewer, William Whitebait, was prophetic in another way. Placing A Diary for Timothy in his top ten films of the year together with The True Glory and Burmese Victory, he opined that the documentary and semi-documentary had now come into their own with, “it may be supposed, lasting effect”.

“Will you make the world a more decent place?” “Decency” was the word that got the surviving cast of A Diary for Timothy going in 1994/95, and as Lindsay Anderson had chosen not to direct the film I wrote up my research for the New Statesman (“Glory traps”, 12 May 1995).

It seemed, however, an unsuitable question to put to Peggy Jones, whose father, “Gronno” (Geronwy), had died in 1973. As late as 1986, 1,800 men had laboured hundreds of feet underground in Ynysybwl, hewing out 14,000 tonnes of coal and 8,000 tonnes of slag a week. While presumably few would want back the life of a deep-pit miner, what Peggy was witnessing was the death of a community. Nothing remained of the once-mighty Lady Windsor Colliery but a memorial of fake coal in a trolley. On the surface, above the ground honeycombed with filled-in tunnels, there were a few jumps so that little girls could exercise their ponies. The pit baths had gone; so, too, had the Workmen’s Hall, the Institute and the miners’ pub, the Windsor. The cottage hospital where Ger­onwy was filmed recovering from a (fake) accident was a home for the terminally ill. It was the comprehensiveness of the destruction that was shocking. “Dad would turn in his grave if he knew what had happened to this place. He would have put a shoe up Mrs Thatcher’s backside,” Peggy said.

In 1995 both the farmer and nurseryman Alan Bloom and Peter Roper the Typhoon pilot were leading remarkably positive lives. Roper, who migrated to Canada in 1959, had become a distinguished psychiatrist specialising in space and aviation medicine. His views on decency were Blairite:

“To me, decency means responsibility, to ourselves, to our families, to community and country. This hasn’t been emphasised. You hear a lot about human rights, but you just can’t have them without responsibilities. I think that’s what is missing in Britain. It’s changed since the war. If people stood up to their responsibilities as much as their rights, Britain would be a better place.”

Dr Roper is still alive. Alan Bloom died in 2005, aged 98, a horticultural legend. According to his obituary in the Guardian, he had bred or named 170 plants, written 27 books, opened a steam museum and created an extraordinary public garden and nursery in Norfolk. In 1995 he looked like an Old Testament prophet rather than the gentleman farmer in A Diary for Timothy, who could have been played by a pipe-sucking Gregory Peck. Silver hair down to his shoulders and a ring in each ear, he toasted bread on a gas fire; by his chair lay CND and Quaker pamphlets and Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. A Diary for Timothy was “a noble concept” and he had been “full of zeal for fighting Hitler” but he refused to look back.

There was much of the modern world he found “indecent”, particlarly its materialism, so he went his own way. He kept little money (“for what should it profit a man . . .”), employed a former patient or two from the local psychiatric hospital and immersed himself in the wonders of nature. Perhaps if Jennings or Orwell had met Bloom 50 years after the war they would have recognised an eccentric British genius, and a good man.

There was no trace of Bill the engine driver. So what of Timothy?

By 1995 the gurgling baby had become a thin, asthmatic 50-year-old living in the London dormitory town of Houghton Regis. He taught at a local middle school and struggled to introduce a national curriculum to ever larger classes with insufficient resources. He had plenty to say about decency:

“Children are more assured but more selfish than when I started teaching. There’s little regard for the elderly and they seem more out for what they can get. There’s another thing, too. When I started teaching there was only one kid in my class from a separated family. Now one-third are on income support and I suspect quite a number have single parents. I think it’s the fault of unemployment chiefly. So I don’t think this world is a very decent place.”

On the face of it, Timothy seemed a promising spokesman for the New Britain with plenty to say. He read the Guardian, sometimes the New Statesman. But he was shy about A Diary for Timothy and he had not shown it to his two children. He resented being cast as a symbol; it was an unwanted responsibility. Perhaps he’d had his fingers burned by previous media exposure, in a Central TV documentary of 1985 which included an excruciating scene of him and his young children wandering round a desolate shopping precinct in Luton on Christmas Eve, with muzak carols over the Tannoy and Space Wars on the computer screens. This was intercut with footage of Timothy’s first Christmas. In the 1945 film, a choirboy’s high, pure voice sings “Adeste Fideles” and a dribbling Tim becomes, in Jennings’s symbolism, a surrogate for the Holy Infant. Across the nation, glasses are raised to “absent friends”, and a card from Timothy’s father is read: “My dear son, a very merry Christmas to you . . . May you always be happy and truly content with the life you have been given.”

I kept in touch with Timothy until his premature death in 2000. What Humphrey Jennings would have made of his old subject’s life we will never know, because he also died prematurely, in 1950. But George Orwell would have found him a typical Englishman as defined in his “England Your England”, the essay he wrote in the war, just before Jennings made his film.

Timothy personified “the privateness of English life”, to quote Orwell. He loved his little semi-detached house with garden in the Home Counties and he was “addicted to hobbies and spare-time occupations” – photography, gym coaching, gardening. He showed “the insularity of the English”, being not un-European, but not wanting to go there. Instead he took his children round English castles and museums and subscribed to History Today. He was not a flag-waving, goose-stepping patriot but he always bought a British car (Vauxhall, because its motors were made in Luton) and stood up in front of the television during the Remembrance Day silence. He did not hold strong views about the Germans. As for politics, he was not a socialist but he would never vote Conservative; nor did he and his wife, Sue, discuss how they would vote – another instance of this privateness.

In A Diary for Timothy the Jenkinses represent, perhaps in a rather smug way, the Christian and family values of the English middle class. Timothy, in the words of Orwell, was “without definite religious belief . . . but retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling”. Unlike him, his children were not baptised and no one in the family was a churchgoer, but he had a Christian burial with that fav­ourite hymn of Songs of Praise, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.

Timothy personified “the gentleness of the English civilisation . . . its most marked characteristic”, as Orwell said. This may sound a bit old-fashioned now, as does the very word “decency”. But I hope it does justice to this hitherto anonymous wartime baby who unwittingly stood for so much.

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge