Saturday, 17 July 2010

Happy Birthday Social Trends

I would like to wish a very happy birthday to the government publication Social Trends, the fortieth anniversary edition of which has just been published. The news stories about Social Trends tend to follow the headline figures provided in the press releases – that there are more obese people, more people living alone, more people going to university, and so on. But what makes Social Trends such a gripping social document are the surprising, apparently inconsequential details buried in the rest of the document. I discovered from this year’s edition, for example, that for some reason there has been a 438% increase in people holidaying in Slovakia over the last four years, that the most borrowed non-fiction book in libraries a couple of years ago was Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones, a book I have never even heard of – my apologies to Griff Rhys Jones, but then I suppose it’s possible he’s never heard of my books either - and that 5.7 million people have now bought a copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits. And none of these people are me.

This year there is a wealth of detail comparing Britain today with forty years ago – when a third of all adults read the Daily Mirror and there were 45.5m calls to Dial-a-Disc, which played callers a song down a telephone line. At a guess, I would say that this number has now declined to … nil.

I for one am glad we don’t still live in 1985, when just under a quarter of people thought that there should definitely or probably be a legal right for schools to expel children with AIDS.

How strange human behaviour is when seen collectively like this and how it defies the expectations of social observers. The rational humanists must be tearing their collective hair out at the most popular answer to the question about religion: ‘I believe in “something” but I’m not sure what.’

And how about this statistic: in 2009, 83 per cent of people felt that the financial situation in their household was either ‘good’ or ‘neither good or bad’. Yes, despite all those responsible warnings from politicians that we are going to hell in a handcart, the British people persist in being quite inexplicably and irresponsibly happy. Now what on earth are we to make of that?

Mundane quote for the day: ‘When I’m chamoising the car in the front drive and some half-familiar face walks past and smiles and raises his stick and points approvingly at a sprinting patch of deckle-edged ivy, don’t imagine I can’t hear the voice we all give free lodging to in a room at the back of our skulls: the one that goes, fine, all right, fair enough, but someone else – someone who might have been you – is even now sledding through a birch forest in Russia, pursued by wolves. On Saturday afternoons, as I track the lawn mower carefully across our sloping stretch of grass, rev, slow, brake, turn and rev again, making sure to overlap the previous stripe, don’t think I can’t still quote Mallarmé.’ – Julian Barnes, Metroland

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