Back in the 1950s, a home visit from the family doctor was a quite common occurrence. Family life came to a halt with their arrival. They were treated like gods. They took your temperature and your pulse. They rapped their knuckles on your chest and back while they listened on stethoscopes. They asked a few questions. And then they would deliver a verdict, and write out a prescription. They’d be gone almost as soon as they’d arrived, usually by car. Doctors seldom stayed much longer than 5 or 10 minutes.
A home visit from the local Catholic priest was also a regular occurrence. He usually arrived unannounced on his bicycle, and would stay for a half hour for a cup of tea and a chat. His arrival would be greeted with panic, with hurried attempts made to tidy the living room. I would be packed off to my bedroom for the duration. So I suppose that he was bringing news, and also checking to see whether whether the family had defected to the Church of England since his last visit, or taken up occultism or satanism.
There were regular visits from all sorts of people back then. The milkman came every day early in the morning, and left several bottles of milk outside the back door, which needed to be retrieved before the blue tits punched holes in their silver tops. And there was the postman too, delivering mail. Less frequently there were visits from the grocer, who arrived with large cardboard boxes full of jam and bacon and butter and bread, all of which were carefully checked to see whether they corresponded accurately to what had been ordered, before being put in the larder. And then there were also occasional visits from coalmen, covered in coal dust, carrying black sacks of coal on their backs, and emptying them into the outdoor coal shed. And then there were the dustmen, who collected the dustbins from outside the house, and emptied them into the big dustcarts they drove around in.
Many of these people seem to have vanished now. Back then they came to visit you. Now, all too often, you must visit them. There are still milkmen, but they seem to be a vanishing breed. Grocers have been replaced by supermarkets, some of which will make home deliveries. The dustmen are still very busy, but now you are expected to sort your rubbish into different types, and leave them in different coloured plastic containers on the street. And instead of once-a-week collections, it’s once every two weeks. And there are recycling centres, where people are expected to take bottles, batteries, plastic bags, paper, cardboard. And coal has vanished completely. If a coal truck were to be seen driving through any street anywhere in Britain, it would probably be stopped by police, the coalmen arrested, the area evacuated, and the bomb squad brought in to remove the coal for safe disposal.
Back in the 1950s, you knew your local vicar and your family doctor and your grocer and your milkman and your postman. You might often have a brief chat with them all. You were part of an organic community. It was a communication network. In an emergency you could ask the postman to send for a doctor.
And apart from all these regular visitors, there were also irregular visitors. Like the police or the fire brigade or the bailiffs.
Perhaps it was that in the 1950s few people had telephones or TVs, and even fewer had cars. Now almost everyone has a phone, a mobile phone, a TV, and also a broadband internet connection.
Back in the 1950s, your family doctor was your physical guardian, and your local vicar was your spiritual guardian. In Britain the doctors were all inducted into the National Health Service in 1945. But there was no equivalent National God Service set up to provide spiritual care in the community. And so all the churches have been gradually losing parishioners. Perhaps that’s why, in the vacuum, there have appeared strange new cults, like weeds growing in an untended garden. And perhaps that’s why doctors have had to take over the spiritual care of the community from the churches. They don’t prescribe prayer or penance or absolution, but instead (equally useless) pills and exercise and smoking cessation.
And everything has become more centralised and impersonal. A supermarket is a central food warehouse from which you collect food. A recycling centre is a central refuse warehouse to which you return unwanted materials. A hospital is a central warehouse for the sick. And so on.
The old, organic society has largely vanished. More or less everyone has become an atomic individual, disconnected from everyone else. If the churches have all been slowly dying, so have the pubs, killed off by smoking bans and drink-driving laws.
It may even be that the current success of Islam is that it provides a new spiritual community to replace a lost community. You might even be happy to join such a community as second class member (e.g. as a woman), because any community is better than no community at all.
For the tendency towards impersonal corporate giantism, and impersonal governmental giantism, leaves huge holes in communities. Government is necessarily and inevitably impersonal. And the more centralised the government, the more impersonal it becomes. And state broadcasting services like the BBC are incapable of plugging this impersonality, even if they use ersatz “personalities” to front them.
The growing success of people like Alex Jones or Michael Savage or Jordan Peterson on the internet is that they are real people with real opinions. And they are usually Davids fighting with corporate or governmental Goliaths of one kind or other.
Perhaps it’s simply that as one kind of community vanishes, new ones replace them, usually using new communications media. And outfits like Facebook and Twitter are the forerunners of new communities. You may not know your local doctor or vicar or grocer or milkman any more, but you will be part of a virtual community of some kind.
Next week I will be seeing one of these virtual communities becoming actualised, as Emily and Brigitte come to stay with me for a few days. I only know them through the Smoky Drinky bar, where we’ve been regularly meeting up. Emily lives in Boston, and Brigitte in Liverpool. We are an unlikely and surprising bunch of friends.
Perhaps that’s what the future will be like. You won’t know anyone in the home town where you live, but you’ll have lots of friends in Karachi and Madrid and Bombay, and you’ll talk to them every day.