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Short Trousers

When I was a young lad, I wore short trousers. So did every other little boy. In fact, most boys didn’t get their first pair of long trousers until they were teenagers. It was just the way things were. Even on the coldest days, bare knees and legs (long socks around ankles of course) were exposed to snow, freezing rain and howling gales. Each morning we walked 1½ miles to school, collecting in small groups on the way; a lift in a car was out of the question: children found their own way to school in all weathers. Most families didn’t have a car anyway. But we didn’t feel any hardship, we weren’t deprived or oppressed. It was just the way things were.

I was twelve or thirteen when I got my first pair of long school trousers. I wasn’t impressed. They felt scratchy and hot. But it was the school uniform, all the other lads had to wear the same. So we just got on with it. It was just the way things were.

And what about school caps! We hated them and in in rebellion found all sorts of unlikely ways to wear them. If we were spotted bare-headed on our way to school by one of the masters, a note would find it’s way to our form room during the morning and our presence would be requested in detention that evening. Sixth formers didn’t have to wear a cap, and at the end of the fifth year there was a ceremonial cap burning ceremony. But before that glorious day, we wore them; it was just the way things were.

For misdemeanours more serious than caplessness, it wasn’t detention. A small line of boys could be seen outside the headmaster’s door. Each came out with a throbbing hand or uncomfortable bottom. I’m mystified by the modern distaste for corporal punishment, including smacking by parents. One theory is that it leads to more violence, but I haven’t observed this in practice. In fact the opposite — there was greater respect for authority, safer neighbourhoods and less crime — at least on the council estates where I grew up. Maybe I lived in an unusual bubble, but I don’t think so. The idea that physical punishment is unjust but restricting freedom, or confiscating money/toys/privileges are not seems irrational. Whatever, but I know most of the boys at my school preferred the cane over detention any day.

Holidays were problematic. The idea of a holiday camp or renting a cottage rarely happened. Oh, I was aware of it and a few posh school friends had holidays like that; some actually flew abroad—film star stuff! But for me and my mates, day trips to the country or seaside (my wife didn’t even get that!) was a normal summer holiday. But we didn’t feel deprived, it was just the way things were, and it was just the same for our neighbours. So I find it hard to empathise with today’s attitude, expressed from time to time in TV interviews that holidays are an entitlement, and not having one is a sign of the truly impoverished.

Hang on I hear you say: there was a time when toilets were a shed in the yard, when water was collected from a well, when beds were sacks of straw, and candles were the only light. True! Progress isn’t all bad. I don’t object to modern conveniences. I’m delighted with progress in medical treatment, inventions like the telephone, the internet and digital technology. I merely point out that much of what we lived with in the past was normal for the time and place, that most of us survived or even thrived in conditions branded as unacceptable today, but those conditions had value. Yes, I’m pleased some of it changed, but all change isn’t always good.

Time and place is crucial of course. Standard of living has improved but style of living has slipped. Principles based in the Gospel of Jesus Christ are diluted, church attendance has crashed. One of my personal regrets is loss of the old-fashioned Sunday: shops closed, quiet roads, family walks in the park or board games together. And speaking of families: it’s amazing how prescient the 1995 Family Proclamation was. The first paragraph reads:

“We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World; The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

This was unexceptionable at the time, in fact some Church members wondered why it needed to be said at all; but now it’s a bold beacon in a world of weird controversy which turns reason, common sense and sacred doctrine on its head.

So as we remember how things used to be, remember that unlike short trousers, some things ought still to be. Not everything that’s old is out of date. Eternal principles are not time-dependent. Courtesy, respect, kindness and civility are not relics of a bygone age, they are essential mortar that binds societies together. Short trousers take me back to my 1950s childhood and the family values universally held in those days.

“The institutions of family and religion have been crucial for endowing both individuals and communities with the virtues that sustain an enduring society. These virtues, rooted in scripture, include integrity, responsibility and accountability, compassion, marriage and fidelity in marriage, respect for others and the property of others, service, and the necessity and dignity of work, among others . . . . . . A society, for example, in which individual consent is the only constraint on sexual activity is a society in decay. Adultery, promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, and elective abortions are but some of the bitter fruits that grow out of the ongoing sexual revolution.” (Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Sustainable Societies, October 2020 General Conference)

So for me, short trousers are a symbol of a time when certain underlying assumptions about decent attitudes and behaviour were universally accepted. It wasn’t perfect, and I’m grateful for progress in some areas. And yes, there were always boundary pushers. That’s human nature. But the solution isn’t to move the fence. 

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