Video post by @huttriver.
YESTERDAY was my birthday, one day and I’m a whole year older. The years may make me feel like a piece of history, I remember things which are written about in history books. Of course my life isn’t there, I’m anonymous, one of the anonymous crowds. Although to me my life is centre stage, I’m the principal character, the world exists as it touches my life; my birth, my schooling, the work I did and the choices I made. My parents were born in the second decade of the twentieth century, that is a hundred years ago. A hundred years, a century, that is a historical period: two world wars, the Great Depression, the birth of the Welfare State, a period of prosperity and the death of many staple industries; coal mining, steel, shipbuilding, engineering and one of the biggest, domestic service and the birth and huge rise of the communications industry. So many people sitting at a desk talking to lots of people they can’t see and reading from a script which is written on a screen in front of them. All of us trying to make sense of this ever changing, complex world as we try to navigate our way through it.
My parents are no longer here , I find myself thinking about them more frequently now. Their lives were very harsh in a way I find almost impossible to imagine. Father was the son of a shipyard labourer, in his youth the shipyards were often on short time or closed. Dad had a part-time job from the age of 12 years, delivering groceries by bicycle to those who couldn’t carry their own. Mother also had a part-time job, cleaning for a neighbour who took in lodgers. I didn’t start earning money until I was almost 17, I stayed on at school to take my O levels, they were taken towards the end of the fifth year.
My first job was in an office, the kind of office you used to see in American films, an enormous room, full of rows and rows of desks, some very large machines which were printing on card. They made a huge clattering, clanking noise. Each part of the process of collecting the money and printing it on the master card and passing the orders to the warehouse was divided into the smallest possible tasks. There was scientific reasoning behind this, the simple and more repetitive the process the quicker the operative would get through hundreds of identical checks, efficiency and speed being the most desired behaviour. It could be compared to a factory worker standing at machine when spinning and weaving became mechanised industries in the nineteenth century. Except for most of us there was no machinery only a desk and a printed catalogue, we sat at a desk and the papers were brought to us and collected from us when we had completed our allotted task. The firm was a mail order firm, the first in the town in 1955, at lunch time we had a meal in the canteen and the opportunity to have a chat. There were clean toilets on the premises, an empty seat at a desk was very visible so lingering was unwise.
My sister was already working there and my father soon joined us, although in the warehouse and not the office. He stood and walked, picking out clothes from the shelves. As I sat down on that first Monday morning, the strangeness of everything was overpowering, in front of me I had a rectangular well full of thin cardboard cards all numbered in order, these were the Master Cards. At regular intervals a bunch of smaller white cards were placed on the supporting wooden frame and my task was to pick out the appropriate Master Card and attach it to the Agent’s card and then put the bundle on the other side of the frame to be collected. The first feeling I had was an overwhelming feeling of relief, I can do this. I don’t have to speak to anyone, I just look at the order of the numbers and match them up. I can do it! Later I had other feelings but that was much later. On Friday I gave my mother my pay packet with a real sense of pride, she took out some money and gave me enough for my bus fares and lunches and a treat, may be a trip to the pictures. I felt I was making a contribution. Mother was happy, her two eldest were working in an office, life was just a tiny bit easier.
We were at that time living in a council house, the biggest problem was that to get anywhere you had to get on a bus, the buses were frequent, the fares relatively cheap and the bus-stop was just across the road. My brother had started primary school, he too had to get on a bus, my sister accompanied him to the school gate. Hundreds of family houses but no school. My youngest sister had not yet started school, she was two and a half years old.
I have always been interested in history and geography, how do we come to be here at this particular time. To understand where we are and who we are it seems to be necessary to break the world down to continents, countries, regions and towns. When I was at school, almost back in historical time, mostly I learnt from books , there were a few pictures and maps but the information was conveyed mainly in printed words. As a child who was rooted in one small urban spot, even the English countryside was an abstract term to me. I tried to picture it in a vague and rather indistinct sense. How very different to be a child in the twenty-first century, learning is a very visual matter. We can look down on the fields, hills, woods and rivers from a helicopter, we can see the detail; the hedges and lanes,the stark magnificence of the mountains, the vivid green, blues and browns, as if we were godlike creatures. Standing on the ground beside the river our view would contract to the distance our two eyes can take us, the boats which are close by, the people who are within a few yards of us. This is a revolution as great as the development of the printing press.
Of course words are needed to go with the pictures, Michael Portillo uses many carefully chosen words in his programme,’Continental Rail Journeys’ to explain the country we are seeing, something of its recent history helped by individuals who know the region well. I confess until last night I thought Transylvania was a mythical country, the home of the fictional Count Dracula. Michael tells me it is a region of Romania. Romania is largely rural country where farming remains as it was in the nineteenth century in Western Europe; no pesticides, no insecticides, very little petrol driven machinery. Very different to the large scale mechanised farming of the west. Does this mean that most people in Romania are poor farmers, this was not mentioned in his explanation. The abundance of wild flowers and bees was referred to and sheep were peacefully grazing in the green fields.
Can we learn to understand ourselves better by seeing how human beings learn to adapt to living on mountain sides, in deserts, inlaces surrounded by water and most of us in huge impersonal cities piled on top of each other as if we were a colony of bees? I do hope we can learn to live in peace together and taking care of our living changing world.
Democracy what does it really mean, according to the Declaration of Independence; government of the people, for the people by the people; the words are rational, the practice is altogether trickier: who has the vote, who elects the leaders, who controls the information and delivers it to the voters? Women and working men without property have been able to vote for less than a hundred years and it was a long hard battle to get that right. What do the words Free Press mean, who selects the information or indeed misinformation we are served on a daily basis. Our democracy in this twenty-first century is in a parlous state, there is an ever increasing gap between the 1% and the 99% according to the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, Danny Dorling and world renowned economist, Joseph Stiglitz. Both have written many books based on evidence, that the gap between the many and the few fabulously wealthy individuals is a bad thing for the whole of society. One thing it does is to lesson trust between the different sections of society and lead to an increase in revolutionary activity and an expansion of criminal behaviour. Stiglitz has written, ‘The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them’.
He also refers to ‘free market fundamentalists, —unfettered markets do not lead to social justice.’
On the radio this morning this huge difference, very similar to what it was in the 1920s, the salary of the CEO of a large company asks for and gets 123x the wages of the average worker. Only one other country has this enormous disparity and that is the USA. With this fact in mind the Austerity economics followed by this government is a cruel deceit practised by the political class (at the behest of newspaper owners, who are backing them) against the majority of ordinary working people. The NHS, to take one example, is deprived of money because the immensely wealthy prefer to put their profits in a Swiss bank account rather than pay their taxes.
We all of us need to know how to play our part in an open democratic society to get us out of this mess.
In keeping with the date I have decided to dedicate this post to my favourite book of all time. I can hardly contain my excitement in getting to talk about The Great Gatsby yet again. I’ve go…
Source: National Book Lovers Day