When I was young there were some ideas which sank in unquestioned, at least for a while: that I was growing up in the best place in the world (the UK not the US, in case you’re wondering); that ‘progress’ was like evolution, a natural process, inevitable (and a good thing) – the past was full of bad things that had been fixed by progress – emancipation of slaves, enfranchisement of the poor, of women, eradication of diseases … History was a one-way train to a better, fairer world.
And then in the 1980s someone declared the end of history, by which they meant the Cold War was over and the world had got to its destination, which was a wonderful capitalist dream (and someone else declared there was no such thing as society).
I wonder whether what really happened was that the train had started going back down the track. I watched a video of Tony Benn asserting confidently that not even Thatcher could contemplate dismantling the NHS without causing a revolution. It was now as essential and accepted a thing as women’s votes. He must be spinning in his grave.
And then there’s the gendering of toys to a degree way beyond what there was in the seventies. And the increase in economic inequality. And the persistent need to fight back against some new incarnation of racism – they spring up like weeds.
‘You can’t fight progress’ someone said to me the other day, with respect to more new houses planned on the edge of our village. When I queried the word ‘progress’, he said ‘well, you can’t fight human nature’, meaning landowners will always build on green fields if they can make money out of it. Hopefully, however, ‘human nature’ means that some people will always strive for things other than money, so the pendulum keeps swinging.
But there is no history train to the promised land, no track laid, just the desire lines made by our feet walking the same way.
So (don’t you hate people who start with ‘so’?) there’s drawing and there’s sculpture and there’s painting.
Colour is a very uncharted ocean (for me) and a lot of the time I’m drawing with paint rather than painting (by which I mean dragging the brush across the surface to make a line, neglecting colour and light, as if it were charcoal, instead of applying the paint as an area of with hue, tone, saturation and all that) – but there are occasions when the paint goes on like clay and the brush is a modelling tool and then it feels like sculpting with paint, placing it carefully, not smeared or muddy, which seems like progress.
Redefine ‘national defence’ to include defence against the things that are most likely to harm people: ill health, homelessness, ignorance and climate change. Reallocate defence spending and associated human resources to health, education, social housing and renewable energy/energy efficiency industries.
House members of parliament in halls of residence akin to an academic college instead of providing them all with houses in the most expensive city in the country. Add the houses they would otherwise occupy to the social housing stock.
Require all elected representatives to serve 6 months’ apprenticeship in service to those most in need, so that when they come to debate policy they can imagine the lives of the people affected.
Restrict ‘campaigning’ to production and distribution of anonymised manifestos, paid for by the state and presented in the same style and format so that only the content differs.
The BBC is celebrating David Attenborough’s 90th birthday and last night he/they presented two films from Attenborough’s oeuvre. The first was from 1971 and called ‘Blank on the Map‘, about an expedition into ‘unexplored’ parts of Papua New Guinea (where hundreds of languages are or were spoken) hoping to find the unknown people whose settlements had been spotted from the air. While DA gave off the enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge we know him for, the context was full of colonialism and Western arrogance. They tramped through the jungle with 160 porters (the white men in their khaki didn’t do carrying, it seems), and when they found a house, empty but with warm ashes in the fire, they thought nothing of going in through a sturdily closed door and having a nose about – even in his commentary today DA did not comment on this except to say they were taking a risk of being shot at.
In 1971 he spoke of the expedition hoping to introduce these people gently to the outside world, so that if/when the outside world came in to exploit any mineral resources that might be discovered, these indigenous people would fare less badly than others in similar circumstances. The outsiders offered them glass beads, salt and newspaper (for rolling tobacco) in exchange for food (which the visitors didn’t really need), so that they would establish a more equal trading relationship, he said. Of course there was no question of equality and the idea that there might be something the outside world could learn from them, other than ethnography, didn’t occur to anyone, it seems…
This was followed by a more recent film, about a carving Attenborough had bought at auction. It turned out to be, as he hoped, an authentic Easter Island piece, with a provenance deriving from Captain Cook’s visit in 1774. In the course of the film, he told the story of the Easter Island people, who had come from Polynesia, thrived, multiplied, created the famous stone statues, but then evidently gone into decline, having cut down all the trees on the island, leaving themselves stranded and impoverished by the time Cook’s ships arrived.
Some people think the Easter Island statues were made by aliens visiting us long ago. But the unstated moral of these two films might be expressed in a variation on that image: one day little green explorers will arrive on earth to wander through the relics of its ancient inhabitants, wondering what became of them and how they could have been so short-sighted as to destroy the foundations of their ecosystem, when they had the skills to build such monuments.