Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A Falling Off

Two things have been stuck in my head recently like flies buzzing at a window. In some odd way they seem connected.

The first thing is one of those tragedies that strikes a particular resonance that gives me the giggles. Sorry, I can't help it, I'm just made that way. As Oscar Wilde said, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Recently, at Seaton in Devon, a Polish man fell 300 feet to his death, having decided to pose for a photograph clinging on to the sheer cliff edge by a tuft of grass. I think what makes me shake with suppressed laughter is the idea of a man feigning for the camera the terror of a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass, when he actually is a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass. Or not so much feigning as parodying that terror, a split-second before experiencing it in reality, as the ironic quotation marks fall away from the situation. It's sort of an inversion of Edgar and Gloucester's scene in King Lear.

Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou'dst shiver'd like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed'st not; speak'st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again.

But have I fall'n, or no?

From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a-height; the shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up.

So it goes. Oddly, on the very same day, a Russian man also fell 300 feet from another cliff near Folkestone. It doesn't seem to be known whether he was also larking about for his friends' cameras.

The second buzzy thing is a remark I saw quoted in a review in the TLS of the historian Brian Harrison's new book Seeking a Role, an account of Britain in the years 1951-70, a period of great interest to me if only because it contains my own life to the age of 16. The reviewer (Peter Hennessy) opens with these remarks:
Brian Harrison has a special gift which historians prize. He can turn the grains of history into fascinating and convincing patterns. How about this as an example of his grasp of the granular? From a journal to which I was hitherto a stranger, Heating and Ventilating Engineer, he has gleaned that in the UK, the "average living room was over 5° Fahrenheit warmer in 1970 than in 1950". In terms of what one might call the softening of Britain, this is hugely significant. Those of us on the rim of middle and old age can vividly remember living in homes with but one warm room enlivened by a coal fire and, on winter nights, leaping into bed and hoping to fall asleep before the chill bit, and waking up to patterns of frozen condensation on the window panes in the morning. I have been a weaker man since the winter of 1966–7, when the underfloor heating of St John’s College’s new Cripps Building in Cambridge corrupted me for ever.
I have given up describing to my children how we used to wake up to find frost on the inside of the windows, and how one winter the water froze solid in the lavatory bowl of my Bristol flat. Or the sheer unpleasantness of getting into a bed made up with sheets and blankets in a cold, damp room. It's not their world. Or not yet, anyway -- we're probably going to have to lose at least a couple of those five degrees.

But it wasn't that observation that stuck in my mind. It was this:
This fine book goes a long way to answering the question posed in the early 1970s by the great French historical sociologist Raymond Aron when he wondered how it was that Britons had gone from being Romans to Italians in one generation.
"From Romans to Italians in one generation"... It's the sort of remark that perhaps only a right-wing Frenchman could make (casually denigrating both Britons and Italians in the same breath) but it has haunted me since I read it.

Were we once Romans? It's true that we once had an empire, and now we don't. Did certain character traits and social attitudes go along with Roman-ness, which we have since lost? Did my generation experience any such changes? Yes, we probably did, but I think we thought we were getting in touch with national realities, and casting off imperial illusions. Empire and its stiff, stuffy trappings were amusing, in an ironic way, but no-one was ever seriously going to wear a bowler or top hat ever again after 1968. Indeed, the abandonment of idiotic hats in general was one of the symptoms of the profound changes that happened in Britain in that period. But -- even while railing against the evils of our own colonialist past -- I suppose we may not have realised how deeply and how finally the branch on which we were sitting was being sawn off the tree. It wouldn't have made any difference. So it goes.

Yes, I can see what you're thinking, and you may be right. Did we post-war generations -- just like that foolish Pole at Seaton -- seize on and ham up the irony of our situation to amuse ourselves ("Oh look, we're cutting off the branch we're sitting on! Oh no!! Help!!!"), only to find that there was a lot further to fall than we'd thought, and that it might be going to hurt rather more, too?

Hmmm. I will be returning to this topic (which, in my private shorthand, I refer to as "the dressing-up box of Empire") in a future post. So hold this thought: At what point on the spectrum does authenticity cross over into make-believe, and vice versa?


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

A few days ago I started to read "The Art Instinct" by Denis Dutton. One of the things that made me think about is how the changes we perceive in our life hardly could be of some effect in the long run. Dutton, to make it clear, compares the thousands of generations of humans that, by mutation and selection, shaped our habits in the Pleistocene against our mere hundreds from the invention of writing (do not remember the exact numbers he uses nor the time span used for each generation but the calculus seemed sound at the moment).

If you think about it and think about the various,failed, experiments in trying to introduce some mutations in the Drosophila you will see that the time scales required to produce a significant and lasting change in a life form is enormous and far beyond a single life.

I understand that this is based on the, objectionable, assumption that culture is some sort of second nature, and as such it is exposed to the same evolutionary constraints (well to be honest Hegel forgot about the problem of mating but since he was not aware of Darwin's coming and mating was not his forte we can be forgiving about and leave an open hole :-).

But to the last remark (sorry). The Gallic cousin of ours Raymond Aron is wrong IMHO. If you consider the current USA empire as a mutations of the British one (mutations of the same scale occurred to the Roman Empire in four centuries) you will see that the timing gets closer with a slight acceleration for obvious reasons (consider mail travel time as a possible measure among the many).
To be exact we are not even next to the end.

Sorry for the length and approximate linguistic form. Feel free to cut abruptly the text.


Anonymous said...

so, how did the photos of the guy hanging on a tuft of grass come out?