Saturday, 3 November 2018

New To You, or: TL;DR

I seem to be going on about the nature of getting older rather a lot on this blog recently. Which, for readers of various ages, is probably boring, annoying, and anxiety-provoking in equal measure, but there we are. Let's put it like this: I may only be 64, but like any good driver I like to keep my eyes on the road ahead. Not too far ahead, obviously, as this road only goes to one place but, although the destination may be absolutely certain, the hazards and roadside attractions on the way are worth remarking upon, and even worth the occasional detour. Plus, being a good driver but a terrible navigator, there is always the chance that any detour I make may become an instructive dérive. As Chet Baker said, let's get lost. Or as my partner says, try not to get lost this time.

Some hope. I drove into deepest darkest East Sussex recently, to collect four of my pictures from a gallery in Ticehurst and, after following what I thought was an obvious route, realised I was lost in a labyrinth of unsignposted sunken lanes Somewhere in England. I knew I was off-course somewhat when a posh woman on a large horse rode up the lane and, on being asked how to get to Ticehurst, said, "Where??" Luckily, she was able to consult her smartphone and benevolently guided me out of the maze. I think I may have a naive faith in such guardian angels turning up at the right moment which is rather stronger than my sense of direction.

So, um, what was I going to say? Something about getting older... Oh, yes: Old MacDonald. There is a type of song, often "traditional", in which the chorus gets progressively longer, as a new element is added with each verse. I though this genre might have a nice name, but it seems they're simply known as "cumulative songs": Old MacDonald Had a FarmThe Twelve Days of Christmas, and There was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (no, I have no idea why she swallowed a fly, these things happen, it's no biggie, and there's really no need to make a doctor's appointment... What? No, of course she's not going to die, you idiot) are all examples. The thing is, increasingly, I am struck by the extent to which our collective life is paralleled and parodied by these cumulative songs.

Not so very long ago, there wasn't a great deal for the average person to know. You had to know how to get out of bed, find your way downstairs, make gruel, and stagger down the lane to whatever field or workshop you were working in today, then reverse the process once it started to get dark. Your work was probably traditional, repetitive, and dull. You probably couldn't read or write. News came in the form of gossip and broadside ballads. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas was probably the most rigorous workout your memory would get in a twelvemonth. After all, even the most advanced scholars of the day had yet to hear of pretty much everything we now presume to be common knowledge. Bear in mind that Bishop Ussher's rigorous calculation, based on the best available data, that the first day of creation fell upon October 23rd 4004 BC was made in 1650, not 650 AD; that is, around the time young Isaac Newton was learning his long division. So you might not have known everything, but you could be across most of it before plague, war, famine, or various lethal combinations of stupidity and ignorance wiped your slate permanently clean.

Today, you don't need me to tell you, is rather different. It's arguable that it was young Newton, in fact, and his uncanny ease with long division that started off the snowballing complexities of modern life. Simply making breakfast and getting to work today requires more knowledge than was possessed by an entire village in 1718, and quite possibly 1918, too. Balanced, of course, by an ignorance of world-historical proportions. I mean, who, thumbing their way through the night's crop of trivia on the morning commute, has the faintest idea of how a smartphone actually works? Worse, what you knew last week may not be enough to get you through the day. It only takes a few ill-considered legislative changes, or some new contradictory nutritional advice, or, ulp, yet another unasked-for Windows upgrade to throw your whole understanding of the world into chaos. But here's the thing: unlike a Windows upgrade, an awful lot of the new stuff doesn't replace the old stuff: life is not just a long song, it's a cumulative song.

This is especially true in science and technology. Newtonian mechanics still apply, and you can't skip that verse and go straight to the wacky stuff about string, although it's also true that you can't include alchemy or astrology and still be taken seriously. The Science Song may be long and cumulative, but you've just got to buckle down and learn it. This is a bit more of a problem in the realm of culture. People might debate who's in and who's out, but no-one can dispute that the list of candidates just keeps getting longer and longer, without really getting anywhere. In music, Bach wasn't replaced by Mozart, who wasn't replaced by Beethoven, who wasn't replaced by Mendelssohn, who wasn't replaced by Mahler, who ... Well, you can probably hum the tune by now, even if you don't know all the words. There has always been more and more to listen to, to read, to see, to appreciate, until – probably somewhere in the mid-20th century – there was finally too much, and "culture" broke into pieces. We call that event "post-modernity". Keats may have had good reason to hope that his name was not, after all, "writ in water", but then he knew who the competition were, and had probably read them all, often and with close attention. A contemporary Keats could spend a lifetime catching up before actually getting around to writing anything, but, given she's probably never heard of Keats, and is a 12-year old wannabe rapper living a precarious life in Los Angeles or Lagos, this hardly matters any more. There are any number of different cumulative songs, each invoking its own list of players. No-one is conducting the cultural song any more.

Which brings me to my main, grumpy-old-man point. Isn't it annoying, when some sparky youngster announces the discovery of some old hat in the cultural attic, as if no-one had ever seen or worn it before? Yes, yes, young 'un, that was your grandfather's hat: I'm sick of the sight of it, frankly... That's the only reason why I, ahem, nailed it to the rafters, rather than taking it to Oxfam. Which reminds me that some second-hand shops have taken to describing their stock as "new to you": a good label for most culture, really, it being both well-used and always new to somebody.

On Hallowe'en, for example, I was at the Ashmolean Museum's exhibition Spellbound, which brings together lots of material associated with witchcraft and popular magical thinking. No, I was not an exhibit myself, although I must admit I felt a bit like one. I've had an on-again, off-again interest in witchery since I was a teen [1], and – apart from some rather half-hearted art installations – there was disappointingly little there I hadn't come across before. Witch hunts, witch bottles, apotropaic devices, astrology, black mirrors, crystals, and mummified cats ... It was all a bit shop-worn, and also pitched at that "school project" level that museums seem to have adopted universally, so that it was spookily like being trapped inside a copy of a book like Dorling Kindersley's Witches & Magic-Makers [2]. I will admit it was good finally to see actual copies of classic texts like The Discovery of Witches, and also some manuscript depositions from witch trials, but the lighting levels and displays were not attuned to ageing eyes or prolonged scrutiny, if faded 17th-century secretary hand is not as immediately legible to you as it might be to some. But it seems you're not expected actually to read the things. It's a spectacle, grandad: move along, please...

Self-evidently, the young don't know – cannot know – what to us oldies is basic stuff, and yet we are obliged to assume (or pretend) that they do. Anything else would be tiresome and patronising. Of course you know who Harold Wilson was, and why he's standing in that photo with the Beatles. The Beatles? Of course you know who the Beatles were... Similarly, to have presumed that we knew, or would quickly come to know, everything our parents' or grandparents' generations knew was never more than a polite fiction. Of course I know who Benny Goodman was... Not so sure about Dan Leno, though... The communal cumulative cultural song is always falling apart, always starting again. In pre-literate societies, of course, you could make a decent living as an itinerant bard, recounting the interminable history of a people and the genealogy and heroic deeds of its rulers in epic eight-hour recitals, but these sessions were hardly singalongs. Today, as the chorus not only gets longer and longer, but also wider and wider, and spreads out into completely new and unknown dimensions, something has to give, and that seems to be personal memory. The ability to memorise and retain and recall is vanishing. In the title of a book I saw recently: why learn history when it's already on my phone?

So, ironically, in an age of information overload the typical individual's knowledge-base may be returning to something like its pre-modern village level. You need to know how to get out of bed, find your way downstairs, make breakfast, and stagger to whatever hot-desk, cash-till, or call-centre you are working in today, then reverse the process once your shift is over. Your work is probably scripted, repetitive, and dull. You probably don't read or write much. News comes in the form of social media chat and infotainment. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most rigorous workout your memory will get in a twelvemonth. And, curiously enough, this is pretty much exactly what Marshall McLuhan (who?) really meant by the Global Village.

1. Which has NOTHING to do with those objects nailed to the rafters. NOTHING.
2. Dorling Kindersley have pretty much trademarked a style of presenting reference works aimed at children that is big on white-background illustration and light on text, which is often reduced to the status of sidebars and labels.


Andrew Sharp said...

At a seasonal gathering with well meaning neighbours a few years ago they began to sing the Green Twelve Days of Christmas. I have no recollection of what the presents were because, in my head, I found myself writing an equation for the total number of each present. Having mentally scribed the equation I then differentiated it to find the maximum. It turned out that there were two solutions (either 7 lots of 6 thingummys or 6 lots of 7 wotsits).

So, as well as what's the answer to life the Universe and everything, there's another question with the answer 42.

Mike C. said...


I have a feeling this makes my point, though I’m not entirely sure why...


Andrew Sharp said...

Yes Mike, I think there is as a resonance but it isn't obvious.

One thing about scientific knowledge is that while it's cumulative it's underpinned by attempt to explain things that happen (facts) by embedding them in a simpler theoretical framework. This is especially the case with Physics which is, I suppose, why it suits my way of thinking about things. The facts then get remembered because of the way they support the theory.

Mike C. said...


OK... Although where "fi-ive go-o-olden fives" comes into it is still a mystery!


Julian Behrisch Elce said...

One of your best pieces! But, I think that in the past we could only have gruel for breakfast because that’s all that was available; now I can choose from cereals, eggs, breads, fruits, and more. The same is true, I think, of knowledge and culture.

I think you may enjoy the podcast “The Secret History of the Future”, especially the recent one about information overload.

Thanks for your funny and thoughtful writing and cool pictures.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Julian, that's very kind. I'll try to check out "The Secret History", though I confess I'm slightly allergic to podcasts. I've spent so many decades listening to BBC Radio 4 that anything else feels like an act of betrayal...