Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Let's Talk About...

the good old days. C’mon, you know what I’m on about. We live in times when even people in their early 30s preface their sentences with: “Do you remember when…?” When, what, exactly? When you were born and Thatcher was in power

Let’s talk about a certain epidemic sweeping through these isles. It’s a “selective memory” condition that reminisces about past times, carefully and skilfully leaves the bad bits out and focuses mainly on the good ones.

It is not an ailment that affects solely the Brits. I had the opportunity to see the same phenomenon in my country of birth when I visited last summer. Perhaps, because Castro’s demise was imminent, but I ran into people who went out of their way to romanticise a past they had only slagged off three years before on my previous visit.

The elements that make up this “golden era” evocation in the UK are different, though. We live in times when technology, to mention but one factor, has challenged normal conventions. Social norms, educational practices, human interactions, they have all been transformed. For many, these changes have been for the worse. Loss of manners, addiction to gadgets and lack of social etiquette are some of the side-effects of swiping and scrolling. It is natural, therefore, to look at the emotional spaces carved out in one’s childhood as a comfortable refuge to inhabit.

But beware. Bygone eras do not come all under the same banner and with the same content. Let’s talk about the good old days, but what years exactly? Before the 1910s, you say? If you were a woman you did not have the vote. If you were poor there was no free healthcare and seeing one’s offspring dying was common. 1930s? Rise of antisemitism in Europe, so, if you were a Jew, you were not safe. 1940s? There was a war going on. And whilst Britain fought on the side of what I call “the good guys”, the truth is that when your city is being bombed to bits, you do not look back on those days with fondness but rather with horror. 1950s? OK, I’ll give you that one, but only if you were not gay, you did not need an abortion and you were not black (the racially-motivated Notting Hill riots took place in 1958).

This is not to say that these eras lacked pluses. There were many: outdoor play was part and parcel of growing up; allergies were not as rife as now (as spring time comes upon us, I am already fretting over which allergy will attack me first: pollen-caused hay fever, the tree variety or the grass type?); dieting was mainly the preserve of celebrities and community carried a real meaning.
Say what about my health?

The danger is that as our future becomes more frightening we retreat further away from it. And by moving away we invariably drift towards that “past as a foreign country”. Of course they do things differently there. For starters, they have not got mobile phones. They did, however, cane you. Remember that?

Let’s talk about the good old days. But when we do, let us remember, too, that not everything was rosy pink. Outside toilets, bullying, bigotry, and domestic violence were so normal that people would not bat an eyelid if you brought these subjects up in conversation. That is why I think it is better to think that no era was golden. They all had their pros and cons and idealising them does no one any favours. Plus, at least we have mobile phones now, don’t you think?

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Before you carry on reading this column, please, do the following: stand in front of a mirror, preferably a full-length one and ask yourself this question: what am I? Not, who are you? You know who you are, but what you are will pose a different challenge to answer. Then, come back to my blog and post a short, one- or two-line response below.

At some point in the last ten to twelve years I posed a similar question to myself. Before that time, however, I never queried what I was. Or at least, not consciously. If ever the question arose, it came from someone, rather than from me.

I would wager (and I am not the betting type) that your answers included categories such as age, race, complexion, body shape and height. Some might have ventured a bit further and included their sexual orientation and politics.

How many of you started your response with the phrase: I am a human being?

There is no catch in this post. Like you for a long time I described myself as Cuban, male, black, young (still and forever), able-bodied, neither tall, nor short, slim and muscular, straight, leftwing (but not romantic), cynical and pragmatic. Two lines that established what I was. No priority in that list. Yet, at some point the pragmatic has taken over the Cuban. Other times the Cuban has replaced the black as a bigger identity marker.

However, hidden under all these thick layers there was one trait that I shared with every other man or woman on Planet Earth: our human experience. What is it about us humans that compels us to “dress up” this essential feature with countless other elements?

Our starting point in life, barring location and economic status, is similar. We cry most of the time as we come out of the womb; we immediately gravitate towards our mother’s breast, seeking nourishment. We react warmly to affection. We begin the long, arduous process of living, knowing that our individual choices must not hurt others, that we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for the world at large.

The challenge is that at some point in our lives and at a very early stage for some, we also start to layer up our identity. The markers we choose might or might not be of our own volition but the decision to act on them is ours.

The reason why I have been thinking about identity markers and our common humanity is the situation of refugees in Europe. The dangers these people face is threefold. First, their situation back home. Second, the journey many have to undertake to reach what they would consider a safe sanctuary. Third, but by no means least, the new life they have to carve out in a land to which they never thought of emigrating in the first place.

The thinking on refugees is usually framed in terms of economic cost: how much is it to feed them, clothe them, house them and employ them? The discussion very rarely delves deeper into the reasons why people with reasonable life standards would risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or war zones to get to Europe. If we did, we would probably find an index finger pointing back at us. On the one hand, our military industry demands that more wars be waged. Otherwise, how on earth would we manage to sell our weapons? On the other hand, our economic choices have a knock-on effect on Third World countries and their capacity for self-reliance.

I described myself as a cynic a few paragraphs before. Nevertheless, I have confidence in the world we live. I am also a romantic (not of the “plastic socialist” type, though) and believe that the majority of human interactions involve millions of acts of kindness and co-operation. Part of the reason why I hold these beliefs (note the use of what is commonly seen as religious language. I am reclaiming it) is that many years ago I, too, stood in front of a full-length mirror and asked myself what I was. The first answer I came up with still resonates to this day: human.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd March at 6pm (GMT)


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