I’ve been speculating recently about what the future may hold for Riley our first grandchild now 18 month:, what dangers lie ahead, and how his lifetime will compare with those of my wife, Anthea, and me. We were born in the middle of the 2nd World War. We had blackout curtains so communities would be in complete darkness to avoid German bombers. We had gas-masks: I saw mine when I was a little boy after the war: it was small and gaily painted orange. The larger adult ones in the same old Yorkshire cupboard were a grey-green. We had been issued with instructions as to what to do when the anticipated German invasion came. Churchill considered encouraging us to become suicide bombers along with the tempting slogan Take one with you. Rationing of basic needs was in place and imports were severely restricted. We didn’t see a banana till we were five. Then came a decade of postwar austerity. As teenagers and beyond we experienced the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation with Kennedy-Kruschev eyeballing over Cuba. Another flashpoint was the Berlin Wall dividing Germany into Western and Communist sectors. As the wind of change blew through Africa we fought insurgents in Kenya, the Mau-Mau, and for years we fought rival insurgents in Cyprus. As our imperial role dwindled, a new insurgency arose on our own doorstep – or to be more accurate in our back yard. The IRA renewed its campaign for a united, Republican Ireland … a civil war fought in Ulster and in the pubs and streets of England. All our bags were thoroughly searched before we were allowed into public buildings. There were bombings in Birmingham and Guildford where we rounded up the usual suspects and imprisoned them knowing them to be innocent.
How about Riley? He enters a world where dissident Irishmen and women are again showing militancy but with a terrorist campaign that’s dwarfed by Islamic fundamentalists and 9/11 and 7/7 prompting infringements of human rights, the erosion of civil liberties, and a dilution of democracy, where wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might well pave the way for further idiocies in the Falklands, Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea, where AIDS is still a killer, where abuse of drugs and alcohol fuels daily stabbings to death, a society reels into a coma induced by tranquilizers and cheap Reality TV – a misnomer if ever I heard one – where dehumanization is pandemic, and where a feeding frenzy causes fatal obesity. The UK economy will continue its decline in the face of the burgeoning economies of the Far East, particularly those of China and India, and the measures taken to control global warming seem to be too little too late.
But while comparing our childhood and Riley’s he has a lot to look forward to. Life expectancy has soared along with transformations in medicine. As a child I had fillings without anaesthetic and childhood diseases were par for the course … measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and the potentially fatal poliomyelitis. Riley’s time will see an upward curve in successful treatments including for cancer. He’ll experience an unparalleled period of access to information via the Internet and to formal learning where he’ll have an infinitely greater chance of higher education than post-war children. As social mobility has improved, he’ll have a far greater choice of who to become and, should misfortune strike, he’ll find available the support of a fully fledged welfare state. His choices in leisure activities will be infinitely wider than sixty years ago. Although Thatcher flogged school playing fields, the sports and keep-fit activities on offer outside the education system will be many and varied, as will the availability of books, magazines, artwork, and recorded music with terrific sound quality. Thanks to what used to be called Women’s Lib he’ll benefit from friendships with women who are accessing higher education and achieving more career-wise than was imaginable fifty years ago. He’ll also know gay people who mostly remained locked in the closet until 1968, and he won’t have the experience that I had at school aged eight the morning Derek Bentley was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. At nine o’clock Mr Dawson asked us to be quiet as the hanging was taking place at that very moment. And travel … Wow! I’m pretty sure Riley will know exactly which he’d choose.
Chichester has a Friday market, not in the usual car park, but spreading through East Street and North Street I bought an excellent chilli and garlic vinaigrette from a farmer and, as I was strolling on through the festive throng, I overheard a young woman say to a plump, rural-looking man of about 50 – possibly a stall-holder colleague – Would you like a coffee, I’m just going?
Yeah, he replied. Three sugars stirred clockwise.