Progress, what progress?

My Grandma had it tough.  She told me stories about her life as a small child with something like 9, 10, 11 siblings.  I’m afraid I don’t remember the exact number, but she often told me the story of how her dad would tell them that it was time for bed, and they all raced in unison upstairs with all the energy they could muster. Why? How odd! If I ever tried to get my kids to bed they resisted, rebelled, had tantrums, so why was my Gran and her brothers and sisters so conformist?  Turns out they raced to secure the middle part of the bed where you were warm, and safe.  On the edges of the bed, 9 children wide, the latecomer faced being exposed to the brutal elements, often pushed out in the middle of the night onto the stark cold, cockroach infested floor.  In the morning, when the light was turned on, there was a scuttling noise as the cockroaches headed for the dark recesses of the room.  You bet your fcuking ass they ran to bed. And let’s face it, listening to Winston Churchill on the World Service wireless ain’t no Beyonce concert on YouTube.

I can’t imagine that life my Gran had.  It fills me with dread and horror.  And yet I remember walking to school in deep winter, for miles.  I remember PE in the freezing cold, so cold I couldn’t do up my shirt buttons as my fingers were too numb. The PE teacher marched you into the communal showers and flicked your bare arse with his towel if he felt you hadn’t showered properly. He stood at the exit of the shower, watching, barking orders.  Sometimes he got the table tennis bat and smacked you so hard you had DUNLOP emblazoned on your cheeks for several days after.

When I tell my kids that, their reaction is similar to my reaction when I heard my Gran’s stories about cockroaches under the bed.  A reaction of incredulous horror.  How could life have been so stark?  My kids didn’t even shower after sports at school, it wasn’t seen as socially acceptable.  Life progresses, and life becomes more protected, softer, more cushioned, more safe, more predictable, more sterile.  This is progress after all. Studies have been commissioned that say hitting kids with table tennis bats is cruel, just like sleeping 9 to a bed is inhumane and is now more or less outlawed, consigned to the middle pages of the Daily Mail pouring scorn on the working class or foreign immigrants.  Progress.  How lucky we are these days.

And yet, sometimes I wonder if we are now really living. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss those showers, and I would never advocate smacking with ping-pong bats, but it was a life full of living, whereas life these days sometimes feels so sanitised, so protected. We seem, these days, to wander around in a kind of haze, a fug, conforming to an expected ideal, the modern ideal of modern living. We have all the trappings. I have a satellite feed, I have a broadband feed, I have unlimited, plumbed, sanitised water, I have electricity and gas, heat, as much as I can ever muster and more. I have a car and can afford to put petrol in the tank whenever I want. I have a large wall mounted TV, I have smartphones, tablets (prescription and electronic variants), I holiday in the sun, I occasionally ski, I have all that. I have become comfortable. And comfortableness brings freedom, freedom to choose from all these rich pickings at my table, all within arms reach. Progress. And if I as much as see another of God’s creatures in my house I whip out my credit card and call Rentokil who come out to destroy them with the latest man made toxins. Awesome.

But really, am I any happier, any better off, than my Gran was? Had my Gran been asked to predict what would life be like if it had been full of heat, light, cleanliness, more than you could ever imagine, she would of course have grabbed it with both hands. She would have probably imagined a life of unimaginable pleasures, a life filled with joy – parties, feasts, mass rallies of people, social gatherings, debates, more parties, unlimited travel, and yet here we are – with all these comforts, and what do we do? We choose to watch others through the medium of our televisions, our modern drug of choice. We surf the web looking for wheatgrass juicers or frictionless drawers for our kitchen. We watch, ostracised from others, viewing reality TV and becoming angry by the behaviour of the ‘celebrities’ within. We crave the life of our heroes – footballers that earn £200k a week, movie stars that have had surgery to keep them beautiful.  We desire the renovated house, we watch with green envy as the TV chef cooks a feast to astound and amaze their friends. We go to bed mentally exhausted, yet physically moribund, corpulent and unfulfilled.

My Gran went to bed exhausted, and if she wasn’t on the edge of the bed she grinned herself into a deep slumber, wiped out from a day of stark but real living.  She lived to a ripe old age too, and I remember seeing her on her death bed and I thought to myself, now that was a character, that was a life well lived, a life full of stories, of experience, of interaction.

And I wonder if we will feel the same.  Progress, what progress?

Nice work Greg …

This is a big shout out to Calendars everywhere.  We take them for granted, but without them life would be chaos. What a fuss I made of the new year in my last blog, this arbitrary turning axis of time, this bridge between years as dictated by something as random as the Gregorian calendar.  Pope Gregory XIII introduced it in 1582, hence the name. Gregory made a refinement on the Julian calendar, which was developed by Julius Caesar (hence the name, again). Pope Gregory added 0.002% to the year to count for the fact that a year is in fact 365 and a bit days long, not 365 days as Julius had suggested. Gregory invented leap years basically, and so if you were born on February 29th, you have him to thank.

Julius had introduced his calendar in 46BC, which is bizarre, as I very much doubt he knew about the impending birth of Christ at the time. Julius had refined the Roman calendar, of which there were many, the original dating back to Romulus in 753BC. Respect goes out to Romulus for such an initiative, but to be fair his calendar was a bit rubbish, with only 10 months in total, beginning the year in March which is so wrong it’s embarrassing. Even small children know the year starts in January. He actually just missed out the first two months and only had 304 days in his calendar, so there was an actual gap between the end of one year and the beginning of another. Romulus may have founded Rome but his calendar skills were sorely lacking.

I often wonder how calendars ever came about in the first place if no one had any concept of calendars, and so here’s how I think the whole calendar thing played out (in my head).

Thousands of years ago …

Someone amongst a crowd: What day is it?

Everyone else: What?  What do you mean? Are you mad? And what on earth is a ‘day’?

Someone: It’s just that, every time I wake up it feels and looks like a repeating pattern, that’s what I mean by a ‘day’, and yet every ‘day’ feels slightly different, but it seems to go full circle – a bunch of warm days, then it gets chilly, then really cold, then it warms up again, and then it starts all over.

Everyone else: Wow. So you’re saying there are repeating cycles within longer repeating cycles, so ‘days’ form part of a longer repeating cycle?

Someone: Hell yeah, I call that longer cycle a ‘year’.

Everyone else: What’s your name?

Romulus: Romulus

Everyone else: You’re a genius, you should write that stuff down

Some immeasurable period of time later…

Romulus: I’ve done it! here it is The Romulus Calendar!

Everyone else: You named it after yourself? That’s a little bit egotistical isn’t it?

Romulus: Well I’m not going to call it the Kevin calendar now am I?

Everyone else (looking at each other and nodding): Fair point.  So how does it work?

Romulus: The Romulus calendar consists of 304 days, with the winter days after the end of December and before the beginning of the following March not being assigned to any month.

Everyone else:  That’s a bit shit isn’t it?  Did you just get bored?

Romulus: It’s actually quite complicated.  I hate you lot.

Everyone else: Hahaha!! Boo! Rubbish! Gerroff!!

40 years later …

Numa Pompilius: Why are we still using the shitty Romulus calendar?  It’s really frustrating.  I was born in the dark days of winter for which the calendar has missing bits and so I can’t easily celebrate my birthday.  304 days is really rubbish.

Everyone else: It’s all we’ve got, Romulus was a moron.

Numa: I’m going to make another then

Everyone else: Hurray!!

A while later …

Numa: I’ve done it!

Everyone else: At last! show us!

Numa: OK, so there were 51 previously unallocated winter days, to which I’ve added the six days from the reductions in the days in the months, making a total of 57 days and put these into two brand new months, January and February, which I added  to the previous 10 months. January has 29 days, while February has 28 days, making a regular year (of 12 lunar months) 355 days long in place of the previous 304 days of the crappy Romulus calendar!

Everyone else: Wow, that seems much better, good work fella, presumably you named it after yourself?

Numa: I called it the Calendar of Numa

Everyone else: So you did then. Typical

A person in the crowd:  Hang on though Numa, it doesn’t quite match with the solar year does it? It’s still going to get out of sync over time. Better than Romulus did I grant you, but it’s still a bit short and therefore a bit shit isn’t it?

Numa: A bit short? A solar year? Wtf? I have to go, I’m a king and therefore very busy. I hate you.

Several years later …

Julius Caesar: I’ve done it!

Everyone else:  Done what?

Julius Caesar: Fixed that dodgy Numa calendar by adding in a few more days

Everyone else: Finally! It took you long enough, about 650 years in fact.

Joker: Or 700 years using Numa’s shitty calendar! (high fives all round)

Everyone else: Let’s guess, you called it the Julius calendar?

Julius Caesar: Errr no … actually … it’s the Julian calendar!

A person in the crowd: It still doesn’t quite work, there’s still a 0.002% inaccuracy that over time will really piss people off.

Julius Caesar: Wtf? I have to go, I’m busy, I have an Empire to rule and I fitted this into my spare time. I hate you all.

Several years later …

Pope Gregory XIII: Sorted!  I’ve fixed Julius Caesar’s bug-ridden calendar which was created in 46BC by ingeniously adding an extra day to February every fourth year.  I call this a leap year, a fine day for getting married methinks.

A person in the crowd: Hang on, how can a year be referred to as BC, Before Christ, when Christ hadn’t yet been born or even known about?  Or did they know when He was going to be born before it happened? Was His arrival pre ordained?

Gregory: Ah well, as the Pope I know this.  You see, the Anno Domini dating system was devised in 525 by Dionysius Exignus. His system replaced the Diocletian era that had been used previously.  The last year of the old table, Diocletian 247, was immediately followed by the first year of this table, AD 532. Thus, Dionysius implied that Jesus’ Incarnation occurred 525 years earlier, without stating the specific year during which his birth or conception occurred.  So in fact they didn’t refer to BC back then, but rather the Diocletian equivalent.

The person in the crowd (feeling rather sheepish): Blimey, thanks, I bet you’re a riot at parties Greg. But thanks for the calendar, it really works!