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?

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