I’m currently reading Cain’s Book by the Scottish Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. I bought it second-hand a while ago and it’s been transgressively staring down at me ever since from where I wedged it in an untidy bookcase, daring me to read it. I’ve not got very far but I’m already finding it hard to put down. I thought I’d stop long enough to share this quote, though. It seemed to resonate uncannily with the present:
‘I had often said to Fay and Tom that there was no way out but that the acceptance of this could itself be a beginning. I talked of plague, of earthquake, of being no longer contemporary, of the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary. I exhorted them to accept, to endure, to record. As a last act of blasphemy I exhorted them to be ready to pee on the flames.’
I watched a TV programme the other day about life in Britain a century ago. It was entirely made of old black and white footage. Young men and women were enjoying themselves at the seaside, the year before the young men went off to fight in the First World War. It struck me that if I could step into the screen and join those young people with cheerful faces who were looking me in the eye through the camera, I’d meet a group of people whose ideas about foreigners might strike me as quaint. They would probably have read or known some of Kipling’s poetry (though some may have read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and much in between). That Europe was full of foreigners with proud, separate identities and divided into isolated nation states would seem to most of them to be the way things should be.
As we all know and as the young people in the film were about to discover, ways were being developed of killing on an industrial scale. I needn’t list the technological developments -good and bad- since. Suffice to say, one hundred years on, the internet has shrunk the world to the size of a hand-held device.
My grandfather fought at the Somme. He lived to see my father grow up. My father lived to see me grow up. My children are adults now, too. When you realise you’ve lived half a century, you realise what a short period of time it is, in human terms. In other words, not a lot of human lifetime separates me from those young people at the seaside.
We have barely had time, then, to think about the connected, high-tech world we’ve invented, never mind come to understand the different ways we might live in it. I voted to remain in the EU but, just over a week ago, people in the UK voted to leave it. Lots of them were wary of immigration but it is surely the case, in the long run, that people will increasingly move freely in a world where information, investment, ideas and commodities can also be moved easily. It’s already happening. If you ask me, it’s good, it’s enriching, it’s something to celebrate. I hope there will come a time -okay, it’s still a long way off- when the word ‘foreigner’ will be meaningless. In the unlikely event of some extra-terrestrial being stepping out of a flying saucer some time in the future, our descendants will have to re-invent it.