Today is not forever
Neil Pickford considers the long term
So last week I achieved my one hundredth column in the Beverley Advertiser – a big achievement. And then I thought: ‘so what?’
It wasn’t an emotional reaction, more an understanding of my non-existent ranking in the cosmic scale of things – so completely unlike that of a great philosopher who once said: “For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer” (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Not all of us have the single-minded drive of the Terminator, our ambitions are lower than of becoming governor of California but it does appear to be the nature of humankind to strive; for some to achieve – and for these achievements to eventually turn to dust.
The drive probably comes because most of us have the sense that we are unique and, therefore, because we are unique we are important.
By extension there is a temptation to assume that ‘our’ moment is different to any other in history and that this particular ‘now’ is different to any other.
You see it among teenagers during their normal route through adolescence: they believe that no previous generation has ever been as essential, as concerned, as sensitive, or as environmentally aware as they.
Similarly no previous generation has ever been so daring or interesting in its music or fashion and no one has ever worried as deeply about emotional affairs as this one.
Sorry kids but you’re wrong. Those boring old fellows you see tottering around on the edge of dotage (you know, the over 40s) were young once too and we had our moments.
For instance, some years ago there was a bit of a ‘punk’ revival and I saw a young gentleman sitting rudely in Wednesday Market, He sported the standard uniform of torn clothes, safety pin in one ear and a spiked-up pile of green hair. He was obviously enjoying his reputation of being a ‘bad boy’ and the reactions of people as they first noticed him. He caught me watching.
“What you staring at, Grandad?” he bellowed out, obviously expecting me to jump like a frightened cat.
I smiled gently.
“Memories dear boy,” I replied. “Memories.” And so I was.
Our normal egotistical view of the world, while entirely understandable (and, don’t get me wrong – I share it) leads to another common misunderstanding: that everything around at this precise period of history is immutable, unchanging…and always will be.
A good example of this can be found in the Rose window in the top of our northern transept wall. In one segment of the leaded panels there is a small diamond-shaped piece of glass etched with the name: ‘John Hunsley, 1798.”
Next to it is a more modern piece of glass, bearing the signature of AA Hunsley, who was the glazier charged with rebuilding the window in 1986 and the great-great grandson of said John H. He was so excited by discovering his ancestor’s signature that he promptly wrote the names of the vicar, churchwardens, bell-ringers, even virgers involved with the Minster in that year, obviously intending to give their great-great grandchildren a chance of experiencing the same thrill that he had on discovering this contact with his ancestor.
It’s a lovely vote of confidence in the expected survival of the Rose window.
But how confident can we really be about the future? Things do change over time – take the Minster itself, for example. It’s always been there and it’s always been like it is, right?
Wrong. It’s been around for 800 years but inside it’s varied from having bright colours splashed on every exposed surface to today’s naked stone.
It once had a gallery over the north aisle, now it doesn’t.
The current choir stalls in the nave were, only 40 years ago, some three feet closer together and were only moved back to give the congregation a view of a brand new altar.
The pulpit has moved around like a stop-motion animated dancer over recent centuries.
Before Henry VIII we never had a pulpit or pews and the main body of the church was a mad free-for-all where people gathered to discuss almost everything apart from religion.
Eighty years ago none of the present trees or bushes in the churchyard even existed: one hundred years ago the churchyard was still an active cemetery: two hundred years ago there was a dome above the central tower: three hundred years ago the central tower itself was a huge spike even taller than the towers at the west end: four hundred years…. Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going.
So, if such things can change so radically over time then what can we reasonably expect of our own age to still be around for our great grandchildren to appreciate?
Will the interior of the Minster still be plain stone, or will modern lighting recreate the mood of lush and vivid colours that our ancestors would have expected? Will the Minster still be a church? In 200 years it might be a cathedral, a museum, a mosque or a ruin – who knows? It is unlikely to be as it is today.
I am also confident that no one will remember ‘View from the Vestry’ in 2212. Once that would have annoyed me intensely but now I really don’t mind. You see, I’ve changed too.