BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Today should have been May Day Bank Holiday, but it was postponed – not for the obvious reason, but because it’s been rescheduled to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Friday. Still, one can’t help but feel that a delay of four days isn’t long enough. It’s a bit like being one of those unfortunate kids born in the second half of December, those whose aunties hand them a present and say ‘This is for your birthday AND Christmas’. Most people are off work, and a Bank Holiday is a day when workers are given a treat by being given…a day off work. Surely it would’ve made more sense to have simply shifted the Bank Holidays that appeared smack bang in the middle of the lockdown to a later point in the year? But, one can’t really blame those whose job it is to plan public holidays for failing to anticipate a situation few saw coming; this situation is too strange for that. And it also continues to place the months, weeks and even days leading up to where we are now in a weird fabrication of immense distance.

However, history has taught us that this ‘optical illusion’ of memory has a habit of recurring whenever a life-changing event occurs and the world on the other side of the event suddenly feels much further away than it actually is. Think of how the last summer on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War is often portrayed as the golden swansong of an Edwardian age that was instantly plunged into luminous amber by those finding themselves on the Western Front. Of course what they’d left behind must have suddenly seemed magical. Certainly a conflict that began on horseback and ended in tanks did indeed serve as a watershed between one era of warfare and another, but this can feasibly be expanded to encompass a wider contrast between the world of 1914 and the world of 1918, one that stretches way beyond the battlefield. It’s no wonder the Edwardian age remains bathed in an alluring glow – though one perhaps viewed from the perspective of the officer class; war stopped play of a cricket match in which all the players were gentlemen.

Across the Atlantic, the three major bombshells that had the greatest impact on the American psyche between World War II and the present day were Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy and 9/11. The first was undoubtedly a shock to the American public; it brought a policy of isolationism to a dramatic end overnight, though Roosevelt had hardly been detached from events in Europe behind the scenes; what the Japanese attack on the US Navy in Hawaii did was to curtail the facade of non-engagement. But the US officially entering WWII didn’t necessarily worsen life for Americans who weren’t drafted; compared to here, the home-front in the States was probably better than it had been before 1941, so there wasn’t much yearning for the lost world that existed prior to Pearl Harbor. If anything, looking back to the Great Depression from the perspective of an economy energised anew by the war effort negated the kind of nostalgic longing for the recent past that the British experienced during the First World War.

JFK’s assassination is another matter altogether. Today, it tends to be viewed through the prism of the conspiracy theory industry; had David Icke been around at the time, he’d no doubt have got in early – though his removal from YouTube over the weekend says more about the Google Thought Police and the intolerance of the Silicon Valley worldview than it does about a man that anyone with half-a-brain recognises as an irrelevant fruitcake. Anyway, as for the President who bit the bullet on 22 November 1963, the trauma that hit the US over the death of a man who represented far more than he ever delivered instantly mythologized the Kennedy Camelot in a way that has proven remarkably resistant to no end of damaging revelations ever since. The orphaned youth of America may have been coaxed out of mourning by The Beatles – whose landmark debut on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ took place just two-and-a-half months later; but as the decade unfolded with the black hole of Vietnam and further traumatising assassinations, looking back to the perceived innocence and optimism of the early 60s and harbouring a grievance that the nation was robbed of a hope it has never regained was a comforting illusion that endures.

With 9/11 – an event that dragged more than just the one nation into its toxic orbit – the rapid realisation that the world had become a less nice place gradually shone a more benign light on the 20th century’s last decade. All those truly horrible elements of the 1990s – from bloodshed in the Balkans to genocide in Rwanda – were overshadowed in reminiscences that airbrushed the worst from the picture, and the 90s was refashioned as the Indian summer of a safe, peaceful planet in which things could only get better. The end of the Cold War, the Kyoto Protocol, Gazza’s tears, Bill Clinton receiving blowjobs in the Oval Office – hell, we’d never had it so good. By 12 September 2001, it already seemed like a hundred years ago – a fun and frivolous era when all we had to concern ourselves with was whether or not Blur would beat Oasis to the No.1 spot.

The dawn of a new age’s first task is to instantly distinguish itself from what immediately preceded it; but when that new age is a dark one, what immediately preceded it inevitably appears shiny and bright – and better – by comparison. Naturally, the Edwardian era seemed preferable to the carnage of WWI; naturally, the young President cut down in his prime felt like the murder of the American Dream he’d embodied; and naturally, the 1990s came across as a less bleak and far more hopeful period because it was a brief bridge between one Cold War and another. And now we find ourselves in a fresh time of uncertainty and unease that is painting the normal we knew before Covid-19 decided to extend its influence beyond China’s borders as not only eminently desirable, but as something we lost a long time ago – far longer ago than is actually the case.

It may well be that the only thing in 2020 that we have to fear is fear itself; but the abrupt loss of so much we invariably took for granted and the sudden change to the majority of lifestyles has had the effect of making many feel as though where we were pre-lockdown was some dim, distant Golden Age we can never get back to. It’s amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to the changes, too. Just in the way a scene from a movie barely a decade old might already seem strange should it feature characters smoking indoors, I’m starting to marvel at the absence of social distancing in any drama I watch and have to remind myself that this situation hasn’t always been the case. It just feels like it has. To claim that the past is beautiful and the present is beastly (nice turn of phrase to justify the title, eh?) might be stretching the truth; but if it were in my power to turn back the clock, I probably wouldn’t say no.

© The Editor

6 thoughts on “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

  1. The scale of relevance of various ‘moments’ must be based on the impact they have on everyday lives. On that scale, the assassination of JFK, whilst newsworthy, had little lasting impact, whereas World War II (certainly for my parents’ generation) bifurcated their lives into distinct pre- and post-war sections, which fed through to ours in the financial and social after-effects, even into our childhood playground games.

    9/11 had a far greater public impact than the event itself warranted, indirectly fuelling the counter-terrorism measures which continue to impact all our lives almost two decades later, whether we are at home or travelling. We may reminisce fondly of the free and easy travelling before those largely pointless exercises in window-dressing, but they’re still here to stay for as far ahead as we can foresee.

    The post-Covid period carries potential for substantial gains in the more rapid adoption of technology and abandonment of many anachronisms, but also brings risks of enabling suppression of freedoms through some of that same technology. It is not surprising to see ‘the usual suspects’ already lining up to take advantage of the accelerated pace of change, sometimes for personal financial gain, sometimes to grab hitherto unavailable powers.

    When this all pans out, we may find ourselves hankering for the historic cosy comforts of the pre-Covid days, just as my parents regretted the loss of their youthful pre-war dancing days, but we’ll move on as we always do, hopefully somewhat wiser at least (but don’t hold your breath on that one).

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    1. Off-topic, but I wish I’d squeezed in reference to the ‘bookshelf’ debate – surely a sign of how starved of silly season stories people are. The idea that you’re only allowed to have books in the house by people you’d gladly invite to dinner is amusingly ridiculous. I have Gary Glitter’s Greatest Hits LP in my record collection; if Gove is a neo-Nazi, that must make me…let’s not go there…

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      1. But topical here.

        I’ve had to set up a ‘Zoom Room’ for Mrs M’s frequent keep-fit classes but, rather than a bookshelf, she seems unduly concerned to ensure that the soft furnishings are reflecting her house-proudness, ensuring that they’ve always been adapted, changed, enhanced between Zoom sessions. There has also been talk of rotating the domestic artworks to offer a range of different backgrounds – so far I’ve avoided that.

        Tempting to create a background bookshelf filled with bound copies of ‘Penthouse’ or ‘Swingers’ Monthly’ – wonder of she’d notice?

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      2. Hahah, yes go for it! I’d so love it if one of those Skype/Zoom TV interviews that are now compulsory would reveal a shelf of leather-bound volumes of ‘Reader’s Wives 1976-86’.

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      3. For some reason the hospital IT/admin people here don’t like Zoom, even though Group Therapy sessions are currently being conducted using Microsoft Teams (which to my non-expert eyes/ears, is basically a very similar platform to Zoom). Given that AA meetings are now being conducted using Zoom and not MS Teams, this is problematic (they recommend to all of us that are in here for alcoholism, which frankly is the majority, start ‘attending’ AA or Lifering meetings while still in treatment that rather than wait until we are back in the outside world). The way around it I found was to go off the hospital wifi network while on Zoom. Downside is this was blowing through my data allowance limit. As luck would have it, my network provider, though largely rubbish, recently introduced a COVID special allowance thingy whereby you pay an extra €5 per month to get unlimited data allowance for the time being.

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      4. Like many, I suspect, I’d never heard of Zoom before all this happened. For my own humble use, Skype serves well enough as a visual chat medium, and because it’s always one-on-one with me, it still makes me feel a little bit like a character in a 60s/70s sci-fi series using a highly futuristic ‘video-phone’.

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