Ideas Above Your Station
‘Remember when we were young and you still had an open mind?’ says a character in a film time has now erased from my atrophied brain. One of the challenges faced by an author is how to maintain an open mind as the passing years insist on proving that one’s instinctive fears were in all probability well-founded.
But if authors don’t keep their outlook fresh, who will? Yesterday I was stopped on the street by a pleasant-faced man handing out scraps of paper from a suitcase. We get a lot of this where I live, at the confluence of three vast stations. The shout-outs range from angry rants by Jesus-people (I’ve never understood why evangelists are so aggressive – isn’t the message about unconditional love and acceptance?) and marketeers handing out samples of energy drinks and moisturiser.
The gentleman with the suitcase was incredibly polite, and instead of tossing the paper into the bin I went onto its website to see which particular brand of madness he was trying to convince people was right. It turned out to be an advert for a three-day event held in North London extolling the teachings of Indian saints. Under their activities page they’re listed as setting up care homes, hospices and free medical treatment, providing disaster relief and medical advice, among other good works.
My inner-city cynicism may yet prove correct, but the more I searched the site and its links to world health organisations, the more it felt that just by bothering to type in a website address handed to me by a stranger, I might end up contributing something to charity. And what if I’m wrong? Is that really so disastrous?
What intrigues me more is where my attitude came from, but I think aspiration has a lot to do with it. I don’t mean in terms of success, but something less tangible. There was very little demographic targeting when I was a child, so, instead of being surrounded by the leisure pursuits of 8-10s, say, it was assumed by everyone that children could enjoy adult pastimes. I went to a very ordinary infants’ school and distinctly remember my first assembly, which was introduced by a recording of Mozart’s Rondo for Horn & Orchestra (although I didn’t know what it was called then). I was seven years old and it lodged in my brain.
The first proper books we were given were nautical adventures; ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’, ‘Two Years Before The Mast’, ‘Coral Island’, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’. It wasn’t very long after this that we were introduced to Dickens, and ol’ Chuck and I began a lifelong affair. I realise now that the idea of being required to think and act above your station was the norm. My first classical concert, at age 10, was by Benjamin Britten. At around the same age my mother took me to see my first play, ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ by George Bernard Shaw, and we had a discussion about it afterwards.
I didn’t consider myself an especially bright kid. I was inattentive and prone to mucking around. A lot of the stuff that was thrown at me didn’t stick. To this day, I detest Anthony Trollope. But the idea of adopting an adult mantle was very appealing. The internet has given the next generation a potential head start by providing easy access to information. Unfortunately, literacy rates are falling. I get depressed when I hear adults earnestly discussing ‘South Park’ or ‘The Simpsons’, ironic checklists designed to make you feel that you know something, even if it’s only pop culture. Of course you can’t live on a diet of high culture, but there’s so much more to try and understand.
The successful commoditisation of museums and art galleries now means that you can no longer go along for half an hour to quietly reflect before a painting, say, because the place will be packed out. I went to the British Museum yesterday morning and you couldn’t move in there. The simplest way to seek out ideas above your station is still to open a book you’ve never tackled before.
This year, perhaps, I’ll finally get around to ‘Middlemarch’.