Assuming there’s a funeral-pyre option, I want mine built on a barge, Viking-style, and towed out to sea from Prince of Wales Pier, Falmouth. I want crowds. I want trumpets and cymbals and those professional mourners wailing and – I don’t know whether I can stipulate this – gnashing their teeth. Lots of uncontrolled emotion – and let’s hope for a mix-up in the bookings so that there’s also a clown to distract the children. Oh, and wouldn’t it be great if there were several mysterious women dressed entirely in black (blacker black than everybody else), with veils over their faces, who queue up to drop a series of single red roses into the water? At five-minute intervals, perhaps?
And fireworks, of course. Yeah, and a representative from the insurance company underwriting the plan, who doesn’t quite know where to put the tasteful corporate-colours bouquet he’s brought to demonstrate his company’s commitment to customer service at all times. Finally, distracted by the clown pulling an egg from his ear just as he’s got up the nerve to ask the nearest mysterious woman whether she has any plans for later, he panics and hurls it into the water, where it skims like a flat stone until it catches up with the barge. And then sinks like a stone because he’s forgotten to remove the brick of funeral-plan leaflets that he was supposed to hand out to the mourners as they left – not to the professional mourners, said the memo.
Or could it be that the funeral-plan leaflet – that I’ve just put through the shredder – doesn’t offer any of those options? Could it be that the funeral-plan leaflet doesn’t even invite me to choose between lying on my back for a very long time and blowing in the wind? I wonder if the late funeral-plan leaflet – much missed, now that I need to check up on these details – doesn’t really care what I want, so long as my plans for the future include paying the company behind it a regular income. A regular income from money that would otherwise go to my descendants. Who wouldn’t charge an “administration charge” or a “set-up fee” before paying for anything. I think I can manage without financial planning for the hereafter, if what that really means is signing away today’s money to corporate strangers.
Financial planning, I said, not fraud, although they’re easily confused. When did we all get so single-mindedly obsessed with money? For quite a lot of my life, it occurs to me now, there’s been at least one insurance company whispering in my ear, offering me the opportunity to commit to paying a regular monthly amount towards the distant prospect of something that a conventionally minded unimaginative person would imagine that I wanted at that age. My first credit-card offer – oh, the nights out I’d have, the consumer technologies I could buy, so easily, so easily – and all those offers of loans towards the deposit on the motorbike, the car, the flat, the debt burden. All I ever had to do was sign a lengthy contract, full of small print, that committed me to providing an insurance company with a long-term income…
…and I suppose I should apologise for the dismal subject-matter (and length) of this week’s post, but hey, why don’t we all just blame the insurance company? After a lifetime of sending me glossy sheets of paper that I didn’t want, full of opportunities that came to me anyway – or didn’t – without their expensive intervention, their final pitch is this: pay us an income for the rest of your life, and when you’re dead, nobody will be out of pocket.
Well, great. All that Western Civilisation, all those ancient Greeks, Romans, writers, artists, self-help gurus, enlightenments, renaissances, German philosophers with difficult beards and unpronounceable names, the sixties, the eighties, The Economist magazine, all that Harnessing The Power Of Modern Technology, Wired, Terry Pratchett, the Mona Lisa, Kindle, NaNoWriMo, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (seriously; all those lumped together in one ministry) – all that, and it comes down to this: we want your money.
And here, right on cue, is another credit-card offer. It’s offering me a competitive rate on balance transfers. It comes from the bank where I’ve had an account since I was fourteen, and it includes a leaflet detailing how they’re using my data. Now. If you’re me, you’re probably wondering: how can this bank, of all banks, not be aware that I haven’t had a credit card for upwards of twenty years?
If you’re me, you’re wondering whether it’s possible to have a “balance” to “transfer” if there isn’t even a credit card to transfer it from? I mean, my finances aren’t that healthy, but – no. Full stop. This doesn’t work. If you’re me, you’re wondering about that, and about the embedded inaccuracy of all the data collected about us, and you’re playing around with some neat but overstretched metaphor that involves bears, woods and toilet paper – and you’re missing the real point.
But you get there in the end. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from a credit culture in which the objective of a credit card, or a loan, was to buy a television or a sound system now rather than at the end of the month. I’ve gone from that, to a credit culture in which the objective of a credit card is to manage existing debt.
I thought the financial crisis was ten years ago – more than that. I thought we’d killed that monster. We’ve defeated it, and we’re living in the happy-ever-after, right? The fact that dust is trickling down the heap of rubble doesn’t mean that the monster is about to come bursting out again, does it? I should give up on these metaphors. We’re all in bad shape, financially, and the banks are competing with each other to take our interest payments as income. Remember the financial crisis? All those mortgages treated as securities?
I mean – if my own bank (a) doesn’t know that I don’t have a credit card and thus, you know, don’t make regular payments out of my bank account, duh, to service a credit-card debt, not rocket science to work that out, and (b) doesn’t realise that its shiny new algorithm doesn’t know me half as well as Mr Bedford (nicknamed “Uncle Bedford” in the family; my bank manager in my teens) knew me back in the day – well, I think I can stop worrying about the “surveillance economy” and all the data being collected about me. Because when they finally get around to using it, it’s not about me. It’s levelled out, rounded up, rounded down into a generic version of me that wants what some generic average person in my demographic would want. It’s not actually cost-effective to know me personally.
I don’t know what people in my demographic want. I see them often enough, in the coffee shop, the café, the cinema and the theatre – on the coast path, the beach, the high street – and I suppose I could ask them. I could join them where they gather and ask them – no, wait a second. Maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe they’re not gathering at the box office, or taking the dog on some Nordic Walking expedition. Maybe the Wisdom Of Insurance Companies is correct, and actually, I’ll find them queueing at the undertaker’s, waiting to enquire about opportunities to make advance payments towards their funeral.
After all, those credit-card companies and insurance companies wouldn’t have spent that much money over that many years on so many glossy mailshot leaflets if they didn’t know what they were doing, would they? If that was the case, you’d have to ask – where the heck did they get that much money to waste?
Yes. Fine. The pesky mammal species can stop what it’s doing, or – not. The planet goes on. We all survive, or some of us do, or none of us do. End of story.
Except that … I’m convinced by the science, yes, sure, and the weather does seem to be worth talking about, uh huh, and yes, I did see that piece shared on Facebook about – yes, yes, I know, very worrying. We’re too late to stop it, and people do keep leaving plastic bottles on beaches, I know, and that’s bad, and yes, I will bring a bag for plastic waste next time I head for Gylly Beach. I agree with you. Bad situation.
Could I just say – not disagreeing with you at all, not even slightly – that I’ve noticed something that doesn’t fit? It just occurred to me, and now I can’t get it out of my head.
It’s this. There’s always something. It was Mutually Assured Destruction and then it was Nuclear Winter. Some time before that, it was the Apocalypse and Armageddon and all manner of nastiness if we didn’t pick the right church of a Sunday. I can remember being worried that international travel would spread plagues around the world. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring (1962). Communism was seen as a big threat in the USA in the nineteen-fifties, and now I think they’re worried about “socialised medicine” (as in: the UK’s NHS) while we’re bothered about chicken (something about chlorine).
Don’t quote me on the USA; I speak from ignorance. I’m just saying this. The space in our heads currently occupied by global warming has never been vacant. There’s always something. And whatever it is, somehow, we always survive it. We had The War To End All Wars, and then another one, because we were always at war. And we’re still here. My generation lived with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, blah blah blah, just as my parents’ generation lived with, you know. And we should respect the plight of Generation Whatever We’re Calling Them Now, whose futures have been utterly destroyed by – no, I’m not getting into that.
I find this reassuring, actually. I take it to mean that we’re changing. We may not realise it, but we’re adapting. The situation may look close-to-hopeless (it always looks close-to-hopeless), but all the beach-clean initiatives around the world, the green initiatives, the Un-rap store in Falmouth (and the rest of the bring-your-own-packaging movement) do actually count for something. They’re the tip of an iceberg that may not melt all the way after all. Don’t stop picking up the plastic, but don’t despair either.
If I was planning for the future, for real, I’d plan for a future in which the distances travelled are shorter, the roads are clearer, the batteries last longer – the batteries in the bicycles, I mean – and the background noise is birdsong. A future in which technology has a place, and transport, and trade, and horses, and long lunches, and Summer afternoons, and butterflies, and fresh air. Because if I set reason aside for a moment, I'm pretty sure that's what's coming next.
Footnote. I just made a phonecall. Two minutes at most, to confirm the time for a meeting over coffee. My phone is now displaying the question: "How was the quality of your call?" Under that, five white stars. Under that, the word "submit". To which my immediate response is: I'm not submitting! Who wants to know, anyway?