Surprised because – well, my introduction to Shakespeare was three years of “doing” King Lear for my Eng. Lit. A level (older readers: Eng. Lit. is the modern contraction of the subject formerly known as English Literature). Should have been three different plays, but there was a mix-up. So we ground through the same text three years in a row (still haven’t seen the play), and by the end I was still no clearer as to why the royal couple called their eldest daughter Goneril.
But I was pretty sure I knew all too well why the name never caught on. Ugh! Because I’m old and grizzled, my ticket to see All My Sons cost me all of four quid (US readers: four British pounds, which isn’t much for a cinema ticket), and one legacy of my education is that I’ve avoided Shakespeare ever since. I can go to see (almost) all the plays without knowing the ending. The Shakespeare plays, I mean, but having started this with Arthur Miller – no, I haven’t seen Death of a Salesman; yes, I am looking out for a performance of Death of a Salesman.
Eng. Lit. Dept., all is forgiven. I have Theatre ahead of me. What was best about last night was watching “real” characters wrestling with a “real” moral issue. None of them was overtly signalled as the good guy or the bad guy; all of them were flawed, fallible, human, whatever word you want to use; the whole play ran like – sorry, but the word just inserts itself – clockwork. Yes, there were two young adults talking about getting married; no, they didn’t do the rom-com thing of having a row ten minutes before the end and then reconciling after a rethink and a frantic chase to stop one of them getting on the train.
The unpredictability of it all. No doubt there were dramas in 1947 and 1605 that ran along predictable lines, but did any of that predictability intrude into real life? Today, we’re all pretty sure that – no, I’m not going to mention it – is a clear-cut good/bad thing, and that the President of – no, I’m not going to mention him either – is an antidote to the old politics/should never have been elected. We’re settled in our assumptions. We seem to accept the certainties handed to us rather than debate the complexities, and I suspect that by doing so, we fail to deepen our understanding. People are human; they’re not social-media constructs.
The importance of not knowing what happens next. Actually, that’s not quite it. The value of several hours of not knowing, wanting to know, assuming, getting it wrong, being taken by surprise – the value of several hours of paying attention. Of getting some mental exercise. Of not having a ready-made answer from the start. If we’d known, back in 2020, that global warming was going to be so subtle, so insidious – if we’d really engaged with it and debated it – we wouldn’t be where we are now. But we took it for the simple, straightforward catastrophe we had conditioned ourselves to expect, and completely missed its real impact until it was too late.
Global warming – the simple catastrophe, the “zombie apocalypse” without zombies. Lots of storms, regularly unpredictable weather, reports from remote places of fertile land turning to desert. If only we remember to plant a tree every time we fly, we can go on as we did before. All that seems so absurd now, so tragic. Global warming was too clever for us. It came on more as a deception, a massive con trick, than as a straightforward, manageable, containable catastrophe. Global warming didn’t come at us via predictable extinctions of species we knew, like markers on a scoreboard; it worked – gradually, invisibly, inexorably – through parts of the natural ecosystem that we didn’t even know existed – that we depended on absolutely.
And then it hit us. As the New Druids are saying now, it was as if global warming was “intelligently designed” to get around us. We are part of Nature, of course, and as the Wiser Heresy teaches, we work with Nature more than we realise. Consciously, back then, we worked to retain the status quo; unconsciously, we subverted our own efforts. We failed to see what was happening, and by that failure, we brought our own population back down to a sustainable level.
It’s a neat theory, and I think I believe it. I remember the Hunger Days, yes, and nobody could have wanted them, even unconsciously. But I also remember governments and summits and declarations against climate change. All those admonitions and platitudes shared on social media. It’s almost funny, how ardently we declared climate change unacceptable, and called on governments to fix it for us. As though it was a problem up in The Cloud – remember that? – that we could have sorted out on our behalf while we went on driving and heating our houses. As if we really believed words and higher powers would save us. No, really. Right to the end, we were simultaneously blaming and putting our faith in governments.
Enough of this. I remember that performance of All My Sons and I remember The Merchant of Venice. But tonight’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the forest clearing where my people now hold their gatherings, will be much more in keeping with the spirit of the times.
I was walking back from the Greenbank Hotel yesterday evening, after a drink with a friend, when I passed a Citroen CV6, looking its age, parked where the pavement was so high that I could look down into it, and then a brand-new Toyota Aygo. Both cars in versions of roughly the same colour.
Struck me that car number one in that sequence was a piece of machinery constructed for the purpose of getting from A to B by people whose primary interest was in providing a means whereby customers could get from A to B. Wheels, seats, engine, protection against the weather. The Toyota Aygo, in this company, looked like a shiny red cocoon on wheels. Also practical, but plump, shiny, closed.
And I wondered about the two generations that had made these two things. Did the first really give birth to the second? What lessons were passed down, and what happened to the straightforward, utilitarian-looking, getting-there-from-here design of the CV6? Why did the Aygo have to be so beautiful, so enclosed, so cosy? So very designed?
I should drink at the Greenbank more often (mine’s a Honda Jazz, thanks). I thought about the evolution of cars, from things you could step into and get out of, to things that wrap you up warm in a safe space with soothing music while the road goes by outside. There are cars that are sold on safety, and cars that “perform”. None sold on the basis that they are quite useful if you just need to get from A to somewhere else.
The travel is assumed, these days; we all need to be getting from wherever we are to somewhere else. We’re all “on the go”, even when we’re buying lunch. But why these cuddly little comfortable cars? Why not modular cars, or cars that could be adapted for different purposes? Instead of the metallic-paint options, you get the clip-on bulldozer attachment or the seats that can be removed (easily) to make more luggage space.
Why not one-person cars that could be lawnmowers with the right attachment, or diggers, or cars that could hook themselves into long road-trains as easily as you drive onto a ferry? Maybe even cars that dock with the side of the house as neatly as spaceships dock with space stations (you’ll want the pebbledash paint options, sir). Buy one of those and convert the garage.
Cars today are aspirational. They’re descended from vehicles where the whole point was that somebody else would do the work. Except that the chauffeur’s space has withered away and the steering wheel has regrown itself in the rich-customer compartment in the back.
I had a pleasant rest-of-the-evening, thank you. I walked on, under the archway, past the Star & Garter pub (“Harbour Views Since 1892”) and past that tantalising little print shop, Juniper Bespoke; I paused briefly at the window of Toro, which opens occasionally for the sale of air plants and other magical greenery; then went on past Stone’s Bakery and the antique shops; past the sports shop and the vintage clothes store; turned left onto Prince of Wales Pier and out towards the Pier Café and beyond.
And not for a moment did I think about cars.