I spent my childhood in a country that was struggling to recover from the Second World War, a small country with big illusions, where bacon and beef only “came off the ration” in 1954. We lived not far from the sea and my parents warned me not to touch bottles and cans I might find on the beach, because they could be German booby traps. My father, who worked in an office, was sad and stern. I think now that the gay young sailor who’d gone smiling to war had come home totally disillusioned, with only his honour intact. My mother loved him; she could do nothing else. My elder brother was a bricklayer, the younger would be a fitter and turner; I was the family intellectual and I became a teacher. The status this gave me was enough to justify the extra years in school and at college; and the teaching “profession” was perfectly suited to a young man of our modest station.
In 1974, I left an England which had failed to heed Ted Heath’s warnings about the “unacceptable face of capitalism” and would get its just desserts from Margaret Thatcher. I spent seven years in Dortmund, Germany, where I met people who had contributed to the reconstruction of their country after the war, brick by brick, street by street, and were justifiably proud of what they’d achieved. But I also met insufferable bourgeois couples who ran their lives with age-old, formulaic rigidity; and young people who thought there had to be more to life than a brand new car and designer fittings in the bathroom. The Baader-Meinhof years were coming.
I spent the next 30 years in the Paris region. I arrived at the same time as Mitterrand and 15 years later I stood in line with my solitary red rose to scribble a few words in the book of condolence. In 1986, during the terrorist bombing season, I crossed Paris twice a day in the metro, like everyone else. I demonstrated against Le Pen in 2001 and watched Chirac betray the republican spirit that had gifted him the election. Incredulous and aghast, I was there when the little clown Sarkozy was elected, and shortly before the end of his tragic-comic reign I left the capital…
…to settle here in the Vendée, in November 2010.
But the rolling stone stops here and will gather moss no more. I’m not sure why I still tow my British nationality around with me. Perhaps it serves accusingly to remind me of all the shit we’re responsible for. Be that as it may, I’ve come a long way from the English laissez-faire attitude which has produced an off-shore police state a million miles from Europe, a state where the rich no longer bother to hide their contempt for the poor they exploit.
I bear allegiance now to Europe and to Bournezeau and that perspective suits me just fine.
In fact both the European and the Bournezvaizien have to work around the other guy, the one I call Child of the Cosmos. I am one of those people who look at the stars and see a convertible loft; like a child walking his fingers across an atlas and dreaming of “when I’m grown up…”. But the stars are further away than the child could ever imagine and space-time is even more complex than a cell phone tariff guide!
Children have to be patient. It takes them time to develop their talents and learn how to be a grown-up person; a long time – five or even ten times those few years they’ve already spent on Earth. That’s too much to ask of a child’s brain and it’s not surprising if some-times they dig in over present wants, without a thought for the too distant future.
Curiosity and ingenuity – the desire to know what’s beyond the mountain and the intelligence to get there – are written into our genetic code. They are qualities that have apparently served us well: a whole planet subjugated by a single species, the Earth has never seen that before. Nor perhaps the Universe. But the road we’ve taken is lined with bodies: those of other species, gone for ever; and those of our own whose only fault was that of being at a strategic disadvantage.
We have always given priority to the satisfaction of our present wants. We have been not childlike, but childish. But the time has come for us to grow up, very quickly, and assume the full weight of adult responsibility. For otherwise there will be no more children, ever.
The Earth is warming and the permafrost is melting. Either we find a way of stopping it or the quantities of methane released into the atmosphere will have us dreaming of the good old days when we only had a carbon problem. The greenhouse effect will accelerate out of control and increasing temperatures will be measured in tens if not hundreds of degrees.
There is no longer the slightest doubt about that. Anyone who says there is, is either badly informed or lying.
My dichotomy is as follows:
On the one hand, life in my own tiny biosphere is getting better and better. The 15-20 years I have left will bring me pleasures big and small, and the great satisfaction of being able to live the way I chose.
On the other, as a representative of the species, a planetary citizen and a child of the cosmos, I am profoundly shocked by the light-hearted ignorance accompanying our descent into collective suicide.
If I were 20 years younger, I’d be working the web night and day, trying to shift public opinion. But I’m 66. I’ll probably escape the worst of what’s coming – and I have no children.