Wednesday 19 November 2014

A memo to the Caliph

I can’t rid myself of the image of a woman I saw in the supermarket on Sunday. Not because she was particularly good looking (though she certainly beat Kim Kardashian) but simply because I have never seen anyone more radiantly happy.

This is a pretty unusual phenomenon among the self-service tills at Sainsbury’s.

Still, it wasn’t hard to work out why and it had nothing to do with her Nectar points. The presumably expected item in her bagging area was a new-born baby, snoozing contentedly in its car seat.

Can anything beat the joy of having a wanted child? And can anything cap the grief of losing that child, whether to a dreadful disease, accident or war?

My generation, the baby boom that followed the Second World War, has been extraordinarily blessed. True, we spent a fair chunk of our time living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, and may have developed more hedonistic tendencies than our parents as a result.

But we have enjoyed steadily rising material living standards, astonishing technological progress and significant improvements in medical science and life expectancy.

Most important of all, we have never been conscripted to don khaki and provide target practice for the Queen’s enemies.

I sincerely hope my young sons will be equally lucky.

Because I take a keen interest in history, and regretted that my parents never thought to do as much for me, I have put aside some mementoes for my boys to ponder in the years ahead. These include sets of coins from the years of their birth, and newspapers from the days they were born.

I wondered if the joyful lady in the supermarket had done the same, and whether she had paused to wonder about the sort of world into which she was bringing her child.

While it all looks undeniably grim, the good news is you could depress yourself equally thoroughly by looking at any newspaper since the dawn of print, or for that matter at wax tablets, runic inscriptions and cave paintings.

The horrors perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State are utterly repellent, but sadly nothing new. Read an account of that fine old English custom of hanging, drawing and quartering, and thank the Lord video had not yet been invented.

Bird flu and even Ebola must surely pale into insignificance compared with the Black Death.

Warnings of global economic crashes and disastrous climate change recur with equal regularity. Even in my lifetime we have been earnestly warned to brace ourselves for a new Ice Age.

One can also be forgiven a sense of déjà vu as Bob Geldof and his pals again trot out the old mistruth that there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas, and politicians claim that they are about to dual the A1.

OK, not Christmas, but I liked the sign. Google Atlas Mountains and Kilimanjaro for more accurate seasonal images.

The pop stars are at least acting altruistically, though maybe we’d need to buy fewer downloads if some of them put less effort into reducing their personal tax bills.

The politicians are, amazingly, manoeuvring to secure their re-election next year and it will, as ever, pay to study the small print attaching to their pledges.

Yes, the A1 will undoubtedly be upgraded to dual carriageway throughout Northumberland. Eventually. In short bursts. With announcements of the next phase typically emerging every five years in advance of an election, to be followed by the regrettable discovery that there is, owing to the incompetence of the outgoing government, no money left.

A typical day on the single carriageway A1 "trunk road"

There is much wisdom in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

We are born, then we die. The older one gets, the more conscious one becomes that the time between the two is pathetically short, and that nothing really matters much at all. Except one thing.

Using the short while we have got to be as happy as we possibly can be, like that lady in the supermarket. And grasping that the best way to make yourself happy is by making other people happy, too.

Sadly I don’t suppose Islamic State’s self-styled Caliph is likely to read The Journal and take note.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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