It is difficult to say exactly what changes modern technology has wrought with society, although we can all see that there are many, since these changes have been in the making for many decades. The advance of communications technology, with the smart phone and internet, is merely an end-effect from things which have been looming, growing and improving, over many years. It is possible for all of us to look back a few years and claim that society, work environment, leisure were better in the past, that our youthful years were without stress and we were more than happy living in a technological stone age, but, to a certain extent, we would be fooling ourselves. Much if what we remember is that which was presented to us in the mass media of our times, through our education, or simply by the accident of our birth which placed us in a certain place at a certain time. My idea of what was good in the past is split, as an example, into two categories: the first is centred around London where I was born and lived for many years; the second is centred around the closed environment of a boarding school in a small village in North Yorkshire. The equivalent would be for you to compare Portland or Salem to John Day or Trout Creek: the former are packed with everything a city needs to keep its thousands of inhabitants happy and working, while the latter are more in line with tourism in the season, or pure country life without all the trappings of metropolitan civilisation. In John Day you can drive down the 395 into the Malheur National Forest, or the 26 to the Ochoco National Forest and experience a completely different type of communing with nature in your leisure time as those living in the major cities, despite their close proximity to Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, would understand and desire.
For me the difference would have been more akin to John Day, and its State Heritage Site, and New York City. I came from a decade of living in the heart of London, literally around the corner from Buckingham Palace in the Seventies, to a village larger than John Day (population 1,600 to my 4,600) but lacking in anything culturally exciting aside from a small local museum – dedicated to the explorer Captain James Cook, in the building where he went to school – and a popular ice cream parlour. We had several choices at the weekends: go into the village and eat an ice cream; walk up onto the Yorkshire Moors and visit the memorial to Captain Cook; stay on the school grounds and read, play sports, sit around and do nothing. In London I could walk from my front door to Buckingham Palace, the military barracks, several parks, churches and a minster, the parliament buildings, any number of cinemas, museums, shops and other amusements in less time than it would have taken me to walk to the Cook monument in Yorkshire. Added to which we had a whole city quarter filled with museums of every imaginable kind a short bus or underground ride away.
All of these things are still there, and they are still be visited by the population of London as much as by the countless tourists who stream into the city each year. The ice cream parlour in my small Yorkshire village is still there, although the school I attended is not. The difference is the attitude of the people themselves who, whilst still visiting the same areas as before – bearing in mind that my time in Yorkshire was the Seventies – but not reacting in the same way as I did. There is more social media involved, and considerably less interaction one with another, face-to-face.
I suppose we should be grateful in some ways that social media has made so much of our world available to a wider group of people. What was once considered an exclusive area for those who travelled, or those who could afford a night out in the West End of London, to visit the clubs and music bars in London’s Soho, or even to spend a week or two out on the Yorkshire Moors and the Pennines, has been opened up to a far wider public. The secrets – even though many web sites still claim to be showing us the secret places only locals know about in order to convince us to visit – of an area, no secret to those who live there, are easier to find and the selection offered for our leisure time, for vacations and the like has risen dramatically.
This, of course, is the good side. The tawdry side of social media and the internet is the clearly the use made for sending out content of a more dubious nature, from pornography through to anonymous threats, from items of a criminal nature through to terrorism. The internet, and all social media for that matter, are merely following what has happened to absolutely every other means of communication we have ever had, and every other twist and turn of society. How many criminal acts were arranged through small advertisements in the early printed press? How many gangs connected through the telephone system? Even the written word, and we certainly cannot leave this out of the equation, has been used – probably more than any other means through history – to arrange the overthrow of a state apparatus, to spy out a bank, to lure someone to their final earthly appointment.
As to art, the changes we have seen have also been carried through over many centuries. I recall reading the initial appellations of the Church against modern art which no longer portrayed the blessings of a gentle God, as those sponsoring artists turned towards their own earthly immortality and away from spiritual idea of everlasting life after death, religious stories and decoration. Art follows the pattern we see with modern technology: the Church changed from appellation to demands and then orders; the establishment attempted to dissuade and then ban some forms of modern art – and by that I don’t mean the Jackson Pollack styles of artistic endeavour, but also your Renaissance, Romantic, Minimalist, Impressionist styles and genres – by simply refusing to acknowledge them, refusing to have the results of ‘modern’ artistic endeavour portrayed in mainstream museums and galleries. The Impressionists, you will recall, were laughed out of the mainstream in Paris, set up their own ‘off-Paris’ exhibition, and won a massive following as a result. Today we have ‘off-Broadway’ and, in recent years, as this has become more of an institution than an exhibition of the new, an ‘off-off-Broadway’.
The classical works, whether visual or written, are, of course, worthy of respect in many ways. We have to remember, though, that access to these works we now claim as part of our national heritage was very limited. The cost of a book only a century ago, if a person could even read and write, was exorbitant and well outside the range of an ordinary person. A major private library, a few hundred years ago, might have been less than one hundred books, which is nothing compared to what is possible today. My own library is many thousand titles strong – whether they are all worthy is another matter entirely – even if I am one of the outsiders today, following a tradition of reading and collecting in a physical sense, which is slowly dying out as technology brings us the same works in a virtual format. The major publishers at the start of the last century, as Allen Lane began his project to bring literature to the masses through the production of paperback books, all decried the effrontery of downgrading literature, of bringing works of far lesser value onto the market. You may well have heard that he, with three others, founded the British publisher Penguin – he began his career in the family publisher business of Bodley Head and Penguin Books was initially a part of this company – and that this publishing house was designed to bring the best literature onto a mass market which, at the time, didn’t exist. Where would we be today without paperback books?
Amusing here is that the example of Allen Lane and the production of paperback books – in 1935 – is often hailed as the beginning of the end for literature and, at the same time, the beginning of a boom in the reading of literature in the United Kingdom. Thereby the British, in their usual manner of claiming to be masters of the known world and innovators without comparison, simply forget that Lane took his example from a German company – Albatross – which, in its turn, had taken the idea of producing inexpensive paperback books from the Leipzig-based publisher Tauchnitz – who produced inexpensive English-language works for the European market. Albatross also used the colour coding Penguin adopted for its books – where green for Penguin was crime, Albatross used green covers to denote works on travel. Tauchnitz began production of inexpensive paperback works in about 1841, and brought about a complete reform of the manner in which copyright for literary works was handled in Europe, being the first to pay English authors for their works, and only publish them within Europe. One of Wolfgang von Goethe’s constant complaints was over the number of publishers who took his works, also within Germany, not just abroad, and reprinted them without paying him for the work he had invested. This was also a major thorn in the side of all authors as far as the United States was concerned, who came to copyright and payment of authors very late in publishing history, having simply taken British and European works, reprinted them, and taken the proceeds for themselves without any attempt at payment to the author.
And publishing itself? This was also claimed to be something which would ruin society, as books were initially – after the mechanical printing presses became more popular – not published by dedicated publishers covering an entire country or continent, but by individual booksellers. My copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World from 1800, for example, was published by several booksellers working together – Wm. Otridge and Son, John Walker, James Scratchard, Vernor & Hood, D. Ogilvy and Son, Darton & Harvey – and my four volume Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper from 1806 is noted as being printed by J. Seagrove for J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, London. Some of the earlier booksellers who also published had wonderful descriptions on how to find them, often using the names of other businesses, such as public houses, to refer to their addresses. But did the change from individual booksellers publishing books to publishing houses doing the same work bring literature to its knees? It is certainly the case that the Impressionists, in their small exhibition in Paris, changed the art world and the manner in which art was both chosen as art and displayed, but they certainly didn’t destroy it.
As to avarice, yes, we see that today in politics as much as in business dealings. Again, though, this has always been the case. I recall reading of how Cicero, after he had been consul in Rome, decided to give his partner consul the governorship of a province, despite the massive income it would have brought him, in order to remain in Rome. Other politicians – and we can see Pompey and Caesar here too – would have been hoping for one of the more profitable provinces for their time after consulship to recoup expenses, and make a fortune. Today we see it with business connections during the time a person is holding office – someone in a high position in the health ministry, as one example, buying into health products prior to voting in legislation which made his investment worth considerably more – and we see how this benefits them and comes to our detriment. Few things have changed over the years, but for the means by which such actions are communicated to us. We no longer have to wait for the runner from the battle at Marathon to bring the glad tidings – and die as a result – we have it on our smart phones in an instant. And perhaps this is what is bad, that we have so much information which is absolutely useless to us in real life but, because of the way we have been sold our gadgets, we feel we must have in order to be up-to-date an in tune.
To be honest, I do not think that you are missing a great deal by having your television channels and media restricted, despite the fact that I do not agree with such restrictions. I have been without a television for many decades and only listen to the radio – a classic music station with very rare talk pieces – when I am travelling in my car. I take a frequent glance through the headlines and the comments on Twitter, but no more than that: there are few items which inspire me enough to read the full article, to go to a news site and discover more. I don’t need to read the press to know that one party will automatically oppose the legislative proposals of their opposition, nor that they will promise to roll back everything when they come to power in however many years time. Nor do I need to check the press to know that all the promises politicians make – such as a promise that the health service in the United Kingdom would get three hundred and fifty million more each week if they left Europe – are to be taken with an exceptionally large pinch of salt. These are things which haven’t changed with the advent of our modern technology, just as so many other things have remained the same, or simply evolved. What I find sad is that this modern technology stops people from seeing the world around them, as they spend too much time checking to see if anyone else is looking at the world and reporting it, and that they believe what comes across on their small screens. Many people have simply, through the flood of available and useless information, lost the ability to make a well-considered and educated decision for themselves.
I am sensibly mortified at finding myself obliged to disappoint you; but though I have had many thoughts upon the subjects you propose to my consideration, I have had none that have been favourable to the undertaking. I applaud your purpose, for the sake of the principle from which it springs, but I look upon the evils you mean to animadvert upon, as too obstinate and inveterate ever to be expelled by the means you mention. The very persons to whom you would address your remonstrance, are themselves sufficiently aware of their enormity; years ago, to my knowledge, they were frequently the topics of conversation at polite tables; they have been frequently mentioned in both houses of parliament; and, I suppose, there is hardly a member of either, who would not immediately assent to the necessity of a reformation, were it proposed to him in a reasonable way. But there it stops; and there it will for ever stop, till the majority are animated with a zeal in which they are at present deplorably defective.
Cowper with something that has not changed over the centuries, writing in 1786 and, in his letter to a priest, going on to note that many of those who would fall under the description of criminal in this case, and be caught by a parliamentary reform, are members of one or other of the houses responsible for legislative measures, either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. What we now consider to be a major modern problem in politics – and elsewhere – has been there all the time, we have merely not seen it, or not taken the appropriate action needed to reform it.
I think the only real reason why I have, as you put it, a more natural setting is because I tend to go my own way and avoid all the problems which politics and big business bring with them. Not going with the latest fads and fashions, not falling for political tricks are both much the same in the end. I am happy, as I wish more people were, to simply survive without hardship, to live a quiet life with my letter writing, my reading and my occasional travels and visits to the world of art and culture. I do not subscribe to the idea that the table I lay my meal upon must always be the latest design on offer, nor do I see any reason to change the cutlery which has done me good service for several decades. The principle behind these things has not changed, and they fulfil their functions, so why change? I have a pair of shoes which I regularly wear, and which I bought in London at the end of the Seventies. Now and then they need a new sole, and that is fine, why throw them out when they can be repaired and have fulfilled their function for so long?
I think that this idea of always having the latest gadgets, the newest fashions, the things that everyone else has is wrong. That doesn’t mean I am going to go out there and preach against the world and its ways, but just look to myself. No stress with clothing, or with a car, or with a telephone, or with so many other things. And by not feeding big business, as small as this may be when a person is on their own, perhaps I am also doing something for our world by using that which works rather than replacing it with something that also works and fulfils the same function. As a child it was waste not, want not, and that is the way I see it today.
I can, at the same time and with much the same arguments, understand those groups within your facility who stay together, who talk their own language, who protect their own way. I would not necessarily see it as a threat, as some do, and force integration since the integration, when they speak the same language as we do and generally follow the same customs, is already there. They are, to a certain extent, protecting their own culture, however this culture may be defined, or even if they have defined it themselves, as we would wish to defend our own. I find it amusing, here in Germany, to hear those people fighting against an immigrant using their own language as well as German, and then lamenting the fact that language learning in school has fallen to such a low standard hardly anyone learns a foreign tongue unless absolutely necessary. And if I had not belched after a good meal while I was in Saudi Arabia, or had eaten with the wrong hand, it would have been considered an insult to both host and cook.
Although, yes, it can become overwhelming. We all need our peace and quiet now and then, regardless of who we are or where we come from. The ability to just recede into the background and enjoy solitude amongst a crowd is difficult at the best of times, so it is all the more important to us.
The idea of living on a houseboat is something I held when still a teenager, and something I would probably not turn my nose up at now if things were different. I spent several vacations on a narrow boat, cruising up and down the inland waterways and canals in England. My father was something of a fanatic in his final years, retiring from his work and buying a forty-five foot long narrow boat. He rented it out in some of the summer months, and used it himself in spring and autumn and I suspect, had he lived slightly longer, he would have moved in completely and just travelled. To be honest, though, I was happier out walking because of the breadth of freedom it allowed, even though I certainly appreciated his desire to live on a boat and have kept some of the things he gathered during his time on the water. I enjoy the idea of just being able to take any road and see where you end up, if you’re not going to be fixed in just one place, and with a boat on the canals that is impossible. Florida though, yes, I can see that. I seem to remember there are some houseboat communities there?
I wouldn’t have been able to settle down with my father on his boar, though, no matter that we had enough room for two. The times when I was with him out and about whilst being interesting, were full of stress. Our lives went in different directions, and I had spent too many years outside of family for a reintegration – I couldn’t call it anything else other than that – to work. I think the only thing that we really shared was a love of books, and even that in different genres. He read crime thrillers more than anything else, and I read biographical, historical and philosophical works. I’m not sure we would have had a meeting of minds on any constructive level. Which is a shame, as family is important at certain stages in life. We miss them when they’re gone, we are told, but, for some of us, that isn’t the case. If they weren’t there for us when we needed them, or if they turned their backs on us for some reason, then that told us all we needed to know. I think you understand what I mean better than most would.
I’m not sure whether that would bother me or not, an interrupted to routine as you mention. I’ve had a quiet two months or so, school vacation, no association work, no meetings to speak of, and have fallen into a fairly lazy routine whereby I rise late – and go to bed late too – and really only read and write letters. A few times I have been out into the real world, visiting a museum or just a lazy time in the city but, aside from my daily walk t the post office and an evening stroll to smoke a pipe, it has been a nothing time. Now, as we approach September, this relaxed do-nothing routine will be broken and I will be expected to undertake all sorts of visits and paperwork through to the end of the year. In some ways I am happy for the break in this routine, as it has made me lazy, but I will also be happy for the break in the new routine at the end of the year, albeit only for a fortnight. It is good, though, to have something to come and wake you up from any form of routine which doesn’t excite you, which doesn’t challenge you in some way. It’s just working up to that break, that change, which bothers me at times, even though I know I want the change, want to get back to the other routine, need the challenges to wake my brain and get me out of the lethargy of an unchallenging vacation period.
Perhaps then a few of my letters will become more interesting, in vacation mood I always have the feeling that they are stifled with insignificance, have nothing to say, and are a mere waste of paper. Perhaps I just read my own words too often.