Monday 4 April 2016

Let's Taste the Spice of Life

As I approach the landmark age of sixty, I very much hope that I am NOT becoming a grumpy old man. Old, yes, but not grumpy. I happen to believe that for those of us fortunate enough to live in a liberal Western democracy, the world is a better place than it was when I was born. Indeed I believe our society is, by and large, a more tolerant, fairer, kinder one than it was, say, 50 or 100 years ago. Music was great in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, but there's still some great stuff being written and performed. The worlds of theatre, cinema, sport, culture and business are more vibrant and innovative than at any time in my life and well before. And mainstream television, whose demise is often predicted, seems to me to be in rude health, not least in the area of drama, in which we have been treated in recent years to a string of productions of the highest quality in both lightweight escapism such as Downton Abbey, hard-hitting hyper-reality like Happy Valley, or Call the Midwife, which manages to be both escapist and hard-hitting at the same time.

So I don't believe in the "good old days", nor do I think that we are in an inexorable slide towards a new dark age. Of course the world can still be a frighteningly nasty place, and mankind's capacity for evil remains depressingly apparent. But that should not blind us to what virtue there is, nor to the fact that the younger generation gives me every reason to believe that the future is in safe hands. I don't think young people are feckless, lazy and degenerate; I find them to be engaging, hard-working, good-humoured and respectful of their elders. Yes, I know I am lucky enough to teach in a very good independent school, but I also know many wonderful young people from all sorts of schools and backgrounds (it would be remiss of me not to mention here my many young friends from the online diabetic community) So you won't, I hope, find me ranting and raving about falling standards, bad manners, popular culture and whatever else some older people seem to almost delight in moaning about as they grow older.

I do, however, have one overall regret about the world in which I must grow old: it's the way in which we seem to be losing variety and contrast from so many areas of life. So perhaps readers will permit me to be, well, just a little grumpy, about what can be termed the homogenisation of modern life.

"What on earth do you mean?", I hear you ask. "I thought homogenisation was a chemical process, most commonly applied to milk". Well yes, it is, but if homogenising means making everything more consistent, removing contrast, eliminating light and shade both literally and metaphorically, then our world is a lot more homogenous than it was even twenty or thirty years ago. And I feel it is somewhat diminished as a result.

I started thinking about this post earlier today - Sunday - when I was walking to church. I am lucky to live in a small market town with a flourishing Parish church, whose peel of bells can be heard throughout the town on a Sunday morning as it has been for generations. I posted a short clip of the peeling bells on Twitter which quickly attracted a few likes, some of which were from people whom I know to be atheists, which intrigued and heartened me. Perhaps I was on to something. At least until mid-morning here in Kirkham, it sounds and therefore feels like Sunday, and perhaps more people appreciate this than I had thought.

In many ways it is perhaps the seven days of our week which give the best example of what I mean by homogenisation. I am not a big fan of 24/7 and 7/7 living, in that I like day and night to feel different, Saturday to feel like Saturday and Sunday to feel like Sunday. Go into any town centre on a Sunday these days, and it looks and feels no different from any other day. I prefer my Sunday to feel like the proverbial day of rest. For me personally that means church, Sunday roast and a general chill-out. I know that not many people these days want to go to church, but even a secular Sunday should feel different - maybe a walk, some quality time with family or friends, catching up on reading or even TV. But not just another hectic day. Sunday needs church bells ringing out across an otherwise quiet town or it doesn't sound right. And for me it also needs the Songs of Praise or Antiques Roadshow theme music and the smell of a roast dinner. I dislike Sunday opening of shops, not for religious reasons, but because I belive we all deserve and indeed need a "day of rest", or in modern parlance, a chill-out day.

I feel the same about Saturdays. They too should feel like Saturday: leisure activities, hobbies, shopping, DIY, sports - watching or playing - with "Out of the Blue", the theme to Sports Report at the end of the afternoon and Match of the Day in the evening. I'd rather not have a hospital appointment on a Saturday, so I don't see why doctors should be bullied into doing non-emergency work at weekends in the name of a "Seven day NHS"

Days are like seasons. We appreciate them more if they feel different. We need the cold and darkness of winter to help us appreciate the warmth and light of summer. I would hate to live in a climate where there were no clearly defined seasons. I love contrast.

I suspect that many readers will agree with me so far, but I actually feel that homogenisation has pervaded all areas of how we live our lives in a rather more insidious way. I am saddened, for example, by the way we are forgetting that different activities and occasions require different styles of dressing, behaving and speaking. Taking dress as an example, I very much prefer to dress, and see others dressed, in a style which reflects who we are and what we are doing. I want politicians, doctors, solicitors, teachers and the like to be dressed formally so that they look professional and important, and I don't particularly want them to be informal, crack jokes and I certainly don't want them to feel the need to sound "down with the kids". It's perfectly possible to be approachable, sensitive and empathetic whilst smartly dressed and well spoken.

Likewise, I cringe when I go to a church that feels and sounds like a shopping centre and vicars feel compelled to be jokey and informal, beginning the service with "Good Morning Everyone" rather than "The Lord be with You", using dumbed down, modernised wording in hymns and prayers in an attempt to make them more relevant, and generally making the language and practice of religion indistinguishable from that of the secular world. For me, religion is a serious and solomn, but joyful, business which should feel different from the rest of our lives, albeit in a manner which makes us want to live it out in our everyday lives. That's why I love Choral Evensong. It's about contrast again: I want church to be different from day-to-day life, not just an extension of it.

Another example of homogenisation is in our use of language. As I said earlier, I don't agree with those who moan about "falling standards" of English, and who can't distinguish between change and decline, but I do think we are in danger of losing the ability to disntinguish between different registers of language. We write (or rather type) so much more than we used to, by texting, tweeting, facebooking, blogging and emailing, that we now write in the same way that we speak. I'm doing so right now in this blog post. Again, nothing wrong with that, but we still need to retain and cultivate a more formal, precise and correct form of spoken and written language in many situations. I worry when people think it's alright to start formal emails with "Hello" or even "Hi", where clearly a more formal "Dear...." is required. And again, I see nothing wrong with more sophisticated, even intimidating language in areas such as the law, medicine and business. Serious things need serious language.

So there it is. My fit of grumpiness, or as I prefer to call it, regret. I'd actually prefer to conclude on a more positive note. Rather than moaning about homogenisation, let's say that I appreciate contrast and variety. It's central to my view of life, my personality and tastes. I love punk rock as much as gregorian chant. I love rain lashing on my window as much as warm summer sunshine. I love serious conversation as well as slapstick comedy. I love baked beans on toast as well as fine cuisine. I am as much uplifted and exhilarated by being in a gothic cathedral as I am by being in a football crowd. I love being in crowded city streets as much as country lanes. You can't appreciate light without darkness, peace without noise, summer without winter. Let's cherish and celebrate difference and variety. Variety is the spice of life, so as Manhatten Transfer once said, Let's Taste the Spice of Life

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