There was a strange breathiness, a panting sound and as I turned the corner, I could see the source of the noise. Nothing as interesting as a dragon, just the main road leading to a bridge crossing into the city was backed up solid and unmoving with every kind of vehicle. Whether it is age or temperament, I do sometimes wonder if the only place we are certainly heading is to a grinding halt.
Have you ever imagined what it would be like if you switched on the light and nothing happened? If you put on the kettle and it didn’t heat, or the stove didn’t light? If you tried to find out whether there was a local power cut and neither radio nor tv functioned? If your mobile were dead, the computer silent? Do you ever wonder how much longer we can go on expanding when we don’t seem to clear away, when there are all sorts of praised people securing contracts to build anew but apparently many fewer devoted to the rationalisation of rubbish, to clearing away, to recycling?
I once wrote about fear and a respondent advised me to be grateful that I lived in a society which believed in pensions, where I was free to remove myself from violence. And believe me, I am a great little blessing counter. But counting your blessings shouldn’t blind you to what is wrong even a manifestly benevolent society. That’s like telling a child to eat cabbage, “Think of all those poor children in Africa” to which the child might reasonably reply “They don’t like it either.”
Casting aside the useless or imperfect isn’t new. In Edmund de Waal’s book about porcelain (The White Road), he describes mounds of dumped shards, piled up over hundreds of years. Discard isn’t any more admirable because it’s old and oriental though it is a good deal less toxic than the current castoffs. We used to be sure that things would break down and be re-assimilated into the earth. Now we know they can’t be. We were certain of one thing and now we are equally certain of something else. These are general certainties, ones upon which we agree in social groups. Personal certainties are different again.
When I was a kid, I was certain of my parents’ love. Over time I have learned what a precious certainty that was. Oh yes, there were ups and downs, misunderstandings, disappointments and flat out rows but underneath that was bedrock, a blessing counted. I was certain of what my teachers were trying to teach me. Like everybody else I had my strengths and my weaknesses but above all, they taught me to learn, a certainty in a shifting world. I have been sure of friends and been disappointed but I have also been unsure of friends and been magnificently and delightfully surprised and rewarded. So you could say there that the only certainty is, it’s worth a go. Nobody is right all the time.
There were sureties and securities in the way we lived through the active years of my life – the chemist, the bank manager, the doctor, the policeman – but the structures inhabited by many of those people have now changed. And sadly, change of itself, change for change’s sake, is not necessarily a good thing. You hear people say resignedly, “Well it’s the way we live now” but there is a difference between what you can’t affect – like who is in the White House – and what you can affect – like how many credit cards you have and how much debt you get into using them. It is hard to control many aspects of your own life when the general shift is to let other people do it for you. When others do it, you feel in the swim, like everybody else and man is a social animal. When you dig your toes in and determine your own way, it’s lonelier, maybe more reliable but requires you to be quite tough. And none of us is good at being bloodymindedly independent at 5.00 in the morning after a bad night.
I suppose the one sure thing in the world is nothing is certain. We advance as if we are certain but everything is relative, sure some of the time and the rest the time – who knows? We proceed into the adventure.