Do you remember The Future?

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What a pretty picture they make; the elegant lady, the top-hatted gentlemen, the fine buildings and of course the deferential, bare-footed boy with his broom. He knows his place. He is, of course, a crossing sweeper. His job was to keep the roads level, especially at junctions where the dust and gravel was rutted and scattered by iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels. Like the labour of Sisyphus, his work never ended. Like the stone-breaker, the porter, the child chimney-sweep, the agricultural labourer, (women and children on lower rates of pay), factory hands, all those who labour and are oppressed, their work was hard, monotonous and repetitive. Their task was to make the world a better and more comfortable place for their betters. Humanitarians were moved to charitable efforts. Reformers looked for legislative change, new labour laws, better pay, better living conditions, education. Revolutionaries sought to change the system by force, promising a glittering future.. Anarchists sought to blow the whole bloody lot up. Idealists envisaged brave new worlds, tending to be less than tolerant of those who didn’t share their ideals. In many cases, change came about with a great deal of bloodshed—-for the Greater Good, of course. The artist possibly, kept an eye on next year’s fashions, with a view to another edition of his painting. I note that the child has changed his tie. The lady is going for a more autumnal  palette, this season.

I had a (borrowed)book, The Boy’s Book of Aviation, published sometime in the 1920s, that caught the romance of flight for youngsters. There was a chapter on trans-Atlantic passenger flights of the future. Nobody wants to land, like Alcock and Brown, arse over tip, in a bog outside Clifden, County Galway. It would be difficult to maintain a regular schedule on that basis. The book predicted that trans-Atlantic  aeroplanes would hop from one floating runway to another, all the way across, to refuel and let the passengers get out to stretch their legs. It just might work, but not on windy days, or in the dark, or in heavy fog, or in the hurricane season. What happened was that aircraft got bigger, carried more fuel and hopped from London to Paris, Lisbon, The Azores, Bermuda and New York or other destinations westwards. In summer they hopped from London to Shannon, Reykjavik, Gander and New York. As planes got even bigger, all those intermediate airports became obsolete and had to develop other reasons for their existence. Those who plumped for floating runways, had to wait for World War II to get any customers at all. As for Zeppelins, well, you know that story. By the way, I identified the owner of the book some fifty years after I read it. I brought it back. I apologised for the delay.  “Ah!” he said,”I remember that book. I borrowed that from Des McDonough, away back in the Thirties.” That was a roundabout trip for any book. I’m glad that nowadays, we don’t have to land with the aid of trip-wires, on a heaving deck in mid-ocean and take off again by catapult. Even the pilot would need a few gins and tonics in the VIP lounges along the way. (That’s my father-in-law below, by the way.)

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In The Soul of Man under Socialism,   Oscar Wilde paints a romantic picture of how ‘the masses’, released from grinding toil by science and technology, would devote themselves to the arts, to music and poetry. He particularly picked out the crossing-sweeper as an example. Machines would be installed at every crossing to sweep the gravel level. Meanwhile, the liberated crossing-sweeper would be at home composing concerti or polishing up a collection of sonnets. It didn’t quite work out like that. Firstly, tarmacadam eliminated the trade altogether. Lenin and Stalin carried their socialism to extremes. The poor became cannon fodder or merely hands for industry. Intellectuals were seen as a threat. People of Oscar’s proclivities were liquidated or sent to Siberia. Mao carried his version of communism to its logical conclusion– a never ending revolution…thesis/antithesis/synthesis. A grinding equality forced surgeons out of operating theatres, even in mid-surgery, to make steel. Biological science had to bend to conform to Marxist theory. Everyone had to accept a never-ending revolution …but not yet. Jung Chang tells how her pregnant mother walked on The Long March while her father rode a horse, consistent with his dignity as a Party member. James Connolly, a bigger name internationally than Lenin, inexplicably abandoned his socialist ambitions and threw in his lot with militant nationalism. Mr. DeValera, alarmed by the Bolsheviks, was at pains to assure the Irish voters in 1918 that he was not a ‘revolutionary’. Everything would remain the same in a new Ireland, but on his terms. Cue athletic youths and comely maidens….

We particularly looked forward to robots to do all the work, especially in the house. There is already a domestic robot that can stir soup. You prepare and put the ingredients in a pot and a robot arm will stir it. Then you take it out and eat it with a spoon. All this research was misguided as scientists were about to develop pills to take the place of meals. There are some dietary substitute tablets already, but I would miss the accompanying spuds and gravy. Not the washing-up though. There is also a robot/computer lawn-mower that mutters about the garden all night, like a hedgehog, while you get to work on that concerto. Teachers will become redundant too, as children will be placed in classes of hundreds and taught by computers. Mars will be a staging post to other galaxies. Everyone will wear the hideous get-up of Mr. Spock. Politicians will no longer be abused about potholes in the perfect world of the future. I remember Dan Dare, pilot of The Future,putting on a helmet that translated Venusian speech into English….just like Google.

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I loved the occasional visit from the steam-roller and the tar boiler. The road was painted with shining asphalt. It reflected the sky The men shoveled crushed stone onto the gleaming surface. The steam-roller followed, ironing everything flat. The rollers boomed and chimed as they trundled along. The smell was heavenly. On hot days you could assist by bursting the tar bubbles with your fingers. (Butter will remove tar from hands but not, alas, from clothes. Try to remove the tar and gravel from the soles of your shoes before entering your house or the consequences will be dire.) The steam-roller made smoke. It even had a whistle and a bell.  What more could a child ask for? The modern process is impressive and entirely mechanised but not as exciting. No need for crossing sweepers on our long straight motorways.

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Some people are building a road near Baldungan Castle. They have started like MacAdam, with rough stone. When they get to the fine aggregate stage, I may be able to get work for my little grandchildren as gravel and dust sweepers. At four, five, six and seven years of age it’s time they started to earn their keep. On a sartorial note, I shall insist that they wear ties and are deferential to all. In a revolutionary departure from standard practice, I shall provide them with shoes. If a tar-boiler and steam-roller are to be employed, I may even look for a job myself. If it was good enough for Cool Hand Luke, it’s good enough for me.

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Chariot of Fire

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I went back to college the other night. There was a lot going on, a contest between a prophet of the Lord and the priests of Baal. Baal’s priests couldn’t get their fire to light to consume the sacrificial bull, whereas Elijah was so cool, he got his people to soak the pyre, dig a trench around it and fill it with water. Then he called on God to accept the sacrifice and Whumpff!  The bull was incinerated, to the dismay and confusion of the priests of Baal. We used to light fires on May Eve, the month of Baal tine. We consigned spuds to the embers. The Lord God of Israel would have refused the blackened offerings, but we munched them anyway. Baal might have been glad of them, as things didn’t work out too well for him. You have to marvel at Elijah’s confidence and certainty. People with such certainty are scary people. Take the prophets of Baal and let not one of them escape you. Bring them down to Kishon’s brook and there let them be slain.  There is a terrible modern ring to all that, especially in The Middle East. Israel is just as much in the news today as it was in Biblical times.

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Of course there were no pyrotechnics the other night. The Great Hall of what was once my college, is now The National Concert Hall. Margaret and her friends were singing Mendelssonh’s  Elijah. They filled the hall with mighty harmonies. It was, literally, a resounding triumph. The rafters trembled. A boy soprano stood up and faced the audience with extraordinary confidence, a precious commodity, invaluable in one so young. The mind wanders along by ways. Suppose Elijah’s fire had sputtered out. Did he ever suffer from doubt? General Gordon faced down the fanatical followers of The Mahdi with a swagger stick and force of personality. They killed him anyway.

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As my daughter was driving, we poured a libation or two at the interval, in honour of Elijah’s victory. This was a library in my student days. There was no great light shining above us then. There was definitely no bar.The Phantom of the Opera used to swing from chandeliers like this.  Why?  I always feel a small temptation to leap across the gap and shout defiance at the upturned faces below. But I suffer from slight vertigo and I have no cloak. You would be disgraced, in the chandelier swinging trade, if you had no cloak. I fear that I would come down in a shattering tintinnabulation of crystal into the room below. What an entrance! I like to think that I would be cool enough to sit up amid the wreckage and order a gin and tonic. I was never that cool. A fellow student once told me that he admired my quiet reserve and confidence. He misread the situation, mistaking inarticulacy for inner calm.

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The choirs returned, filing in, like the Bolivian soldiers in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (Newman and Redford, personifications of ‘cool’.)  The choir meant business. The orchestra returned with their heavy artillery. We were transported again to an ancient conflict between gods and prophets. I looked around at all the changes that had taken place since the time when I sat in that hall, scribbling desperately at exam time. The college was always undergoing renovation. The hall, a remnant of a great Victorian industrial exhibition, was cold and shabby. His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaketh the rock into pieces. There was always hammering. A century’s worth of dust and soot drifted down on the scribblers below. Fountain pens became chimney brushes. There was a rhythm to it all: blow; write; wipe the nib; mutter; try to blank out the noise; concentrate. There was one student endowed with the confidence to stand up and shout: “Eff that bangin’…” He spoke for all of us. I love the tympani, the sounding brass, the strings, the deep, brown notes of the cello, the soaring voices. My soul was uplifted, as was Elijah in a fiery chariot. He had earned it. The choir earned their ovation. No dust descended.

Eric von Daniken was a popular purveyor of pseudo science in those days. He ‘proved’ to his own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of many, that the ancient gods and heroes were intergalactic travellers. Chariots of the Gods. Elijah was taken away in a rocket ship. It’s obvious, isn’t it?  There were flames coming out of his chariot. History is Wrong. What did I tell you? One afternoon in what was once The History Library, where the Treaty Debates took place in 1921 and 22, a lecturer produced a transistor radio and put it up to the microphone. ‘This is more important than any lecture,’ he announced. It was a live broadcast from Cape Canaveral of John Glenn orbiting the world . He flew with the confidence born of training and meticulous preparation. He flew for four hours and fifty five minutes, lighting up the darkness as he crossed the sky. Our hearts were lifted with him. He was no god but he was every inch, a hero. He still is. I remembered him the other night and raised a glass in his honour.

lo, there came a fiery chariot with fiery horses and he went by a whirlwind to heaven.

All credit to those who played a part in his flight, to Felix Mendelssohn, a son of Israel, the conductor, the musicians and singers who brought wonder and harmony to that old, dusty hall.