I recently wrote a piece of very short (Flash in the modern vernacular) fiction, based on the memory of walking home in winter on Friday nights after school from Film Club. This meant coming home at about 7 o’clock in the evening in the dark. A friend of mine lived a couple of hundred yards away from me and we would walk home together. On some nights first to my house and on others to his. The other one would then walk home the remaining few hundred yards alone. The trouble was that those few hundred yards were down a country lane lit only by gas lamps, later converted to poor electric lights in the old gas standards, past Bailey’s farm and the Old Hall with its wooded pool running by the side of the lane. Depending on the film that had been shown, this could be a more or less terrifying experience to a 12 year old. These days I suppose we wouldn’t have been allowed to walk down a poorly lit country lane past a large pool, woods and a canal, alone and in the dark. But nothing ever happened to either of us except some raised heart rates and invigorated imaginations. We could have walked home alone through lighted streets to our respective homes, but where would the companionship and terror have been in that?
Much of that lane has now been tamed. Houses have sprung up on the fields by my old house and by his, the stretch of countryside between the two is reduced to a rump and the lane has electric lamps on proper posts that actually illuminate the road. The old farm gate that was locked to traffic between the two ends of the lane has been opened and cars regularly go up and down the road. It has become a suburb. Progress I know, but where is the fire to the imagination in that?
You could use it as a metaphor for the taming of nature, the Wild West, the move into the last remaining wildernesses in the search for exhausted fossil fuels and the last throws of cowboy enterprise culture in the former states of the USSR. But it’s a dystopian vision. My memories are of a feeling of being on the edge of the wild wood, of possibilities for stepping out of the cosy and constricting world of school, homework and routine. It was the possibility of a loss of certainty and control that was exciting, not the desire to tame but to embrace and immerse oneself in the other, the strange, the scary.
I’m probably just getting old but the obsession with neatness and safety and the constraining of both childhood and society at large worries me.
Recently there has been a recommendation that making explosives should have a mandatory life term applied on a strict liability basis. You make them, you get life. We have been brainwashed into the idea of a terrorist in every mosque to such an extent that I have every expectation that this recommendation will be adopted with barely a murmur. But that would have meant my uncle and my father would have been in prison for life. They made ‘recreational’ explosives for fun. For fireworks, and just for the fun of seeing the thing go ‘BANG!’ No-one was hurt and no-one bothered. My Latin master at school, when a boy, used home made explosives to catch fish (possibly poaching but that is another matter, between him and the Statute of Limitations). Do we really want to live in a world where innocent experimentation (yes I know it’s dangerous) is treated automatically as the equivalent of murder? Without recourse to police or judicial discretion? It appears we may. Yet another reason I feel increasingly out of touch with the controlled, risk averse, constricted way society is being driven.
Liberal intellectual posing? Very probably.
A desire to treat people as people and not cyphers to be controlled like battery farmed animals? That sounds about right to me.