Boston is Silent

This morning, at an extraordinary hour in the UK, ‘Boston Calling’ fell silent.

This excellent program, looking at the world and its attitudes to American culture, has been a feature of the BBC World Service for eight years and some 400 episodes.  In the UK at least, its wisdom will be heard no more.  I have no doubt its reputation in The United States was similarly high – not least because it would have found its audience at a more wakeful hour!

A sad event, then, and one which brought to my mind another great radio milestone when the late Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ came to an end.  Cooke was among the last of the old school of journalists, greatly respected in Washington, and I value the CD collection of his broadcasts that sits on an undershelf no more than a couple of feet from this keyboard.

Yesterday I took delivery of a new laptop.  Now this will seem to you a complete disconnect, until I tell you it follows a trend of most new machines in omitting a DVD drive.  To play my Alistair Cooke CDs I must now resort to my older laptop (which has been commandeered by the Memsa’ab, incidentally), or this PC, which is in itself what is now referred to as a ‘traditional machine’.

Museum pieces!  Or so they will become when they have served their time, and our new machines have only a card slot for s substitute.  In less than a generation, a plethora of technical innovations has come and gone, at faster and faster pace.  Old information technology is succeeded by new, and the circle of obsolescence closes in.

Exaggeration?  Who among us still owns floppy disks, tapes or cassettes, and where can you read them if you do?

1600 years ago the last of the great ancient civilizations reached a stage in its dilapidation where it withdrew from, rather than threw innovation into, the greater part of its former empire.  The Roman presence in its satellites and client kingdoms did not end dramatically with the sacking of Rome, rather it diminished, whilst retaining its exclusive influence in one key aspect of power; the written word.   Once a pillar of all Roman culture, transcription became restricted to the gospels, which were painstakingly copied by monks in their role as specialist scribes.  Their language, Latin, devolved into a preserve of the learned and a complete mystery to the common man.  

Except in the hands of a narrow elite written records almost disappeared.   Looking back upon this time we call it the Dark Age – when few were sufficiently literate or wealthy enough to have access to writing.   Only with the invention of the printing press in 1440 did the dam to that reservoir finally burst. 

Now, as we approach the end of the present cycle of civilization, as the influence of the current major powers liberalizes and begins to turn upon itself, I see troubling similarities to the plight of those abandoned in the changing fortunes of Rome.  Step by step we are turning our backs upon our most reliable method of recording knowledge and our most effective way of teaching others.   Pamphlets or books have been available to all of us constantly – easily attainable, relatively inexpensive.  But this is not certain anymore.   The printed word is under threat; fewer and fewer books find their way to press.  And those same words committed to the hard drive, to the memory card or to our tablets cannot be trusted to be readable in forty years’ time, let alone four centuries.  Recording them, transcribing from one medium to another is possible, of course, and will in all probability remain so, but their availability will diminish.  Furthermore, it places responsibility onto the shoulders of our modern ‘monks’, the specialists in the world of algorithms and code:  a new elite.

In times of change, some things must remain inviolable.  Curation of the book and the languages that free us all from the tyranny of ignorance must be entrusted to those who would spread knowledge, rather than use it as power.  

Nostalgic? No!…I used to be…

The De La Warr Pavilion

All nations have them: a location in their climatology where the air is at its balmiest, the sunshine hours at their longest, The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot.  By order, summer lingers through September…

No, not Camelot – or anything like the magical castle of Arthurian legend, the suggested sites for which, in England, have been banished to some very uncongenial spots, where the rain never stops falling before sundown and by eight, the morning fog has just set in.
The places whereof I speak owe nothing to the land of T.H. White’s fantasy, although to their residents they are, without doubt, intended for happily-ever-aftering.  As the seaside towns of Florida are known as ‘the Sunshine Coast’  to Americans, so the English Channel coast towns of West and East Sussex are known to the British by less flattering names, the pick of which run along the lines of ‘Costa Geriatrica’, ‘The Elephants’ Graveyard’ (thank you, Rudyard) or ‘God’s Waiting Room’.

Although largely undeserved, it is easy to see why these towns attract such disrespectful collective   titles.  As the spots furthest south that may be reached without a passport, they soak up the sun-seekers of an elder generation like sponges.  And once absorbed, the great majority only leave there in a box. 

I was a working partner running a restaurant in one of these towns, Bexhill on Sea, for some years.  My youngest son was born there.  My customer base for most of the year had an average age of seventy-six, which encouraged little in the way of long-term promotion because they were constantly ‘moving on’.  There were some precious friends and regulars with whom relationships were all too brief, and usually curtailed by a visit from a son or daughter with the news that they would no longer be able to dine with us.

There were good times, too.  The De Le Warr Pavilion was nearby, so if a show drew a crowd we always benefited with filled tables and visits from the ‘stars’.  Jon Pertwee (of Dr. Who fame) was a favorite example. After his stand-up gig at the theatre he performed another, completely spontaneously, for our customers.  An immensely funny and very generous man, he too, sadly, has ‘moved on’.

We always staffed up for these occasions, with good reason:  a well-known orchestra played an annual concert at the De La Warr.  They would eat with us after the performance, and invariably the process would cost us a number of our staff who quite rightly saw an invitation to a late date with a musician more tempting than washing crockery into the early hours!

Bexhill had its share of ‘characters’: the old lady who solved her crowd problems by stalking down the center of a busy pavement sweeping her walking stick before her like a mine detector, or the elderly matron whose garage we rented and who occupied two apartments in the most expensive block on the seafront.  One for herself and the paintings of her famous son, and another, specially air-conditioned, for her harp (my short story, ‘The Harp’, owes much of its substance to her).

There were nights, though: long, cold, hard nights when gales blew in from The Channel so fiercely they forced the restaurant doors open and sent our elderly clients scurrying for their lairs.  And truthfully those clients were themselves a minority, for there were many hundreds, or thousands more who never emerged from those faceless apartment blocks, but kept huddled in their self-imposed isolation behind their windows staring blankly at a view of the sea, waiting for visitors who never came:  for children who were too busy, or lived in countries far away.

I once nursed a pint or two with one I counted as a friend, who was very wise, as together we discussed the meaning of wealth.  Eddie, who was a soldier of fortune and had seen a lot more of the world than I, had a view of financial probity which has, with the years, become very much my own – a philosophy which says there is a finite amount of benefit to be gained from money in the world, and every little that is gained, is at the expense of someone else.  Eddie viewed those apartment blocks as prisons, called their tenants unkindly ‘the meaningless rich’.   When I took him to task on that, he replied thus:

“After your first seventy years, money has no meaning.  You work all your life scrounging and scraping to achieve wealth; worry, connive, scheme, and for what?  To sit on your own behind one of those windows watching as it ebbs away.”