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Thursday, February 14, 2008

"It's before my time"

It started with a stupid no-count item on the BBC news website about the Isley Brothers. I posted about it on the Word site. This drew this excellent response from Archie Valparaiso which got me thinking about the tyranny of what he calls the "now-now", the cultural/historical swerve whereby you're forgiven your ignorance about anything which either happened before you were born or didn't happen to be in the cross-hairs of your focus while you were a teenager. It's at its worst when dealing with pop music and results in news readers and politicians swapping light banter about the groups they used to like when they were teenagers, at the same time stressing their proud ignorance of anything that didn't. There's about to be a Radio Four programme called "The Jam Generation". Say no more.

Whenever I ask A Younger Person (and that covers an increasing amount of people) about anything which pre- or post-dated their "era" they will be very quick to say "before my time" with that patronising smirk that implies that one's date of birth excuses one's ignorance. I don't remember the Second World War but I know something about it. Count Basie was past the zenith of his career before I was born but I've listened to him and I don't regard his music as a message from a different planet. I've even read Dickens and he was born, oh, it must be before the First World War, surely?

I blame punk rock, he said once again. That would certainly fit in with Archie's view of the last 35 years as a continuity as far as the media is concerned. It's not to do with the music. It's the falsity of the idea that this represented a new beginning, a severing of links with the past, a marking of the time before which everything was somehow "quaint" or, in the argot of the time, "naff". It results in a failure to accept the fact that anyone who didn't live like you, dress like you, speak like you or share your value system lived their life less fully than you are living yours.

I would have more hopes for the government's plan to introduce five hours of cultural activity into the school week if it was less about herding the unwilling around art galleries and more about imparting the vital information that the world didn't begin yesterday. Educational theory today is dominated by the need to build up children's self-esteem and convince them that they are capable of great things. There's nothing wrong with that as long as it's balanced by the parallel message that I used to pick up at school. You're really Not All That.