Quite often the papers run Top One Hundreds or Top Fifties—the Hundred Greatest Writers of the Twentieth Century, the Best Fifty Films of the last Hundred Years, that sort of thing—and if you look at them closely you will see that a disproportionate number belong to the last decade and are ranked far higher than they really deserve because people have forgotten how great the books and films from their childhood and young adulthood were and the older people who do remember aren't the people who get asked. We love novelty. New = good. A writer will labour on a book for a year, maybe two, maybe longer and how long is its shelf life? Maybe a couple of months unless it sells well but not many books sell that well. Books don't go off. They date eventually but people pay hundreds of pounds for old wine so old isn't always bad. Truth doesn't go off.
I blame the Internet. It's not solely responsible but it really hasn't helped. The Internet is always new. It never sleeps. And no one can keep up with it. It doesn't matter what your field of interest is—unless it's something ridiculously esoteric, collecting cat whiskers, for example—there will be new stuff to read about it every day. It's an onslaught of data and the thing about data is that it takes time to process it properly, to digest it. You're on a site called McVoices at the moment. Maybe this is the first thing you've read today but let's say it's not. What was the last one about? Or the one before that? Or the one before that? In half an hour will you remember reading this? Data runs straight through us like champagne. It doesn't do us any good; it makes us dizzy; it gives us a headache.
The poet W.H. Davies has all but been forgotten apart from a couple of line, the opening couplet of his poem 'Leisure':
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
So, am I suggesting a return to old-fashioned values? That wouldn't work. You can't go back. But you can learn. The problem is we don't. My dad had a book of quotes that I used to enjoy flicking through as a kid and one of them that stuck was: "The one thing man learns from history is that man learns nothing from history." No idea who said it but that doesn’t make it any less true. We don’t learn. In a few years we'll elect a Labour government and then a few years after that the Tories will be back in and then (well, I'll probably be dead by then) Labour will be back in power. We cannot change that.
There are five major powers in this life: religion, politics, business, science and education. Only the last one has the wherewithal to change the world. And yet we have kids leaving applying to university who, according to an article in The Independent (24 May 2006) "… can't write decent English. Worse, their attempts to do so show that many can't follow a logical train of thought or present a reasoned argument." If the bedrock of society crumbles what hope is there? I read a novel once by Brian Aldiss called Non-Stop which describes the conditions in a generation ship centuries after setting off and by which time no one on board even realises they're on a spaceship. Well, what's Earth other than a humungous generation ship? We need to educate future generations and we need them to remember where they come from. The past holds the solution to all our futures. If only we can remember.