My mother is 79 today. I’m happy to say she’s fairly fit and well, as older people often are these days. Her family for the most part enjoyed long active lives, and she’s been lucky enough to sustain that genetic good fortune.
(The image is of my grandmother, I’d guess in 1937, holding my infant mother.)
In that life too she’s borne witness to the most extraordinary changes.
She’s just old enough to remember something of the Second World War. She was evacuated to Wales, her father posted as an officer to the desert battles in Africa. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict she joined him in the ruins of Berlin. She was part of a generation then who had come through fire and deprivation into a period of new prosperity, and a widespread belief in the possibility of building a better world from the ashes of the war.
She was a young mother to the four of us children through the 60s, and a full time social worker from the mid-70s, leaving behind the assumed Toryism of her upbringing to become a Labour activist, an understandable path for any woman or man of good will exposed to the persisting inequalities of society. She clung on to that faith through the Blair years, though Michael Foot and Tony Benn were her real heroes. She’s had to watch in unhappy disbelief as the general consensus around some form of social democratic progress was swept away by neoliberal dogma, and an increasingly naked plutocratic wealth grab, ironically cloaked in the name of Compassionate Conservatism.
There’s an old joke, that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. It’s common for most generations to feel as they get older that the world is getting worse, but in the arc of my mother’s lifetime that downward trajectory is hard to ignore.
It’s hard not to look at our political class and see them either with their noses in the trough or their heads in the sand, getting just about every major decision or judgement wrong, from the catastrophe of the Iraq war to the dismemberment of public education and the health service at the altars of an illusory free market. My mother came to adulthood in a world where people, including the political class, believed we could do better than this. They would have seen the emergence of global interdependence as an opportunity to shape a better world rather than a blind mercantile power that needed to be bowed to. They would not have accepted that our new serfdom is the inevitable consequence of market forces, or suggested that we’re somehow all better off as we march cheerfully towards the precipice of ecological disaster.
On Sunday, out for a celebratory birthday lunch, we walked around Bodiam Castle in the dusk, circling the moat and this gaunt 700 year old survival from harsher times. It stands as a redundant, evocative shell, a reminder I suppose that the exercise of power fluctuates through history, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. We find ourselves it seems in one of those ill periods, where no amount of reason can counter the myopic greed of those who for the moment hold the levers of power. Change will come, as the contradictions of the way we live now force their own resolution, but whether this will happen in my mother’s lifetime, or for that matter mine, is impossible to say.
In the meantime happy birthday Mum, and here’s to the hope we may live in hope again.