The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
Nineteen forty-eight isn’t a particularly memorable year in history, though a few significant events are attached to it. In Britain the first post-war Olympic Games took place in London over the summer, and a National Health Service was established. In Europe the Berlin Blockade signalled an escalation in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its former allies during the Second World War while in Paris the United Nations agreed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And in a little town on the Sussex coast in England a baby boy was born…
According to verse 10 of Psalm 90 seventy years represents the natural span of our life; daring to live to 80 is pushing it. Guess what? I have every intention of pushing it. Providing I still have all the requisite faculties, of course.
A lot has happened during those seven decades. Humans on the moon, unmanned missions to and beyond the furthest reaches of the solar system. Portable devices for communicating almost instaneously with the other side of the planet. The tripling of the world’s population, from 2.5 billion to 7.5 billion. The effective eradication of some diseases and the rise of new ones. The average global temperature increasing by 0.75°C.
In many ways things have gone if not backwards then sideways, skewed off onto a rockier course. The British NHS is in a profound crisis, underfunded, undermanned, and with some services privatised for profit, not for patient care. The euphoria and inclusiveness of the 2012 Olympic Games, based once again in London, was then trashed by the madness and divisiveness of the 2016 EU Referendum.
Meanwhile, near totalitarian and xenophobic regimes are again in evidence, in Turkey, in Syria, in Hungary, in Poland, with maybe Austria next, though one hopes not; support for UN institutions and principles is waning, the mere existence of treaties and agreements attacked by a selfish, bigoted US president and supporters so invested in him that they dare not denounce or renounce his words and deeds.
1948 was also when Orwell completed his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four (to be eventually published in 1949) — its title was probably formed from reversing the final two digits of that year. We’re living to see his prophecies about Big Brother, Newspeak and fascist government becoming a reality as surveillance and real fake news, along with far-right politicians and movements, are all proliferating before our eyes.
Now I know things were never ever hunky-dory, that there was never a golden age in my lifetime, that there have been ups and downs. Still, I was a child of the sixties, a time of hope, idealism, unconventionality.
I now, in common with a good proportion of properly decent people, despair of where matters appear to be heading. Whether I reach even four score years is a moot point — should I still be alive in August 2048 it’s possible a genuine dystopia will be firmly in place well before then.
My hope and idealism hasn’t entirely evaporated: there are many individuals who — each in their own way — actively confront what they see as genuinely wrong, and there is much to rejoice about. But maybe we need to use unconventional means to counteract the irrationality that seems to have taken over humanity, or else — in the words of the psalmist — we may all be ‘cut off’ and ‘fly away’.
If I can’t quite bring myself to share John Donne’s vision of an ultimately happy ending — if ever — I yet retain a belief in those aspects of human nature that, in uniting emotion and intellect, know exactly what the right thing to do is, and then to do it.
At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
— John Donne