Published in the programme for the Orange Tree Theatre production of Joe white’s Mayfly.
The village is full of memories, scenes that loop in the minds of these four characters, setting in motion the events of Mayfly. In lots of other ways, the village is empty: there are no kids anymore, the pub is closing down, the pigs on the farm were sold off years ago.
As I start to list these losses, I hear another voice, a memory from somewhere else: ‘Surely you agree that it’s a good thing that we don’t all have to work on the land anymore?’
It was New Year’s Eve, a long way to go till midnight, and the conversation had taken a wrong turning. I’d made the mistake of trying to explain the book that I was writing. It made no sense to him: how could I not see that history was headed in the right direction? He had a PhD in political science and a job in a government ministry. From where we were sitting, in a desirable neighbourhood of a European capital city, the arc of progress looked obvious and undeniable.
I thought of an afternoon, ten years earlier, when I’d sat at the kitchen table of a farmhouse in South Yorkshire. The press release that brought me there was cheerily worded, sent out by an organisation that gave out grants to support rural entrepreneurship. The producer thought it would make a piece for the Saturday breakfast show: ‘Meet the farmer who’s swapped cows for cats!’ His wife showed me round the new cattery, a holiday home for the pets of nearby townies, but as we arrived in the kitchen, I was faced with a man in deep grief. When the dairy herd had gone, the silence nearly killed him. The farm that had been his life was an empty shell. For a month, he said, he couldn’t sleep indoors: the only thing that worked was to go out and lie on the grass.
History is an accumulation of changes, playing out through lifetimes and across generations. Among them, there are changes which no sane person would wish away: who wants to forego antibiotics or anaesthetic dentistry? We could each add to that list. History is made up of gains as well as losses. Sometimes it is easy to say which is which. Sometimes it depends on where you’re sitting.
There is a dream of a standpoint from which it would be possible to settle the accounts of history, to weigh all these gains and losses against each other, to say whether we are up or down from year to year. No such standpoint exists. Even where we agree on the gains and losses, they do not balance like numbers in a table. For the purposes of national population statistics, the death of your father and the birth of your son may cancel each other out, but this statistical fact bears no relation to the reality which you or anyone will experience.
Just now, we seem to be dealing with the consequences of a great deal of unacknowledged loss. For years, the number of people whose experience bore little relation to the stories of progress told by politicians had been growing. When surveys showed rising fears for the future, these were reported with barely concealed scorn, for the long-term trends in GDP showed the slow miracle of economic growth to be unstoppable. When loss goes ungrieved, it doesn’t go away, it festers. Out of this may come dark eruptions, events declared impossible by people with PhDs in political science, sitting in the desirable neighbourhoods of capital cities.
That New Year’s conversation took place on the last evening of 2015. Twelve months later, maybe it would have had a different flavour. We have seen the rise of political movements which appeal to an imagined past, promising to recover a lost greatness. Against this, there are those who want to double down on progress. Public intellectuals publish books the size of bricks which prove with statistics that things have never been better. Others acknowledge that something has gone badly wrong and ask how we can recover the kind of collective faith in the future which took men to the moon and built the welfare state.
Well, perhaps another attitude is called for. Perhaps we need room to do the work of grieving. Not to write off the losses of the past, nor to romanticise them. Not to pretend that they can be recovered. Grief changes us, calls our stories into question. It can sharpen our sense of what matters. The journey it leads us on is seldom pretty, but it cannot be headed off with calls to optimism, or cost-benefit analyses proving our losses are outweighed within the greater scheme of things.
There is plenty of loss in the village where we find ourselves. It can take people to the edge of humiliation, or self-destruction, or mistaken identity. But none of this need be the end of the story.