Everything is Out of Date Now
I recently watched Charlie Brooker’s ‘Anti-Viral Wipe’, which was the usual mix of harsh criticism and biting satire, mostly illustrated through the clips he showed of some of the absurdly overconfident statements politicians were making back in February and March about our ability to cope with a pandemic, which now seem so extraordinarily wide of the mark.
The programme was followed by another of Brooker’s creations, Philomena Cunk, played so brilliantly by Diane Morgan, reviewing the events of 2019. This was obviously focused on the Brexit debate, the general election and other key events of last year, very few of which I can now recall, mainly caused, as the programme went on, by my increasing feelings of bewilderment at how out of date and meaningless it all seemed.
It is almost unimaginable that we should have wasted so much time and energy talking about things that now look so utterly trivial when compared to our experiences of recent months – and it is only months, though it feels much longer. How petty the squabbles, how irrelevant the seemingly important, how inadequate any sort of attempt to plan for the future and to anticipate risk properly. It was a sobering experience all round.
As regular readers will know, I do not read lot of fiction, preferring instead books about popular psychology, leadership and management theory and, from time to time, education. These are fine and dandy when they focus on the present or the past, but anything written before the end of 2019 is already hopelessly wide of the mark in any attempt to look to the future, given that so much has happened so quickly. Early in the current crisis, this remark from V.I. Lenin did the rounds: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. The last few weeks would certainly seem to bear witness to the accuracy of the comment and to highlight the speed of change.
I think I have mentioned before – forgive me, but I seem to spend a lot of time just now broadcasting my thoughts through bulletins, emails, podcasts and blogs, so there are bound to be moments of overlap and repetition – but one of my favourite Philomena Cunk observations is that the ‘side to side’ dinosaurs were usually eaten by the ‘up and down’ dinosaurs. All nonsense, apparently, but it is true that the time period between the stegosaurus walking the Earth and era of the tyrannosaurus rex is longer than between T Rex and humans, which may help to give some perspective on how we view aspects of our planet’s history.
All of which segues nicely into a suitable appreciation of Bill Bryson’s book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, in which he manages to explain the history of the universe, the evolution of life on our planet and the intricacies of quantum physics in a way that even someone with a non-scientific brain like mine could just about understand, which is quite a gift.
I confess a gasp-out-loud moment when Bryson explained that in 1787 someone in New Jersey – exactly who now seems to be forgotten – found an enormous thigh bone sticking out of a stream bank at a place called Woodbury Creek. The bone clearly did not belong to any species of creature still alive, certainly not in New Jersey. From what little is known now, it is thought to have belonged to a hadrosaur, a large duckbilled dinosaur; but back then nobody knew what it was because dinosaurs were unknown. It had never occurred to me that there was a time when no one knew about dinosaurs. Maybe to others it is blindingly obvious, but I was temporarily dumbfounded.
There were dozens of other interesting thoughts, for example the wry observation that geologists are never at a loss for paperweights or that the Romans flavoured their wine with lead, which may be part of the reason they are not the force they used to be. With regard to dinosaurs, Bryson explains, museums give the impression that there is a global abundance of dinosaur fossils, but this is not the case, and, in fact, museum displays are overwhelmingly artificial. It turns out, for example, that the giant diplodocus that used to overlook the entrance hall at the Natural History Museum (before going on tour around the country from 2018) is made entirely of plaster – built in Pittsburgh in 1903 and presented to the museum by Andrew Carnegie. All of which seems profoundly disappointing.
Bryson brings his work to a conclusion by saying that if his book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ he means every living thing. To attain any kind of life at all in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement, and as humans we are doubly lucky. We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. He says it is a trick we have only just begun to grasp.
He adds that we have arrived in this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviourally modern humans have been around for less than 0.01 per cent of Earth’s history – almost nothing, really – but even existing for that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune. We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a lot more than the lucky breaks of the Earth avoiding being wiped out in a meteor strike or our species being destroyed by a relentless pathogen.
It strikes me that this is the perfect book for a lockdown read, or even one for a summer holiday at home. To echo Bill Bryson, let us hope with all our hearts that luck is indeed on our side in the years ahead, because it looks increasingly like we are going to need it more than ever.