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The Light at the End of the Tunnel

There is an old joke, usually among football supporters, that despair is bearable, but hope brings misery.  If you are used to your team performing badly week after week, you somehow learn to endure.  However, once in a blue moon, the right manager for the right moment manages to coax some above average performances from the players, producing a run of good results.  This leads the supporters to dream that a good cup run, a play-off place or even a league title might be possible, only for such optimism to be snuffed out by injuries to key players, poor refereeing decisions or the team becoming overwhelmed by the expectation and choking at crucial moments.  Anyone who has followed Newcastle United, for example, for the last fifty years will know what I mean.

After a long run of bad, and even terrible, news, as we became almost overwhelmed by the misery of our fate, while somehow for the most part coming to accept it as an inevitable part of some sort of new existence, it cautiously feels like the last few days have brought some glimmers of optimism.  I once worked in a school that was struggling to make ends meet, where the bursar was not the most popular of people, but he nevertheless managed to retain his sense of humour, most notably sending round a memo one day to say that the light at the end of the tunnel had been switched off until further notice to reduce the school’s electricity bill.

Talking of such light, you may not be surprised if I say that it seems hard not to think the world will be a better place without Donald Trump spending four more years in the White House.  President-elect Biden seems unlikely to be remembered as the best leader the USA has ever seen, but he already seems to be pursuing a more stable and rational agenda that will offer some genuine prospects of reconciliation, and healing of all kinds, while the incumbent president seems to have reverted to type and is sulking like a little boy who has lost his favourite toy.  Leaders need to be role models and I think it is time we had some better ones in charge of some of the key countries of the world.

With my usual aplomb for terrible prediction, I told anyone who cared to listen, and no doubt many who didn’t, that I thought we would see a Democratic landslide.  I then failed to appreciate the extent of the impact of the postal voting by predicting that Trump looked certain to win enough electoral college votes to stay in power, only slowly coming to the full realisation of what was going on.  If you have nothing of use to say, it is usually best to say nothing – a lesson I continue to need to learn.

News this week of a potential vaccine breakthrough is also a cause for celebration, albeit one that still needs to be treated with caution.  It looks at this stage that they are not going to offer early shots to teachers as key workers, which I do not imagine will go down well in our profession.  It is hard to swallow that in the summer, when they wanted schools to start reopening, we were hailed as irreplaceable, but now there has been a return to something approaching normality it no longer matters quite so much.  I am, nevertheless, in line for a relatively early dose because of my age, which is probably not the best reason to celebrate, but anything will do just now.   

I am not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, but there may come a moment when I decide that pottering gently in the garden appeals rather more than leading a school through a global pandemic and its aftermath. Actually, come to think of it…!  But this does allow a decidedly unsubtle segue into a topic I have been meaning to highlight for some time – the history of lawns, as explained by the inimitable Yuval Noah Hariri in ‘Homo Deus’. 

If you have never thought about the significance of lawns, now could well be the time.  As Professor Hariri points out, Stone Age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves.  No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing.  The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages.  In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots and became the trademark of nobility.

He says that well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers.  In exchange they produced nothing of value.  You could not graze animals on them because they would eat and trample the grass.  Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious time or land on lawns.  The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake.  The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty.  If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.  Royal palaces turned the lawn into a symbol of authority.  When in the late modern period kings were toppled and dukes were guillotined, the new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns.  Parliaments, supreme courts, presidential residences and other public buildings increasingly proclaimed their power in row upon row of neat green blades. 

Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth.  No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn.  At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residences.  Yet when the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf.  In suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle class necessity.

Even people who have never seen a lawn can know that it is a symbol of prestige.  Important events take place outside the White House on the lawn, in sports stadiums around the world and at the Simpsons’ house in Springfield.  Qatar’s newly built Museum of Islamic Art is flanked by magnificent lawns that hark back to Louis XIV’s Versailles much more than to Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad.

Harari concludes this observation by making the important point that people would be well advised to think twice about having a lawn in the front garden.  They are, of course, still free to do it, but they are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed by European dukes, capital moguls and the Simpsons – and imagine for themselves a Japanese rock garden or some other new creation.  This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to be able to predict the future, but to free ourselves of the past and imagine alternative destinies.  While we cannot avoid being shaped by the past, some freedom is better than none – and let us all hope that more liberty may now be within our grasp.

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