The Columnist


            There is a general impression that things in the twentieth century have gradually got better and better, but a moment’s thought will show that this is not so. The twentieth century began with the invention of the Reader’s Digest and ended with the supremacy of the sound bite. In other words, it went down hill.
            At the time, people thought that the Reader’s Digest represented defeat, because it meant that people could master nothing longer than summaries. That looks very impressive in retrospect, as now we can think only in terms of headlines. As we become more and more educated and informed, our comprehension becomes smaller and smaller. A hundred years ago people were talking about quite complicated issues such as The Irish Question and The Bulgarian Question and The Balkan Question. Nowadays we cannot manage anything much more sophisticated than being for or against Europe, which is of course meaningless…
            It is a pity, really. This century was going to be such a sensible century, so rational, so scientific, so full of planning. Even now, with only a few years to go to the end of the century, we are being told that information is the key to everything, that information technology will get us there, that IT is the path.
            (Funny how the meaning of “IT” changes. Once, in the 1920s, it was sex appeal. “The girl with “It”. In my father’s day it was Italian vermouth - “gin and It”. Now IT is raiding the data bases. All three have proved fallible one after the other…)
            To put it another way, the more we know, the more we are afraid of. It wasn’t meant to be this way. It should be the other way round. We should get increasing confidence with increasing knowledge, but what actually happens is that the more we know, the more bogies in the dark we see.
            Here is a brief list of things we are scared of at the moment.
            Global warming.
            The hole in the ozone layer.
            Not winning the Lottery.
            The seas being fished out.
            The rain forests being cut down.
            Being killed by cancer or a serial killer or a police car on its way to help someone.
            Rupert Murdoch.
            Things from outer space.
            The Bermuda Triangle.
            Of all these. I think the Bermuda Triangle is the most interesting because we still believe in its dangers, although it has been proved that almost all the accidents which take place there have rational explanations. There was a book on the Bermuda Triangle’s mysteries which sold very well. There was another one explaining the mysteries which did not sell very well. And this is because people did not want the Bermuda Triangle explained. They like to be frightened. They like to be mystified, even if the mystery might kill them.
            One example of this is the way we manufacture a new scare story when an old scare is cleared up.
            When doctors tamed the good old sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea and syphilis which had scared everyone since goodness knows when, herpes came along to fill the gap, but it was only a holding operation till AIDS arrived.
            When the fear of nuclear holocaust ebbed away with the end of the Cold War, we didn’t relax; we immediately got scared by the thought of nuclear arms falling into the hands of smaller countries, perhaps Islamic countries, perhaps worst of all into the hands of terrorists.
            When the fear of nuclear war died away. It didn’t remove the fear of nuclear peace, as exemplified by Chernobyl. We find it terribly quaint that Shakespeare’s yokels should predict disaster because of the births of two-headed calves and five-legged sheep, yet our comedians say exactly the same thing about the country round Sellafield, even though none of them has ever seen a two-headed anything, or indeed been to Sellafield.
            The ultimate scare person in today’s eyes would be a figure which was thought at first to be an alien from outer space then turned out merely to be an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist armed with nuclear weapons rushing towards us waving an HIV infected syringe.
            And, of course, smoking.
            Passive smoking was a new invention of the 1980s, an ingenious extension of danger whereby you could be at risk from someone else in your neighbourhood doing something risky, almost as if suicide turned out to be contagious. Passive drinking and passive sex have not yet been invented, unless you count the accidental passing on of HIV, but passive music has been identified by Pipedown, an organisation dedicated to curtailing canned music, and passive driving, or being killed by cars, has been with us for a long time.
            Smoking was once upon a time a harmless hobby which had no drawbacks except the fall of ash. In Victorian days, smoking was thought to be no worse than wearing hair cream. The wily Victorians invented things to counter both. The antimacassar to beat hair cream, and the smoking jacket to beat smoking. Alas, we now know that smoking jackets, however decorative, cannot cure cancer. But it does show that the most delicious way in which humans can frighten themselves is to discover that something we take for granted as part of everyday life can actually kill you.
            I don’t know if hair cream ever became a major health hazard, but I do know that in the 1920s some cigarettes were advertised as being “kind to your throat”, so it wasn’t till some time later that smoking became a cause of throat cancer.
            In the 1960s fluoride was added to water to strengthen our teeth and shortly afterwards became a major scare.
            In the 1980s things accelerated and we became scared of butter, milk, salt, red meat, wine, and almost everything in the home except olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
            Even homely things like glue became major threats, because kids discovered you could sniff it and get addicted to it.
            In the 1990s we have put beef on the list because of mad cow disease and in the last few weeks, as I write, electricity pylons have been promoted from being part of the landscape to being among the major causes for cancer.
            Fear has become part of our culture, not in a manic way but in a pleasant background twitchy sort of way like the ticking of Radio 1 or the fizz of fizzy water or the hum of the computer. (Incidentally, remember the fizzy water death threat when all Perrier was removed from the shelves for a while in case it killed us? That was a good one!) Fear is part of the way we think. We favour the Big Bang theory as an explanation for the start of the universe, because we think that’s the way it might be going to end as well, and it seems symmetrical to have a big bang at both ends. The 1980s and 1990s became obsessed with dinosaurs. Why? We had known about them for a century or more without getting too interested. So why now?  Because dinosaurs ruled the earth and then suddenly got wiped out, that’s why, and we rule the earth and we think deep down that we are gong to be wiped out too.
            Most of these fears are irrational and there is absolutely no point in worrying about any of them. Even the rational fears seem to produce no action on our part. For example, it proved time and time again, that various parts of Britain have the worst and fattiest diets in the world (usually Glasgow or Northern Island) and that the British diet as a whole is ghastly enough to overload the National Health Service. All people have to do to live well is to eat well and exercise well – that’s all – but they refuse to do so, and prefer to wait till they are carted off to hospital to complain about the NHS.
            The Americans are wiser than us in this respect. They actually get out and DO something about their fears. They have various tried and tested methods of dealing with problems. These are as follows:
            1. Suing someone for $13,000,000
            2. Having plastic surgery, either to decrease a chin or increase a bust.
            3.Sending troops to Haiti, or Somalia, or Bosnia…
            These methods have all been tried and tested by the Americans. That doesn’t mean they work. In fact the result of trying and testing is that we now know that none of them works, but does that discourage the Americans? No! They are too optimistic to let failure get them down or even notice it, which is why they will still be the greatest nation even when Singapore has overtaken their GNP.
            In Britain, our solutions to problems are all smaller scale and untried and untested.
            1. Winning the National Lottery.
            2. Reading Hello! Magazine.
            3. Reflecting that however many problems you have got at least you are not as badly off as the Royal family.
            Will it be enough? Frankly, I do not think it will be. And that is why I am a deeply worried person. VERY worried. Every time a scientist comes on Melvyn Bragg’s Start The Week and tells us that if we just stick with science, whether it’s chemistry or physics or genetics…
            Ah, genetics!
            When I discovered that geneticists have now discovered a way of giving our modern tasteless watery tomatoes a longer shelf-like, I knew it was time to despair.

April 1996, Gulliver’s Travels

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