Saturday, 23 October 2021

Antics

As objects age and break, we throw them out.  In most cases, the decision is unequivocal: nobody thinks twice about discarding a blown light bulb, or smashed plates.  But some classes of objects can survive everyday knocks to win through to a new lease of life.  Furniture, for example.  A broken chair may be repaired, a scratched table re-polished.  Eventually they cease to be old and broken, and become instead, in some mysterious way and at some ill-defined point, loved and lived-in antiques.

The antique is a relatively new concept, and is still in a state of flux.  For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, antiques meant the same as antics: something odd and ridiculous.  In England's Augustan age, old objects were prized if they were Classical - that is, thousands of years old.  The later, Gothic craze made medieval fashionable, and with the Victorians came a delight in collecting anything older than a century or two.  As the decades of the modern era have rolled by, so has the temporal margin required to elevate an object to the status of antique shrunk.  Today we teeter on the brink of finding last month acceptably ancient.

This increasingly frenzied rush to canonise the past seems to be a result of the accelerating pace of life, of the sense that nothing is fixed and stable anymore - and hence that history, even of the most recent vintage, is a rock worth clinging to.  What is also remarkable is that almost anything is potentially a venerable antique, even the most ephemeral of bygone objects - everything, that is, except people.

People never become antiques; instead they just become old.  As a result, we never accord them the spurious honours that even the tawdriest and tackiest light-fitting of twenty years ago receives.  At best, we offer the previous generation indifference, and at worst outright contempt.

There may once have been some justification for this rejection of an unwanted burden.  If every day was a continual struggle for survival, exposing on mountaintops those too old to work had a certain callous logic: it was them or the tribe.  For a society characterised by gross overproduction and shameless overconsumption, there is no such excuse.

Why are we not appalled by the shuffling old men swaddled in their multiple layers of jumble sale cardigans, by the hump-backed and skeletal old women picking among the leftover vegetables?  How can we allow their last experiences of life to be so bitter?  How can we forget that in a very few years, though cardinal now, we too shall be an abandoned people?

We forget because we have to; because to remember would be to acknowledge that our short era of power and plenty will inevitably end, that we also will age, and will one day perish.  We ignore the old because they are our mirror of tomorrow.  The irony is that we all come to realise the shabbiness of their treatment - but only when we ourselves become cast-off and impotent.  By then it is too late to stop the antics of the succeeding generation to whom we set such a pathetic example, who have mislearnt too well - and now proceeds to pay us in the same coin, and to store up for their own sad and unthought-of future.

(1989)

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