After my brain melting few days considering Corbynism and deciding against returning to Labour, I took some time out over the weekend to relax, see some people and catch up on my reading.
One of the books I read (or should I say re-read) was Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis.
I’ve read that book once a year, religiously (as I do with a number of other fictional titles which have had some impact on my life), since I first did in 2002.
It is a beautiful, wonderfully written book and it’s dark and deeper than a surface reading would suggest. A collection of stories which interconnect, rather than a single thread narrative, it is one of my favourite books.
They made a movie of it and I think it is dreadful, focussing on the first story in the book but missing the point of the novel as a whole. Taken as a single volume, Hearts In Atlantis is magnificent because it is King’s withering, searing look back on the 60’s and the tragic missed opportunities that era offered up for his generation.
That generation was haunted by Vietnam, in the way much of mine is haunted by Iraq, and the book casts that war at the centre of everything that was going on.
The best two of the stories, the one from which the book takes its title and the second to last one, Why We’re In Vietnam, are astonishingly brilliant for the way they reveal that generation at its best and, finally, at its worst.
King’s summation on that era, as spoken by a former soldier named Diefenbaker, is that they wasted everything. The generation that was radicalised by war, that actually peered through an open door to a different world, and could have made that world real, became disconnected, lazy, hedonistic and settled for “observing” history rather than making it.
The most insightful moment in the book is when Diefenbaker tells his friend John Sullivan that “the price you pay for selling out the future is that you can never leave the past.” His assertion that he, Sullivan and the others are “still in Vietnam” is horrible to contemplate but rings with as much truth as anything Stephen King (or indeed anyone) has ever written.
My generation never knew what it had, because no sooner did we have it than we lost it all, and every single bit of it was taken away by those who had taken full advantage of all the things they deprived me and mine of.
Those people are the exhausted, clueless, souless political hacks you see on TV today. The world they are running is a shattered mess and they don’t have the remotest clue how to fix it. Their short term thinking, their political ideology, belongs in a bygone age, and they have the cheek to tell the rest of us that we’re the ones looking back instead of forward.
Like King’s Vietnam veterans, they are stuck in a past they can’t escape because they sold out the future.
They really did, you know.
I was a mature student. I went to university at 25, so I wasn’t even part of the last group to get fully subsidised education; as a consequence, my student loan continues to accumulate year on year and is something I fear I’ll never be absolutely free of.
Housing? Forget it. The council house sell off came first, then the housing stock transfer.
The price of home ownership is far out of reach for a growing number of people my age.
God help people five or ten years younger.
There are no jobs in the shrinking public sector. There is no industry to speak of. The things my parents took for granted and grew up with are gone.
Now even our pensions aren’t guaranteed and if things continue at the rate they are now we’ll be lucky to get it at 70.
This phenomenon is known, here and in the US, as “generational theft”, whereby the present “power generation” – i.e. those who vote, those who are members of political parties, those who are in their tax paying prime; in other words, those who set our social agenda – have used their influence, and their votes, to protect their own perks – mostly their pensions – at the expense of their children, by stripping them of all the benefits they had themselves.
In a sense this process started with the very “baby boomers” King was writing about in Hearts In Atlantis.
Generational Theft is not just a theory by the way.
It is a fact, an observed phenomenon that has been recognised in every major democracy. It lies at the heart of austerity politics and much else.
It is the reason pensioners are bribed with cuts to young people’s housing benefits and educational opportunities. It is one of the great scandals of our age.
The generation I was born in was the last to get anything for free.
Our kids are going to have bite and scratch and claw because they’ll have none of the opportunities their grandparents had and which those their mum and dad’s age happily voted out of existence.
In Hearts In Atlantis, King, speaking through Diefenbaker, calls his generation “pure selfish” and self-indulgent, and says he can’t bear to be around too many of them for too long because when a lot of the baby boomers are together he feels loathing for them.
Our whole political culture is like that; people you can’t feel anything for but contempt. One of the reasons Corbyn comes across so well is that he realises all this and has consistently voted against it, all the way through his parliamentary career.
There’s something going on in the background though.
If you look at Corbyn’s support, and drill down into that which swept the SNP to their Scottish landslide and, furthermore, if you look into the referendum campaign itself then you see something interesting … something unexpected.
Our young people, many of whom realise the things they’ve lost and are losing, are suddenly tuning into politics in a way they never have before … and these aren’t the vacuous, soulless types I remember from my time in the Labour Party.
These kids are switched on and clued up to the max for a start.
Within Labour I met a bunch of people who fancied politics as a career gig, but they didn’t know anything about the world outside their own little cocoons. These kids know.
They also view politics with great suspicion and scepticism, and some of them want to get in there and mix it up a bit.
What makes this different from what I’m familiar with is that they don’t view it as a profession like any other.
They see it for what it actually ought to be; a vehicle for changing society and the world, and they look at the mess the current crop has made of it and some of them think they could do better and you know what? They’re 100% right.
Even more astoundingly, these kids simply aren’t buying into this bullshit that our modern political class and the media keeps trying to ram down their throats; that the world has changed, that the “something for nothing” days are over.
They understand the world a little bit better than that.
They know the banks and the speculators who wrecked the economies of the Western democracies are getting plenty out of the present system and they’re smart enough to realise that when you’re cutting taxes for the well-off that the country isn’t exactly skint.
These kids are not apathetic in the slightest. Five years ago it seemed as if this whole country – the UK, and Scotland included – was half asleep. But this generation is now wide awake, and paying attention, and realising, to its surprise maybe, that it has power.
What I find most incredible – and encouraging, even inspiring – is that these kids aren’t growing up self-centred little sods, which in the current political climate you’d think they would be.
Many of them have a very finely tuned sense of self, and a healthy streak of ambition, but by God they also have compassion, empathy and a social conscience.
Vietnam radicalised a whole generation of America kids. Some of them went into politics, some into business and others into finance.
They grew up to be the greatest thieves in the history of the world, presiding over a Wall Street that spun out of control and has caused two major global recessions; they became polluters and tax cheats; they went into “public service” to become corrupt bastards who couldn’t wait to send other people’s kids into the next conflagration.
King is right to detest them, but the truth is you could see it coming even then.
Too many of them drifted easily into the hedonism which also characterised the age. From wanting to storm Congress, they all too quickly became the guys who were sitting stoned at the National Mall trying to levitate the Washington Monument.
Not this generation, the one here.
They are growing out of hedonism, of sitting on the sidelines watching.
They are realising what they have to do, and growing into their future roles as our coming leaders.
They are imaginative and courageous.
At the General Election they voted overwhelmingly for socially responsible politics and in Scotland for our independence.
They were let down, and betrayed, by those “older and wiser”, their supposed “betters”, those who decided protecting what they had was more important than giving their children and grandchildren a chance to control their own destiny.
It was the “baby boomers” who made the difference to the No campaign, but their kids aren’t bitter. They know the atmosphere of our politics has been poisoned and that voting and acting out of self-interest is where we’re at right now.
But they don’t believe it has to be that way.
They are energised by leaders who speak the language of hope in the way the 60’s kids were blown away by Kennedy. We don’t have anyone of that epochal quality but Sturgeon, Salmond, Bennet and Corbyn are exceptional and the way they eschew the nonsense of the current “political consensus” and dare to speak the language of ordinary people, the way they don’t hide from engagement but actually seek it out, is something these kids respond to and want from all their politicians.
That we’ve sent a good few not much older than them – Hannah Bardell, Mhairi Black, Stuart Donaldson – to Westminster will have convinced them that the door to that world isn’t closed and those people ought to be their inspiration.
Our MP’s can’t inspire these kids on their own.
They have enough to be getting on with.
We all ought to be lending a hand; supporting, encouraging, advising … but not guiding.
That’s not our place.
They certainly don’t need advice from the generation that fucked everything up.
These kids are perfectly capable of taking, and making, their own decisions and even making their own mistakes.
And they will make mistakes, because everyone does.
We ought to remember that and not hold it against them.
But when it comes to changing things, I believe this generation is going to exceed even our wildest dreams.
They have lost everything already but they are neither selfish nor bitter about it.
They have inherited a corrupt system, a bankrupt culture and maybe even a dying planet … and they care about all of that and they are moved by what they see around them and they are determined to find solutions.
They will not be daunted either, not by anything.
They’re growing up in a world of smart phones and tablets and instant information.
They will have rapid reaction capability and a level of intelligence none of those who came before them could muster.
They will have the tools for the job.
They already have the passion, and conviction, and if they look behind them they’ll see all the inspiration, and all the lessons in what not to do, that they will ever need.
If you’re afraid for our future, I suggest this.
Look at the people who are going to hold the world in their hands.
They aren’t like us. They’re much better than that.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?
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