It’s a reflection on the passing of generations. Old memories that are dry and dusty resurfacing. What was the world like when I was the age my son is now? How did I deal with problems then? Have things got better?
Yes, that’s the proper question. Have things got better?
It’s a difficult concept to grasp because I’m still living my life and it’s hard to think of your own existence and memories in a linear way. The historian generally does not examine his own life and times.
Despite this, watching my son take his first stumbling steps towards civilisation keeps bringing me back to that same question. Is the world a better place for him growing up than it was for me? Can I find some comfort in a sense of progression?
There’s an intellectual instinct against saying things are better now which can muddy my judgement. A lazy assumption that things must have been better back in the day. A simpler time.
But all rational thought and experience leads me to the opposite conclusion.
The standard of living is certainly better now. I grew up in a comfortable home but my son experiences a standard of material affluence that would have dazzled my infantile mind.
There is an abundance of opportunity today. The ethos of education has improved. When I was a pupil you were either ‘smart’ and you learnt or else you were in an academic wasteland. The system now does not work for everybody, but it’s geared to give the best chance possible to the largest number of children.
Furthermore my son has the opportunity to participate in a range of recreational activities and pursuits that were not available to me. If he’s going to be very good at something then we’ve got a much improved chance of finding it.
Health is better too. Vaccines prevent my son from suffering from some of the diseases I had as a child. His life-expectancy should be longer than mine.
Diet has changed out of recognition. My son is the fussiest of diners but I can generally always find something that he will eat. When I was a kid it was boiled potatoes every night or go hungry (I still have a psychological aversion to over-boiled mushy vegetables). Lard has been replaced by olive oil.
There are many other improvements. More tolerance of diversity, less deference to organised religion, greater access to international travel and the almost dizzying possibilities and promise created by new technology.
And then there’s the violence.
Or rather, the lack of it.
Violence was all around when I was growing up. It was as much a part of society as the milkman.
There was the violence of parents to their children. Of teachers to their pupils. Of children to each other.
Perfectly sane and rational human beings, who today would not think of striking a child, did it routinely when I was growing up in the 1970s.
I recently told an acquaintance, who is not from Northern Ireland, about the culture of beating children which existed in my primary school. He looked horrified and asked me why I didn’t tell my parents.
I thought about it for a moment and then the answer became obvious. Because the same thing happened at home. It was just normal behaviour then.
This is not to cast any derogatory inference on my parents or on any teacher I had. In truth it would have been considered unusual, remarkable even, in that time and environment if they had not resorted to the stick, ruler or cane.
Many practices which were common then look extremely shabby to our eyes today.
And then there was the societal violence.
I was born at the end of 1974. One of the most violent years of The Troubles.
The first IRA ceasefire was in 1994.
For the first 20 years of my life I knew nothing other than incessant, relentless violence taking place in the little country where I lived. That doesn’t mean it directly touched me but, simply, that it was impossible to ignore.
It dominated the news every night on our black and white portable telly. It was always on the front page of the newspaper which was delivered to our home. I was continually conscious that it was going on. Like the air, it was everywhere. There was no time or existence before The Troubles.
The whole of my youth (and everyone else of my generation) completely swallowed by an ubiquitous, inexorable series of shootings, bombings, murders and mass atrocities. That’s all the years of schooling, of playtime, of learning, of joy and wonder. Of innocence.
One of the saddest things about adolescence is that you only get one go at it.
To explain quite how ingrained The Troubles were in my mind I draw attention to the first ceasefires in 1994. I was at a point where I literally couldn’t understand how it could work. It was almost unsettling.
The Troubles had always been there. They never went away. How could there be no more Troubles? They were as inevitable as the movement of the tides. I couldn’t imagine a world without them.
Much attention has been given, and rightly so, to trying to find a proper way of dealing with the legacy of the violence. Of somehow giving some closure to the thousands of victims and their families who are still suffering.
Considering how difficult this task has proven it’s presumably too big a question to even ask what the effect was on a whole generation who grew up almost desensitised to violence, such was the commonality of it? One murder on the news was barely even noticed. It had to be a mass atrocity before we would stop playing.
I was never directly impacted. I was lucky to grow up in a part of the country where incidents were rare.
But not unknown.
When I was barely a teenager masked gunmen came to our front door one cold evening. It was two nights before Christmas.
There was no significance in the choosing of our house. It was simply that our lights were on. I was asleep but my mother, father and older brother were awake. They were held at gunpoint for some time and our car was taken. Supposedly to be used in a shooting.
As I said I was unaware of the events as they occurred. But apparently one of the gunmen watched my younger brother and I as we slept.
The next morning I was the first one awake in the house. My da woke next and told me what had happened the night before. The police came to the house and then we had to try and prepare for Christmas. Life always goes on.
A couple of years later one Saturday morning my brother and I were in the centre of the town where I lived. There was a massive bang which made the windows in the shops shake.
We knew immediately it had to be a bomb so we did what you would expect any teenage boys to do. We quickly went to where we thought the noise had come from.
We arrived just as the police were sealing off the scene. What had once been a car was ablaze. We found out later that day that the car belonged to an off-duty policeman who was killed when it exploded. He was visiting his mother and parked in the same spot every week.
I remember seeing something on the ground. A rock or perhaps a piece blown off the car, I thought at first. Then I realised it was a lump of flesh, badly singed. There was a smell I recognised as burning meat.
It was hardly normality and hardly something you’d want a child to see. Certainly I hope my son never sees anything like it.
Of course what was once commonplace is now extremely rare. Violence at all levels of society is now much less common.
It is banned from schools and a criminal act in the home. Political violence is not unknown but vastly reduced. The most common forms of violence now are related to alcohol or drugs consumption, when judgement is impaired.
And it’s striking how quickly an idea which once had permanence can seem outdated. Imagine for example if you were out for dinner in a nice restaurant and the couple at the table next to you lit a cigar and a cigarette. The concept seems socially barbaric now but it was unremarkable not that many years ago.
By the time I left school I had found a solid group of friends. There were half a dozen or so of us who ran about together as we discovered alcohol, girls and cars. There were members of that group with backgrounds in both of the established religious traditions. But, to us, the pull of the tradition of friendship was much more powerful.
I try to keep in touch with these friends but they’re scattered all over the world now. Of the group I’m the only one who still lives in Northern Ireland. The rest left in search of new opportunities and a better life long ago. Most of them are now married and have their own children. Sometimes I’ve heard them or others say they didn’t want to raise their kids in this place.
Conversely I now know quite a few people from other parts of the world who have moved here to raise their families. Attracted by the cheaper cost of property and the pace of life.
A few times in my life I came close to leaving Northern Ireland. Now I’m glad I didn’t. There are many things I don’t like about it but it’s where I want to raise my son. I like the friendliness and community of the little village where I live. I don’t want to think about living anywhere else.
My son has plenty of friends and close access to a large extended family. He’s happy and thriving.
Yes, things have got better as the generations have passed. Experiences from my youth now seem so alien as to be completely irrelevant in my son’s world.
Civilisation is not just a thing but a process which keeps moving, always being reshaped by people. Undoubtedly in a few decades there will be things about society today which seem primitive. And so it goes on.
One of the most powerful parental instincts is wanting better for your children than you had. It’s just as natural to shield your child from the more ugly parts of the world.
There are plenty of ugly things out there.
Just not as many as there used to be.