An Awesome Life, An Awesome Time To Live (Part 1)

This is part 1 of what started out as a brief article but seems to, instead be turning into a small book! I hope that someone out there might find it at least a little interesting. Please think of it as a draft and subject to amendment. My daughter once suggested that I write a book about how life was in my time, for the benefit of my grandchildren and future generations. I wasn’t thinking that way when I started writing this article but I hope that this effort might go some small way toward meeting that request. More to come. Constructive comments are always welcome. Cheers, Andrew.

Its 2013 and I turned 59, last birthday. And when I look back through the years at my life and times, I am only too aware that there’s far more behind me, than there is ahead. All of those stand-out moments have, I suppose, already been lived. I know that the bell will be tolling for me, sometime soon now. Still, as I ponder my life, I can’t help but feel a warm glow of contentment. It has been such an amazing blessing to be born at the time I was, to have lived the life that I’ve known and to witness the things that I’ve seen.

When considered from an historical viewpoint, it would be fair to say that the period of my lifetime has been a rather quiet one. So many people of the past lived and died in tumultuous times. So many of our forebears lived lives that were ravaged or blotted out by war, famine, privation or disease. My own parents and grand parents lived through two World Wars, each of which created misery and suffering on a scale that humankind had never before seen. We don’t need to look far into the past to see a time when, at least for ordinary folks, scarcity and lack were the order of the day. The kinds of daily pleasures, the security and the affluence that we nowadays take for granted, were not even dreamed of.

My own lifetime, by comparison has been one of ease, interest, pleasure and privilege. And it has spanned such interesting times, both in technological and scientific progress, as well as social change. And despite one’s tendency to look back fondly at yesteryear and hanker for those simpler times and simple pleasures, I for one think that I will be leaving a far better world than the one I was born into. I’m sure that time clouds our vision when we look backwards. The fact is, those times weren’t so simple and the pleasures, such as they were, were nothing compared with what’s available today. Its true that humanity has made some awful mistakes during my time. And I think that most of our mistakes are motivated by human traits that we are nevertheless growing out of as a species. If there are any particular frailties of mankind that still have the potential to destroy us as a species, I think they would be human greed and the desire to dominate our fellow man. Those two characteristics alone have been responsible for more suffering and sadness through human history than any other. And they are still with us.

Today, we are living in an age where the degree of material wealth that’s available to ordinary people (in the Western World, at least) is greater than any previous time. And no-one who has the capacity to think, can help but know that its a fool’s paradise that we are living in. This is the age of the greed of the little person and our planet simply cannot continue to deliver commodities at the rate that it is now, let alone at the accelerated level that consumerism will demand. The wealth of the little man has not been delivered by hard work and frugality. It is simply the inevitable result of technological progress. And if we can believe what we read, it is true today, as it has always been, that the vast bulk of the world’s wealth and power rests in the hands of a tiny segment of society.

Putting together those two factors, the high standard of living of ordinary people and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny few, you could be forgiven for thinking that the outlook for humanity hasn’t improved at all …. probably worsened, in fact. People’s lifestyle expectations have never been higher and there has never been so much wealth for the rich and powerful to fight over. Nevertheless I see some wonderful signs of a new-found maturity. In the course of my own lifetime, I’ve watched society develop a growing appreciation of our planet and its resources. Ordinary people today understand many things that our forebears did not. We have learned the futility of war. We are developing a real understanding of the fragility of our beautiful planet and of the need to conserve its precious resources. We’ve even seen repeatedly the power of ordinary people, used to curtail or halt the over-exploitation of our planet. And I think that socially, we are slowly learning that we really are just one big global village. What affects our neighbours. also affects us, no matter where on the planet, we happen to be. And with better education of humanity at large, I think there’s a growing understanding of cultural diversity and an increasing racial tolerance between peoples. I’m not suggesting for a moment, that we don’t still have a very long way to go in these things. But I do see real signs of wonderful developments. And as a result of people being better informed and educated, I can envision a day when people everywhere will embrace racial tolerance, international harmony and cooperation and a real desire to preserve and protect this planet that we all share. The greatest single threat to human progress that I can see, is individual greed. And hopefully, a day will come when we will learn to see that in the same way that we are learning to view war, racial intolerance and a whole raft of other human frailties that we should have shrugged off by now. But I for one believe that we are on a journey and that we are headed in a positive direction.

In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed so much change. From my earliest memories, I can recall a couple who were droving sheep to the city. They had a horse-drawn covered dray and a couple of dogs and each evening their sheep were penned in a temporary wire enclosure and they camped wherever they stopped. One evening, they happened to stop on the side of the road, adjoining the property where we lived. I remember going to visit them, a small child alone, and enjoying the novelty of their company. I don’t recall being ‘abused’ and I don’t suppose it ever occurred to my parents that I might have been in any danger whatever. Later, we moved to the city and I remember baker’s vans and milk floats that were pulled by horses. If you played your cards right, you might be allowed to pat the horse. I remember the bottle-o, with his horse and cart and there were even scrap-o’s, all of them, the last of a dying breed. These people would drive their carts around the suburbs, buying scrap and all sorts of bits and pieces for small amounts of cash. I remember my early school days. Every day, milk was delivered to school in little 1/3 pint (~280ml) glass bottles with little aluminium foil tops. At morning recess, the entire school was required to drink one bottle of milk. This was as initiative of the government of the day, in response to the reality that many children in ordinary society were malnourished. For ordinary people, they were still very tough times. The foil tops from the bottles could be fashioned into all sorts of novelties. They made great mini-frisbies before anyone had ever heard the word. And they made great boats, to be raced down the gutters on rainy days. The glass bottles were returned, to be cleaned and reused repeatedly …. not all progress is forward.

It wasn’t all milk and skittles though. I remember hand-me-down clothes and the shame of actually being embarrassed by their former owners who delighted in pointing out that you were in fact, wearing their old clothes! I remember plastic sandals that would literally cut into the backs of your heels as you walked …. and I remember being frequently cold and wet. Life had a harshness and rawness to it that is thankfully missing today … although I suppose it might still exists in some segments of society. In those days though, it wasn’t considered any big deal if an adult who was a total stranger gave you a clip around the ears if he saw you misbehaving …. and you wouldn’t dare tell your parents because you’d more likely get another round, rather than engender their sympathy.

If you got into trouble at school, it was far better to keep that to yourself as well. Parents were as likely to side with your teacher, as with you. I can recall some awful school experiences. When I was in the second grade (about age six) I remember a teacher beating me with a three foot blackboard ruler. She actually sent the whole class off to recess beforehand and I’ve never forgotten my terror at what she dished out. Later, in the sixth grade (boys only class) we had a teacher who kept two heavy pieces of cow hide strap in his desk … One wide and one narrow. Any infraction of the rules was met by a dose of the strap …. the number of strokes and the instrument being decided by the magnitude of the crime. “Six of the best” wasn’t just an expression. I recall one day when the entire class was lined up along the front of the classroom and every boy who’s mental arithmetic test score didn’t measure up to the teacher’s expectations, was strapped. You were required to stand with your open upturned palm outstretched and woe to you if you flinched and pulled your hand away! I remember lots of different teachers. We moved around a lot. I remember having the backs of my knuckles hit repeatedly with a jumbo pencil, or the thin edge of a ruler. Looking back, the male teachers were harsh but the women were more violent. I think some of them took a sadistic delight in handing out corporal punishment. The methods used were well calculated to inflict the maximum pain. I believe that kids live in a better world today and it now seems to be the teachers who have the rough end of the pineapple. But when I remember the sadistic things that were routinely done to me and my peers, I think that’s as it needs to be. Corporal punishment really shouldn’t have any place whatsoever in an education system. It was wrong then and it would be wrong now. I still curse the memory of that second grade teacher.

Of course, corporal punishment wasn’t confined to the classroom, or the preserve of total strangers. We got plenty from our own parents. As a boy, I spent countless wonderful days fishing in the Goulburn River around Seymour in Victoria. And on more than one occasion when I lost track of time and the family had an appointment to keep, I was chased all the way home by my step father who would whip me with a willow branch whenever he could catch me! When I look back at my life and I consider how I raised my own children, I really do think we are living in a world that is improving. My kids got ‘the stick’ occasionally. But corporal punishment was an event. In my world, it was the norm. And in the world of my grandchildren, it has (thankfully) all but disappeared.

Not all of the social change that we’ve seen has been positive … even some that is nowadays seen as necessary. When I was a boy, I had for a time, a best friend who’s name was Mr James. Mr James was an elderly gentleman who was still working but was reaching the end of his working life as a journeyman carpenter. He used to take me fishing. We drove around in his Thames van and I can still remember the wonderful sound the engine made, right beneath the seat. There was a sort of hissing noise from the carburettor that you never heard in a normal motor car. Mr James taught me lots of stuff. Mostly, he taught me that real friendship has nothing whatever to do with age. I suppose he was a bit lonely for company and I was a little boy with time on my hands, curiosity in my mind and a little boy’s eagerness for exploration and adventure. Mr James was a wonderful friend. It broke my heart when he became ill and died. And I still love his memory. It saddens me very much that relationships such as that seem to be lost to today’s society. Nowadays, if an elderly person sought the company of a young boy, he’d immediately be suspected of being some kind of predator. Mr James was no such thing. He was just a wonderful human being who enriched my life. If you don’t count the innumerable beatings at the hands of school teachers and other adults, I didn’t know what child abuse is until I was a grown up. And I think its fair to say that it was Mr James who showed me that adults could be gentle, caring and decent people.

At the time of my birth, television was just arriving in Australia. When I was a small boy, ownership of a television set was just becoming common amongst ordinary people. I don’t remember how old I was when my own family finally got one. I do recall that in those days, people were required to purchase a license to be allowed to listen to the radio, or to watch television.  The government, with its insatiable hunger for ‘revenue’ used to have inspectors who would go door to door, checking people’s radio and television licenses.  Early TV’s had tiny screens with woeful picture quality and mediocre sound. The available programmes were few and universally abysmal. But the pied piper that was television, provided a window into a fantasy world into which all of society was willingly led, never to return! Society’s love affair with the television was instant, universal and permanent. It has become the new ‘opiate of the masses’ and its power as the greatest propaganda device ever conceived was recognised early by every politician, commercial entity and religious body. The license requirements were soon dropped!  Televised advertising became an awesomely effective marketing tool and people were prepared to spend as much time watching the ‘ads’ as the programmes. That hasn’t changed.

As time went by, the size and quality of domestic televisions improved by magnitudes. Likewise the quality and variety of programmes. And for a discerning viewer, there are endless, wonderful, educational opportunities, the best that performing visual arts has to offer and access to information that was hitherto simply unavailable or unobtainable. I think its fair to say though, that much of the populace has never fitted the category of ‘discerning’ and the television industry, driven by huge revenues from advertising, made sure to dish up plenty of ‘entertainment’ aimed at keeping all of us glued to the screen. We’ve had fifty years of quiz shows, talent quests and sitcoms, all of them mediocre and aimed at a population who’s brains have been running at idle for just as long. The more these shows strive to be different, the more they seem to remain the same. The only new twist that I can think of over all that time, is the concept of so-called ‘reality TV’ …… a genre involving ordinary people aimed to amuse and engage people who are even more ordinary. And our one truly constant companion on this entire journey has been commercial advertising.  It, like a true friend, has remained as constant as a guiding star. It can still be counted on to throw into stark relief, every failing of society. It enshrines all of the qualities that an enlightened world would be striving to cast off …. personal greed, snobbery, prejudice and blind consumerism, to name just a few. And to get their endless messages across, they shamelessly employ propaganda techniques that would make any dictatorial despot green with envy. Elevated volume, annoying voices, rapid speech, flashing imagery and mind numbing repetition …. and because its all driven by the sacred cow of consumerism, governments then and now were and are happy to allow the minds of their people to be endlessly bombarded. Television is indeed a tool that can (and has) been made to serve good or evil. It has the power to change the minds of the masses, for better or for worse. It is the greatest asset and the greatest threat that I see to free thinking. I rarely watch commercial TV nowadays. Thankfully, one no longer has to. Its now possible view material selectively and to fast-forward or mute the advertising.

Part 2 to follow ….

Andrew Caddle 20130719


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