We live in a time of rapid change. One piece of technology is replaced with another, with almost dizzying rapidity. Perhaps it’s happening too fast.
I had an experience of it early in life, when I was living in the town of Bathurst (now Banjul) in Gambia. My family had moved there and we were living in an old house that had been built a century or two earlier. It was a brick house with wooden floors. We lived on the upper floor, and my father worked in the telegraph office on the ground floor, which was full of whirring, clattering machines that spewed out paper tape. Outside in the garden were two radio masts, with wires stretched between them. There was also most likely a cable that stretched underground from the house out to the sea, which was barely a hundred yards away.
Shortly after we arrived work started on building a new house near the old house. The new house was built with concrete breeze blocks and concrete floors. Unlike the old house, it had a well-appointed kitchen and bathroom. I watched it being built, which was something that happened with surprising rapidity. And as soon as it had been completed our family moved into the flat on its upper floor, and the telegraph equipment was moved into its lower floor, with some new modern equipment added.
And then the old house was torn down. A big engine with a steel hawser was used to pull it down, bit by bit. The hawser was looped through the windows and around the walls, and the engine would pull out the walls. It only took half a day for that engine to demolish the entire house. In the end there was just a pile of bricks and wood, which the town’s residents soon carried away by hand to re-use.
And then a second new house was built on the site of the old house. It was built in the same way as the first new house, but it was intended to be a family home. And when it was complete we moved into it.
So in the space of less than a year we had moved three times, and seen one house demolished, and two new ones built.
And I suppose that that is the way change always happens. The old is dismantled, and replaced with the new. And in this case the new was a lot better than the old.
Back then I could handle rapid change like this. And my entire childhood was filled with constant change. The family was always on the move. Gambia was just one brief stop. I seemed to spend most of my life on planes or ships that were crossing the Atlantic ocean. It was rootless existence. No sooner had I put down roots in one place than they would be torn up. I learned to put down roots very quickly. I can make a hotel room my home inside ten minutes.
I don’t think people used to live this way. I think that historically most people have lived in one place, generation after generation. They hardly ever visited the next town, never mind the next continent. They put down deep and long-lasting roots. They become tied to a single place, and a single language, and a single culture.
It’s one reason why later in life I simply wanted to come to a stop somewhere, and never go anywhere else again. And that’s exactly what I do these days. I keep still.
And maybe that’s why I’ve become a bit of a conservative, and want to preserve things as they are, rather than keep knocking things down and replacing them with new things. When I was young, and travelling constantly from one place to another, I was quite “progressive”. For progress always means change. And I think now that “progressives” who love change are really just rootless people who don’t belong anywhere. They don’t care if the old world is torn down and replaced with a new one. They’re used to constant change, and constant motion. In fact, they even expect it.
But perhaps constant change is unsettling. Constant change means constant uncertainty. You never know where you’ll be tomorrow, or the day after. The rootless life is one in which few long term friendships can be forged. Nothing lasts. Perhaps much of our modern anomie comes from such rootlessness.
The smoking ban was another change. It was a profound change. An entire culture was swept away. They may as well have torn down the pubs using engines and steel hawsers. But, unlike in the Gambia where the old house was replaced with a new and improved house, the old culture was replaced with… nothing at all,
In Gambia, we weren’t ever “exiled to the outdoors”. Instead we moved from one old and rather dilapidated house, firstly into a modern flat, and then into an entire modern house.
But smokers were just exiled to the outdoors. And this meant that the smoking ban was an act of vandalism. For it’s vandalism when something is demolished or defaced without being replaced by something else. And people like Deborah Arnott are vandals. And quite conscious vandals. It was she, after all, who said, “Smokers will be exiled to the outdoors.” She knew exactly what she was doing.
And these people don’t care if they destroy things, because they’ve never been wedded to anything anyway in the first place. They’re rootless people who never felt any attachment to any place or any culture. They have no love for anything. In fact they even take pride in their lack of attachment to any firm beliefs or values. They will restock their values with new ones at a moment’s notice.
And perhaps in a world in which everything is being torn down and replaced all the time, the demolition of the old always appears to be the necessary preliminary step that must be made. Before the old curtains or the old furniture is replaced, the old curtains and the old furniture and the old carpets must be thrown out. But if they’re thrown out before their replacements have been made, one is left with nothing to sit on but a bare floor.
The smoking ban was also a deliberate act of cultural vandalism. It was a form of iconoclasm:
Iconoclasm is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons.
And it’s much easier to break things than to make them. It may take a potter days to make a single vase or pot. But it only takes a few seconds for someone to smash it with a hammer. And perhaps that’s the attraction of it for cultural vandals like Deborah Arnott: it’s easy. Perhaps that’s the attraction of all vandalism to every vandal: it’s a quick and easy way of leaving their mark upon the world, even if their mark is a broken nose or a missing ear. And if the vandals in parliament who voted for the smoking ban were so delighted with their handiwork, it was probably the same elation that accompanies breaking windows with thrown stones. Tee hee! What fun!
And perhaps vandals are also people who have never actually made anything in their lives, and only know how to break things. And so if they ever feel the need to do something, the only thing they know how to do is break things. For would a potter who had spent his life making carefully constructed vases and cups just as happily spend his time smashing them? Probably not, because as a potter he knows exactly how long it takes to make these things – while vandals have no idea at all.
These days vandals like Deborah Arnott are busy at work vandalising the entirety of western civilisation. But they’ll never create anything in its place. Because they have no idea how to make anything.
And when they’re gone, the old civilisation will piece itself slowly back together like a bomb-damaged city or a mugger’s victim.