IT is said that in polite company – and at family gatherings – that there are three topics to be avoided: religion, politics, and money.
Indeed, there are even guides to navigating the festive season with relatives who hold very different views to your own. Some of these of course are tongue in cheek. But many are not. In a polarised society that lurches from one crisis to the next – things can get fraught. As depicted in popular culture, political explosions on Christmas Day often draw on generational caricatures. One such guide to surviving the season – in this case with conservative family members – even starts off: “I will not disrespect my elders, nor will I be their punching bag.”
Growing up in a household where politics was all but absent from the agenda, such things were never an issue. Now, it seems almost impossible to think of conversations devoid of referencing the major issues of the day. In more recent years, all manner of subjects are touched on: Brexit, independence, Boris Johnson, and of course, the pandemic. But politics didn’t penetrate our dinner table until – enraged by the Iraq war – I took an interest in it in my late teens.
My late maternal grandfather was keen to engage. Our Christmas walks together set about a great many issues. In some areas we found agreement – often on matters of principle. Naturally, in other areas we found ourselves with opposing ideas. We were of different times and the changes in the social and political landscape over the period of his life contoured our debates which were both robust and respectful.
I had from a very young age always considered him to be a hugely knowledgeable individual. And indeed, he was. He was awarded the Dux at his school for his academic performance. Born in Dundee in 1931, his family did not have the wealth to send him to university. His own choice would have been to study medicine. However, that didn’t prevent a lifetime of learning. On history, literature and geography he had an immense breadth of intellect. I remember he helped me with a school project on the golden eagle. He produced the most brilliant sketch of the great bird, which served as inspiration and developed my understanding. Truly, a talented man.
He was of that generation who even in retirement wore a shirt and tie with freshly pressed trousers most days. Each evening he would set the table for breakfast the next day. He went to Church, and often volunteered for various initiatives connected with it. These day-to-day disciplines were part of a broader grounding in family and community. He was a constant source of good life advice – a problem shared with him really was halved. He was in many ways conservative in nature, though in a manner that sought to preserve what he valued about life. Indeed, one area we agreed on was the destructive impact of consumerism on society.
So much was different about our lives and about the society we grew up in. He kept the letter of acceptance of his first ever job, which I am looking at now. Sent on the 5th of July 1949 it confirms employment at the North British and Mercantile Insurance Company. He was to be paid £135 per annum. The company would later be absorbed by the Commercial Union in 1959. This first letter of acceptance would also be his last – staying with the company for the rest of his working life.
We would discuss the gap between rich and poor. I would relate to him the short-term and precarious nature of work today. We contrasted this with his own experience. We talked about trade unions, and though not a “union man”, he understood the role they played. We talked about racism too, bearing in mind my own mixed heritage. Who would have thought that the daughter of a Dundonian born in the 1930s, would marry a man born in Pakistan, who moved to Glasgow at the age of four.
I would argue that common and democratic ownership of the world’s resources was the way forward. Such full-blooded socialism, though, was a step too far for him. Yet time and again our deeper ideological differences met with points of agreement. He was saddened by the closure of libraries as a result of austerity cuts. Nothing, surely, could be more valuable than the ability for all to gain access to books. And of course, he had deep respect for the NHS. These are points of unity for millions of people – regardless of age.
Funnily enough, it happened that he and my Grandmother were visiting Glasgow on the same day as my first demonstration. It was to protest the visit of George Bush in 2003. I remember him watching the coverage of the huge London demonstration, commenting, “this will be beamed all over the world”. He didn’t trust Tony Blair over the question of the war in the slightest, nor did he have anything complimentary to say about Bush. Equally, as we were to debate in years to come, he was not favourable to independence as an alternative, and distrusted Salmond too.
My Grandfather died in January of 2013. I was lucky enough to share a last conversation with him and to say goodbye properly. The years that have followed were to bring about momentous events. Revolution in Egypt, Donald Trump as President, Britain leaving the EU and much else. And as we move through the pandemic, I reflect on the conversations we might have had.
Today there are reams of pages devoted to the latest theory about “millennials” and “Gen Xers” as if they are unmoored from their historical and material context. Cross-generational conflict is nothing new. But now it is amplified and often manufactured. Perhaps this is because it suits the status-quo to sow these divisions. Maybe the pressure to live, to consume and to experience the world “in the moment” is structured into the short-term rush for profits against a backdrop of uncertainty about the future. Yet any serious response to the great challenges of our era requires a genuinely inter-generational approach. One that allows us to act collectively to secure a planet and a future worth living in for generations to come.
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