26 February, 2018
“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, and that’s why it’s called the present.”
Neat, isn’t it! I thought so when I came across it a year or so ago while marking an English composition. The student had probably been memorising the three sentences for a month or so to have them handy for use in the exam, but they fitted in with the rest of the answer reasonably well and I enjoyed reading them.
Yes, the present is a gift, and too often we forget this. We are too concerned about what we have not done quite well enough in the past and what we will be called on to do in the future. Enjoy the present!
Over the last week or so I have been reading ‘Journey to Java’. It was written by Harold Nicholson, the husband of Vita Sackville West. (What a way to be identified, as the husband or wife of somebody better known!) It is the diary of a voyage from Southampton to Java and back in the mid-50s. Yes, check out the names on google. You will find that Vita was the amazing gardener of Sissinghurst among other things. The book was more interesting than I expected. For a start, it was a hardback and today just holding and reading a hardback gives a pleasure that is all too rare. It also has a pretty dust cover of a cyclist in the jungle of Java with the ship in a bay in the background. After 50 years the dust cover is still intact. Another rarity! What pleases are the little details of the voyage, the day-to-day occurrences, the allocation of cabins, the uniforms of the crew, the name tags on the deck chairs, the characters of the passengers and their attitudes of the 50s towards all and sundry.
There were many changes in that decade, and I am going to consider two that you may not regard as significant.
The first is the demise of Latin. Few people give much thought to this but it has importance. In ‘Journey to Java’ Harold Nicholson muses on Lucretius and other philosophers from Greece and Rome. In the 1950s he could mention Lucretius and his readers would know who he was talking about. Today most of us would have no idea, and the few who are interested would have to check Wikipedia. Harold Nicholson could quote in Latin a couple of lines of Virgil’s Aeneid and not consider an English translation necessary. His readers would understand. Many of them would know the quote anyway.
That decade marked the end of 2000 years of classical education and classical tradition. Quote Virgil to a hundred teenagers today and not one will know who he was or even what language he wrote in. Not one in a thousand will know what your quote means.
For centuries educated Europeans communicated with each other in Latin. In 1736 when the young Samuel Johnson wanted to give his doctor an account of his mental condition he wrote in Latin. Newton wrote his ‘Principia’ in Latin. In some bastions Latin clung on though it was always fighting a losing battle. In 2013 Pope Benedict made the announcement of his retirement in Latin. Only one or two of the members of the press who heard it were aware of what he had said and so made a journalistic scoop.
So Latin became history in the fifties. It became ‘yesterday’! And so did those great ocean liners that sailed the seven seas. This was another significant change. I remember when I was a boy… Stop it! So starts the typical complaint of the whinging oldie! But anyway! I continue! I remember when I was a boy, the MCC cricket team went to Australia in the autumn to play for the Ashes against the Aussies in the Australian summer. They went by boat! Their PE training was done every morning on the deck. Marvellous! The fifties saw the end of the long sea voyage. Today there are plenty of cruises but the ships that took passengers from A to B across the world have gone. Today cruises just go round in circles for the pleasure of the passengers. They finish where they began. In the fifties those long sea voyages actually went somewhere. They had a destination. You could still choose whether to take a plane or a ship to travel from Southampton to Sydney or from Barcelona to Buenos Aires.
Back to the gift of the present. Near the end of his diary, when the ship is approaching the Canaries on her way home, Nicholson writes, ‘What renders old age intolerable is that it deprives one of the ecstasy of expectation.’ One way to stay happy in old age is to continue expecting! To continue looking forward to things!
So we should look forward with enjoyment, not with worry. Remember that one definition of anxiety is that it is when the mind travels ahead of the body!
I was on a boat trip on a canal in Yorkshire with my children, my mother and an old school friend of my mother’s. This friend was well into her 90s then and I remember her saying, ‘You know, Roy, the trouble about old age is that it has no future!’ But she was smiling when she made this remark, and she enjoyed every second of the day out.
But just as one can age gracefully so we should try to age in contentment. Peace of mind is a great gift but so many old people are denied it. Just spend an hour or so in a home for old people with dementia. They are tormented by worries at a time of life when they should have nothing to concern them. They are looked after. They are kept warm and fed well. Yet in their mind they fight past battles again and again. It may be about some family argument from many years before. It may just be frantic worry about their handbag which they fear they may lose. Whatever the cause, they are given little peace.
We have moved from the gift of the present to old age in just a few lines. Carpe diem! Surely that bit of Latin doesn’t need a translation! It does? Well, google it then!