The Cradle-to-Grave Coalition

On funerals and socialist revivals.

Jane Miller October 4, 2017

(Paul Hostetler)

I’m begin­ning to feel a survivor’s shame as my gen­er­a­tion of friends and rela­tions are reg­u­lar­ly picked off. We old relics sit, stand, even kneel (this, with great dif­fi­cul­ty) in church­es and the­atres and lec­ture halls while our con­tem­po­raries are praised to the skies in ways some of them might have wel­comed in their life­time. As one of a dimin­ish­ing band, I’m some­times asked to speak at my old friends’ funer­als. Quar­rels, fail­ures, drunk­en­ness: all is for­got­ten as we remem­ber their charm, their virtues, their achieve­ments. Arrange­ments for the occa­sion will have been in the hands of the next gen­er­a­tion, the ones of 40, 50, 60, who are begin­ning to feel rather old them­selves. They’re not as good at the new tech­nol­o­gy as their chil­dren are, but nowa­days there may, nonethe­less, be pro­grammes full of poems and pho­tographs, rapid­ly assem­bled and gloss­i­ly printed.

In this country and yours, there are new, optimistic, socialist movements being led by men who are both grandfathers.

As well as funer­als there may be memo­r­i­al occa­sions, where too many peo­ple will have their say, and there’ll be a hob­bled rush to the toi­lets when they’re final­ly over. Some of us old ego­tists may won­der what on earth will be said about us when it’s our turn.

Funer­als are often billed these days as cel­e­bra­tions of a life, offer­ing a ten­ta­tive promise that fam­i­ly, friends, achieve­ments and so on will some­how man­age to keep that life going. But the empti­ness is real for many of us, and I am apt to feel on these occa­sions some­thing like a slip­ping away of a gen­er­a­tional agree­ment about what it was all like back then. Are we mak­ing it all up? Few­er and few­er peo­ple are left to con­firm or counter our accounts of the past. 

There’s no one left, for exam­ple, who remem­bers the hor­rors of Pass­chen­daele in 1917. The cen­te­nary cer­e­monies, with the Bel­gian and British roy­als in their best clothes read­ing their mourn­ful eulo­gies against the appar­ent­ly infi­nite rows of iden­ti­cal white graves, were respect­ful and dig­ni­fied. But while com­mem­o­ra­tion is bet­ter than noth­ing, it is a good deal less pow­er­ful than the vivid par­tic­u­lar­i­ty that mem­o­ries provide.

The film Dunkirk is a brave attempt to recre­ate the con­fu­sion and ter­ror of the retreat from north­ern France in 1940, and is time­ly allu­sion to Britain’s chau­vin­ism then and now. There are still peo­ple who remem­ber it all, and most of them will have been, as I was, a child at the time. My mem­o­ries of that moment and of the whole war are, above all, of a con­fu­sion that is caught by the film, as my elders tried to make sense of clipped and doc­tored news bul­letins on the radio, while pro­tect­ing us chil­dren from the hor­ror of what was going on. 

We all become repos­i­to­ries of a ver­sion of the past, though with every death some­thing of that is lost. His­to­ri­ans, nov­el­ists and film­mak­ers work to con­vey their account to a gen­er­a­tion that may have oth­er things on its mind.

I’m not sure that we’re very pop­u­lar, we old funer­al goers. We cost a lot. Much of the social care and Nation­al Health Ser­vice bud­gets are spent keep­ing us alive. More is spent on state pen­sions for the retired than on oth­er ben­e­fits. Sheer longevi­ty means that we’re like­ly to devel­op dia­betes or can­cer or heart dis­ease or demen­tia, or all four, and so absorb uncon­scionable amounts of oth­er people’s time and mon­ey. We are con­stant­ly advised to exer­cise our brains and our bod­ies and eat less, and too many of us don’t do as we’re told. The recent news that the rise in life expectan­cy has actu­al­ly slowed down was greet­ed with luke­warm lamen­ta­tion. It is a char­ac­ter­is­tic para­dox, how­ev­er, that the old con­tin­ue to lob­by to decide for them­selves how and when they’ll die — a request that is reg­u­lar­ly refused on the grounds that it would expose the vul­ner­a­ble to the mur­der­ous inten­tions of their near­est and dear­est. Per­haps those younger rela­tions are afraid they’d be tempt­ed and sim­ply wish to cir­cum­vent temptation.

We are thought to be a drag on progress and change, and to be nos­tal­gic for a past coloured rosi­ly by the fact that we were young in it. It’s assumed that the old vote more con­ser­v­a­tive­ly than the young.

Yet in this coun­try and yours, there are new, opti­mistic, social­ist move­ments being led by men who are both grand­fa­thers. I don’t need to tell you about Bernie Sanders, who is 76. Jere­my Cor­byn is only 68, but still. His elec­tion to the lead­er­ship of the Labour Par­ty in 2015, and again in 2016, was greet­ed by most Labour mem­bers of par­lia­ment — and almost every­one else — as hope­less­ly back­ward­look­ing, weak­ly rem­i­nis­cent of the old Left of the 1980s, when politi­cians like Michael Foot and Tony Benn warmed the cock­les of some hearts (mine, cer­tain­ly) but were nev­er expect­ed to win elec­tions, man­age economies and thrive in a mod­ern, glob­al world. For a decade or two some of my gen­er­a­tion have crit­i­cised the young for not vot­ing, and now, sud­den­ly, the young of both our coun­tries are not only involv­ing them­selves in pol­i­tics, but doing so in num­bers that could rad­i­cal­ly change things. 

Jere­my Cor­byn has heard the frus­tra­tions of the young — their stu­dent debt, when col­lege used to be free; the near impos­si­bil­i­ty of buy­ing a house— and respond­ed to them. It is no longer out of the ques­tion that Cor­byn could win an election. 

I don’t remem­ber a peri­od that was not thought a dif­fi­cult time by peo­ple of all ages, and we are undoubt­ed­ly liv­ing in dif­fi­cult times today. Yet some­thing is stir­ring, an ener­gy and some imag­in­ing, that com­bines what the old bring with them and what the young are look­ing for. 

The old and the young must join forces. We all want and need time, sup­port, resources and free­dom to do the things and know the things that mat­ter to us. 

A mar­velous exhi­bi­tion in the British Muse­um fea­tured the work of the Japan­ese artist Hoku­sai, who lived to be almost 90, and whose last known words were, If heav­en will afford me five more years of life, then I’ll man­age to become a true artist.” We should all hold out for as much time as we can get. But that can’t be at the expense of the young.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH