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The values of our time

28 August 2013

In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

One of my Facebook friends posted that a couple of days ago, and I found myself feeling quite ambivalent about it, partly because of the book I have been reading — Various pets alive & dead by Marina Lewycka (more about that below), and partly because of some recent events, and responses to them.

In some ways I think that the statement is positive. I’ve always been in favour of lifelong learning. Though I’m officially retired, I welcome the opportunity to supervise postgraduate students because it enables me to learn more and to try to keep up, at least in my own field.

But the world in which I did most of my learning was the world of apartheid and the struggle against it, and, of course, that world no longer exists.

The thing about this book is that it gives a picture of the world that does exist now, and of the people who have inherited it because they were willing to learn its lessons and its values, and to apply them.

But I’m not sure that those values represent our generation’s hopes for a post-apartheid world, or even a post-Bolshevik world.

Various Pets Alive & DeadVarious Pets Alive & Dead by Marina Lewycka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In many ways this is a novel for our time, a novel of our time. It’s about the generation gap, which has become inverted for the generation that invented (or provoked) the term “generation gap”. That’s my generation.

Marcus and Dora were part of a left-wing commune in the 1960s and 1970s and hoped that their children would grow up to share their ideals. Their daughter Clara is a teacher of rather prosaic subjects, but at least she is teaching working-class kids. Their mathematically-gifted son Serge, they believe, is working on a PhD in Cambridge, and seems set for a career of pure research, which will not prop up the blood-sucking capitalist system. What they do not know, and what he is too afraid to tell them, is that he has been head-hunted as a risk analyst by a firm of high-flying financiers, and is helping them to ride the rough seas of the financial crisis of 2008, and is what they would regard as immorally rich, and getting richer. His parents’ values and his upbringing give him occasional twinges of conscience, but he manages to suppress them quite easily, for the most part. He is a bit more worried about getting caught.

The third child, Oolie-Anna, has Down’s syndrome, and so lives at home, but her social worker keeps urging that she move out and become independent, because her aging parents will not be able to look after her for ever.

I read A short history of tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka about seven years ago. That was mainly about Ukrainian immigrants who had settled in Britain, and was both funny and sad.

This one is also funny and sad, but the main characters are British, and there is only one Ukrainian, who is not a viewpoint character. The viewpoint moves mostly between Doro, the mother, and her two children Clara and Serge, with Marcus having his say much more rarely. There is thus no protagonist, or perhaps one could say no human protagonist, because the real protagonist is the new capitalism, and its effects on its devotees and its victims.

It is set in Britain, but the kind of values it represents are very much evident in South Africa today as well.

View all my reviews

Perhaps I could add a postscript about the values of different generations. A couple of days ago I wrote another blog post on an Afrikaans cultural award for two Orthodox priests | Khanya. After I wrote it, there was a report in the mainstream Afrikaans press about it, which I found after some help: Beeld : Ortodokse vertalers word vereer.

I got the hard copy edition of Beeld (27 Aug 2013), and the article was on page 3, at the bottom. At the top was a more general report on the event — the commemoration of 80 years of the Afrikaans Bible. In the middle of the page, separating the two linked articles, was one about the antics of Miley Cyrus on a VMA show. I’ve seen that there has been quite a lot of comments on that on Twitter, and elsewhere, though I haven’t read the article yet, so I don’t know what her antics were, nor what a VMA show is. I know I could read the article to find out, but I haven’t yet done so, and keep putting it off.

What I do know is that Miley Cyrus is a celeb of some sort, and that the learners who are willing to put some effort into learning all that there is to know about celebs, and to either become one or profit from their existence will inherit the earth.

But I’m not sure that that’s the kind of earth I want to inherit.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 28 August 2013 10:01 pm

    Various Pets Alive & Dead looks a good read Steve.

    As to a future of Miley Cyrus and celeb culture, I’ll pass on that as well.

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