The tragedy of modern life

Opinion by Alan Duff
The tragedy of modern life

It used to be the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker. Now it’s the supermarket by a country mile, our mobile phone, our car, bank, petrol station and fast food outlets. How things have changed.

The internet is right up there and television still hangs in though less so for the younger generation. Movies have lost a little ground due to illegal downloading and an increasingly younger audience. Dotcom has a bit to do with that decline in revenue. Sony Films purportedly had two major films stolen in a cyber-attack.

SEE ALSO: Be glad at how lucky you are

Whoever spotted a kid climbing a tree in the last decade? Or kids swimming without adult supervision in a lake, a river, hunting tadpoles in a stream? That’s over. The children of today know their way around a tablet, a cell phone, video games, like children of my day knew their neighbourhood, and they are way less adventuress and take fewer risks. Life has moved on, helicopter parenting has moved in.

No use feeling sad or nostalgic for what was. I’m a novelist; in the English-speaking world people are reading books less and less. Like newspaper readership has plummeted, again more in the English-speaking world than in, say, Europe. I guess it’s a culture thing and for some reason English speaking countries have become more hedonistic, even shallower. In France the written word is still revered as it is in Germany and Scandinavia. It’s a good part of why I moved here to France. They love authors – oh, and soccer players – as much as we love All Blacks.

As kids we used to roam everywhere after school, more so on the weekend. I often got to play two games of rugby on a Saturday if I could race by bike in time to play for another team and not necessarily the same club. We didn’t care, only that we got to play twice.

I hardly remember much adult supervision and it was beautiful. The very sky seemed to belong to us and we were lucky there was a small private deciduous forest in our Rotorua neighbourhood where we indulged our every book and comic hero character shooting arrows at each other, racing through the woods and hiding pressed against rotting logs, in little holes with leaves hurriedly piled over our excited bodies. More often than not it got rough. Older boys made it so. But we younger ones couldn’t wait to go back for more and for our turn to come.

At dusk mothers or fathers would bellow out, “Jimmy! Get home.” It was never “come home.” The emphasis was on get. As in a kid is going to get a belting or some form of punishment for not being home when tea was served. That’s what dinner was called back then: tea. Some kids really got it from fathers who’d had a skin full in the one hour they had after work to have a beer at the pub. Unbelievable though it sounds now, a man would arrive at the pub at about 5.15pm and down as many beers as he could before last drinks were served at 6pm. My, we were a primitive nation until 1967.

To a clanging bell and sometimes the menacing presence of police, men would spill out of public bars all over the land completely transformed by what was called “the six o’clock swill.” They weren’t speaking of swine at the trough, but actual human beings carrying out this desperate social ritual in about one hour.

I stayed in a friend’s Auckland Viaduct apartment last month and the bars – and the incredible din of live music and revellers – went on till at least 4am. Look out the window and almost everyone refers to his and her cell phone or takes incessant photos. Life’s changed all right.

Children are adept at using modern technology. While yours truly had to call his wife in France to ask how to plug in my new phone charger, a pretty basic flip-top at that. And failing to understand her instructions I took it to Vodafone and the young woman there promptly slotted the charger in before I could say “I’m old.” I was trying on the wrong side of the phone.

Thank goodness some things have not changed. Like enjoying a rugby game, being at the beach. I was going to say social times together, but smartphones have markedly altered that experience.

Note couples sitting opposite each other at a restaurant or in a bar and not saying a word, heads buried in their phones. No need to ask directions. No need to ask or say anything. It’s all in the palm of our hands. And I think that’s a bit of a tragedy.

SEE ALSO: Be glad at how lucky you are

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