At the beginning of February this year, I escorted my grandma back to her small, but comfortable flat in a quiet village somewhere in the North of England. She was a little wobbly in the dark, held on to my arm strongly and said that it was good of me to have walked her back. I replied it was no problem, knowing that this might be the last time I would see her before I went back to France. My grandma turned 90 a couple of weeks later.
Two months later, Prince Philip died on 9th April, 2021. Can you believe that, just less than a month ago, the British press was filled with either with deference or vehemence, social media feeds were fuming about hypocrisy, and message groups were debating whether or not so much attention should be given to a 99 year old man from another generation. Yet now there is not a hint of it: the 24 hour news cycle moved on to other prey.
Thankfully, my own nonagenarian grandmother is still with us. Rosemary, along with her late husband Bill, are of Prince Philip’s generation: born before WWII, they played a part in the building of the world that shaped the second half of the 20th century – be it by contributing to technology and science, establishing committees and policies, and setting up societal distinctions that gave something for the kids to rebel against. From the press coverage, it seems that this is Prince Philip’s story: as one of the royals commented, he was the grandfather of the nation.
My own grandfather, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 79, was raised in poverty, served in the Navy and then went on to work in the paint industry. He worked all his life to provide for his family and to put down the foundations for future generations. They appeared confident with an unshaken belief, once more, in the value of progress. There was a cultural golden age in all the arts, but especially in music. Spending power and pensions had never been surer. But even this too will pass and that generation’s time has come, with Prince Philip’s death as a stark reminder and the ravages inflicted by the covid-19 outbreak a cruel levelling.
I was told once a story about a local family who owned a company that made bread: the first generation set it up, the second generation flourished and the third generation went bankrupt. This was told to me by father and from that point on I couldn’t help shake off the feeling that my generation was this third generation: the grandparents had set up the post-WWII period of economic miracles, their children then flourished in the heady days of the 1990s and then what happened after 2001 was just going to be the end. I understand now that this is a Hegelian approach to history and that such a blanket approach is no longer applicable to today. I mean, who still believes in linear history, am I right?
Therefore, I’m more about the saeculum from Ancient Greece – a cyclical approach to the passing of generations. This is a period of roughly one hundred years, or in real terms the amount of time it takes for the people who originally established the Greek colony to die off and be replaced by the younger generation. A famous, non-Greek, example, comes in 17BC when the emperor Augustus marked the end of a century of civil wars in Rome, believing that all those who might have made trouble had died on the battlefield or of old age.
Prince Philip was born in 1921 and died one hundread years later. He and his generation witnessed the rise of the threat of nuclear war. And they founded a world order based on what they knew of the 20th century so far. Now that cohort of founders is disappearing and we are wondering what will happen next. This uncertainty is in no small part reflected in the redefining of identity that so many ask on Twitter, the #MeToo movement, the protests that call for the removal of statues that represent a systemically racist establishment, or that increasingly omnipotent concept called ‘cancel culture’.
This is understandable: when Europe found peace again after WWI, there were similar questions being asked, which might seem banal nowadays, but were groundbreaking: great powers fell, social mores were upended, and roles of every kind mutated. Likewise, our current society, spurred on by the necessity of change in a covid world, is wondering what the next step looks like, seemingly without the confidence of those who previous generations.
It’s not just the pandemic, however, that has made us question. In the last few years, the discovery like the ‘loneliest tree in the world’ and the establishment of the Anthropocene epoch revealed the extent to which human activity influences nature. The climate emergency is ever more urgent. We have seen a stark rise of global poverty which has accompanied a rise in the prevalence of extremist and terrorist activity. The covid crisis has shown the shortcomings of a system that prioritised profit and then sleaze among those managing affairs. Mental health problems, cyberbullying, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other social ills are, by all accounts, increasing along with precarity and lack of hope for the future. The thread of the foundational myth is being untied and there are now more questions than before on what it means to exist in the 21st century.
Is this the legacy of the class of ’45? Is this how a saeculum ends? What other stones must be turned before we ourselves will be escorted by the arm, by our kind grandchildren, into our cosy apartments in some quiet corner of the North of England?