Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Nostalgic memories

It is strange to become aware of social change happening before my eyes as happened today.  I was reading an excellent book about Shakespeare’s life by James Shapiro, called 1606 – Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.  Shakespeare wrote Lear around the time of the Gunpowder Plot, with Guy Fawkes one of the conspirators.  For the next 400 years this day has been remembered by the fireworks displays we hold on 5 November.

But I now realise that things have changed almost without my noticing it.  It must be many years since I last passed a few ragamuffins on the street pushing along an old pram in which they had stuffed a hastily-dressed puppet, and calling out to me as I pass, “A penny for the guy?”  We still celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks, but children no longer re-enact the event symbolically by wheeling a model of Guy Fawkes around in an old pram.  Are there indeed still any shabby old prams out there suitable for this, rather than the huge modern contraptions blocking our pavements?  And pennies have long since disappeared.   But I was pleased when my colleague, Guy, told me that he remembers as a child dressing his teddy bear up in old clothes, propping him up in the street and begging passers-by for pennies.

Another nod to our past has thus gone almost without our noticing it.  Just as I can’t remember how many years it is since I last heard groups of carol singers knocking on doors up and down the street before Christmas, although maybe this still happens in small rural communities where people know their neighbours.  Some of the carol singers would gather in groups and collect for a charity, but often we would open our door to two or three young children, who would launch into feebly singing a few odd bars of “Good King Wenceslas”, before grinding to a halt because they didn’t know the words.   Perhaps nowadays, too, it would be considered too risky for young children to knock on doors on their own in the evening, another sad indictment of the times.

When customs such as these which have persisted for centuries lose their relevance, dwindle and die out, a little fabric of our social history is torn away with them.  Now all the new customs are created, not on the streets but at one remove on social media through our mobile phones.


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