Thursday, June 04, 2009


In 1979 I reached the grand old age of 15. 1979 was a wierd year: Maggie the Milk Snatcher took the keys to Downing Street, marking yet another transfer of power between left and right which had been going on at regular intervals throughout my life; Ayatollah Khomeini introduced my young mind to the concept of a world of different change and conflict as he overthrew his King in a battle that had nothing to do with East vs West; my family broke apart.

So, Rik, what has any of this got to do with Tiananmen Square? That was all happening in 1989, not 1979.

Well, it's got everything to do with Tiananmen Square, because without knowing what the world was like before Tiananmen there is no possible way of knowing - trying to understand - what those events, and the events that followed over the summer, autumn and winter of 1989 mean. Why they are so important.

1989 is not a date, or a period of time. 1989 is a pivot where the world changed, broke, remade itself - just as my family had changed, broken and realligned ten years previously. Nothing was the same after 1989; nothing could be the same.

But that's not the point I'm trying to make in this here ramble. Rather, I want to talk about generations, how each generation is fundamentally different from the generations preceding and following - and how I don't think it's ever possible for generations to ever truly understand each other.

For instance, I don't understand my parents. I know (knew) them, empathise and sympathise with them, love them. But I can't understand them. Why? Because the structures of their minds, their outlooks, their approach to the world - these things were formed during a time of war, fear, hunger and rationing. Not like the wars we're having today where brave people go abroad to fight for this and that and come back later changed by their experience. No, this war was real, palpable. For my parents, the threat of dying in the rubble of a bomb was an everyday risk. Family breakups - temporary evacuations or more permanent, enforced removals - were a common, shared experience for millions of kids. I can know all this, empathise with it. But I can't understand it. In some small yet intensely significant ways, my Mum and Dad are/were utterly strange beings to me.

It's scary to think that probably more than half of the world's population can never understand what the world was like before Tiananmen Square. They can know about it - imagine that world - but the viscerality of it all is beyond them. I, too, am become a stranger.

So what was it like to grow up in the 70s and 80s, Rik? Beyond normal childhood stuff like chopper bikes, punks and silver jubilees?

I think the first big difference is that of division. The world was divided between East and West; politics was divided between Reds and Blues. Everything had a dividing line, and you had to decide between one or the other - no compromises, no sitting on fences: this or that; here or there. Mod|rocker. Punk|disco. Though some decisions were made for us, predestined: we were all children of the west, first and foremost.

The second difference leads on from the first. We lived our daily lives alongside the Unknown. Because the East really was the Unknown. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain were real, physical, tangible objects you could go and visit (though I never did), with soldiers and their machine guns imposing a separation that was not just physical, but mental, moral, intellectual. There truly were aliens in the world and they called themselves communists and they were out to change you, transform you, turn you into one of them. And it could happen at any time.

Which is the third difference - the biggest difference of all. Instant, utter destruction.

Not just the idea of destruction, but the truth of it, too. The threat of nuclear devastation is something that us kids of the 60s, 70s and 80s had to live with on a daily, routine basis. So typically we didn't think of it much, unless we had to. We learned of the threat, and then we learned to live with it, then we learned not to think of it. But it was still there, always there, and it found its way into our lives in different ways - for instance we started to care about the planet and the life on it, we started to think in terms of rescuing species from extinction; a sort of displacement activity because there was no way we could save our own species. We started caring about rubbish, conservation, peace. All the while knowing that we were just one mistake away from having everything around us incinerated and poisoned and murdered.

Tiananmen square changed all that. Why? Because, just as we had seen in Poland in the 1980s, we watched the aliens try to change themselves, individuals taking to the streets to try and break the monolith. And we watched them stand and die when the monolith fought back. Yet somehow, in that brutality, the monolith was itself damaged. Within six months of this date in 1989 the differences that structured my world view, my generation's world view - disappeared.

Poof! Gone!

Of course there's still divisions in the world, but they're not as simple and stark as they used to be. There's still unknowns in our lives, but they're not the monolithic Unknown. And there's still nuclear weapons, but we've moved beyond the doctrines of the aptly named Mutual Assured Descruction.

So today light a candle for those students who lost their lives and liberties in that Beijing square. They broke a world, you know!

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