Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “generation gap”

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

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The generation gap

The other day I was at a seminar on The Mission-shaped Church, and I became aware of the generation gap.

There were a couple of questions that baffled me.

One was quite amusing, or rather the response was. A couple of people from Malawi spoke about Africa having an oral culture rather than a written one, and so in their church, where the Bible was regarded as important, they had difficulty in getting people to read the Bible. A young guy, who is well-known for his enthusiasm for electronic technology, and who blogs and tweets and does all that good stuff, asked one of the speakers, “What is the literacy rate in Malawi?” The response came quick as a flash, “You can look it up on Google.”

I don’t think the speaker knew the questioner, but many in the audience did, and knew of his fondness for computer communications, so there was much laughter. The speaker went on to explain that he didn’t go around with statistics at his fingertips.

I was puzzled by the relevance of the question to what the speakers had been saying.

And the same questioner asked a question of another speaker at the same meeting. Just “Why?”

And I didn’t understand why he asked the question.

Forty or fifty years ago, when I was at meetings like that, I often asked questions that old fogeys didn’t understand. That was the generation gap. And now, suddenly, without being aware of crossing it, I’m on the other side of the gap.

So that got me thinking about the generation gap.

And I “googled it”.

Well, not quite. I did a search in my diary for the word “generation” within three words of “gap” to see what I had said about it in the past, and if I could see when and where I had crossed it.

But sticking with last Saturday, for the moment, I wrote

As we were leaving I talked a bit to Annemie Bosch, and she said that though progress was slow, the Dutch Reformed Church was beginning to reinvent itself. And I thought that perhaps it was succeding in doing so, with all these hippie-like dominees in their casual clothes at the meeting today, so different from the formal
besuited dominees I had known in the past, among whom I felt out of place. Things have changed a lot. But then I realise that my picture and experience of dominees, like Tom Carpenter of Melmoth, who was concerned about petty morality and strained at gnats like fishing on Sundays, but swallowed camels like racism and apartheid, is way out of date. They’ve come a long way since then, but then it was a long time ago – 30 years, a whole generation. And it is now nearly 20 years since David Bosch died, and Annemie continued to be a warm and cheerful motherly figure…

What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones used to sing in my youth.

More than 40 years ago, on 5 December 1968, to be precise, I went to supper with some friends, John and Shirley Davies, in Parktown, Johannesburg. John was the Anglican chaplain at nearby Wits University. About 3 weeks earlier I had stopped being a full-time student for the last time. The Davies’s three children were Mary (10), Mark (8) and Elizabeth (6). This is what I wrote:

We had supper then, chicken salad with Mackeson Porter, Mark pulled a wishbone with me, and won, and asked me to choose the pieces, and won again. I said he had already won in pulling it. Mary explained that one could win twice. John spoke of a conference on the generation gap, Shirley said cynically, “I suppose all the speakers are over fifty.” We had a bit of an argument as to what constitutes the generation gap. I said it was people between 40 and 65 who, as a group, were most conservative. Shirley said I only said that because of where I am. Then she asked Mary what she thought. Mary said, “Nothing.” “What do you think about anything?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” she said.

Mary is now a grandmother.

Nearly four years later I was a hanger on a student conference, a conference of the Anglican Students Federation being held at KwaNzimela, in Zululand. I’d been deported from Namibia, and was hanging around waiting to be banned, staying with Rich and Phyllis Kraft. Rich was Director of Christian Education in the Anglican diocese of Zululand, and had arranged community development training and experience for the students. So on 6-July 1972 I wrote

In the morning I took some of the students to Nkwenkwe. Among them was Simon Shikangala, who comes from Ovamboland. Daphne Mahlangu and Mary Theyise said that Simon would not teach them any Kwanyama songs, so I said I would teach them a Herero one, and taught them Matutjandangi. I took photos of the work projects when I got back to KwaNzimela, and in the afternoon went to fetch more poles, and in the evening went to fetch the students from Nkwenkwe, with Fr Sibiya. They were an all-black group, as it is a reserve area. They had done guite a lot of work. The girls had hoed in the orchard, and the boys had put new doors into one of the buildings. Patrick Lebethe, one of the city kids from Joburg, had asked Father Sibiya
how the people came to live so far from civilisation, and Fr Sibiya said “You’ve come to civilise them, haven’t you?” On the way back we sang Herero songs all the way, and Zulu choruses that Mary had taught us the other night.

Back at KwaNzimela Phyllis said I had been very subdued since coming back from Johannesburg, and said I could stay with them as long as I liked, if I was certain I was going to be banned. She said on previous occasions when I had visited them, I had been creative and looking forward to doing new things, and now I wasn’t doing things like that any more, but just content to be sent to Nkwenkwe, and to fetch poles and things. It’s true, one can’t plan for the future when one will in all probability be banned. In a way banning will come as a kind of liberation, because it will take away the uncertainty of not knowing what can be planned for.

I had accepted Rich Kraft’s invitation to stay and help with the ASF conference readily, mainly because they were friends and I enjoyed their company, which I would not be able to do after I was banned. It would also extend the limited time of freedom remaining to me, as the SB probably did not know I was there. I was sure that my banning order had been signed on the same day as Dave’s, and I wanted to enjoy what little freedom remained to me. I also enjoyed the company of the students.

One reason for being subdued, as Phyllis Kraft had noticed, was that I had said goodbye to many friends – the Schmidts (a family I knew in Windhoek, who had returned to America) possibly for ever, the Morrows had gone back to Windhoek, and if I were banned, I might never see Dave de Beer, who had been banned while I was staying with in in Johannesburg a week earlier) again. Running errands for the ASF conference made me feel useful, and it was living for the day. When the conference was over, however, it would be yet another parting, and if I were banned to the Melmoth district, I’d just be a drag and a sponger, a burden on all. A local farmer did offer me a job on his farm maintaining the tractors, but I was strictly an amateur mechanic, and was not confident that I could do it.

Since Nkwenkwe was in a black reserve, white students would need permits to go there, it was one of the projects that only black students could work on, so they were the ones I got to know best. Patrick Lebethe, who had grown up in Soweto, amused me with his city slicker attitude. When we turned off the Eshowe-Melmoth road at the top of top of the hill, and went down over dirt tracks into the valley, he asked “Where do these people go to the shops?” and we said at the shop up at the turn off, where there was a small general dealer. He was astounded. “How do they get there?” he asked. “They walk.” we said. I loved them. They were lovely kids. I called them “kids” because that was was how Larry Weeks, the American student who had visited us in Windhoek, talked. But there was also a generation gap. It was only four years since I had been a student, but we were a different generation. I was a student of the sixties, these were the students of the seventies. They seemed to have a stronger faith, a stronger commitment to Christ — not divided into pietists and activists, like so many in the sixties, but holding both commitment to Christ and social concern together in a holistic way. That was to be shattered by the rocky rioter teargas show in Soweto four years later, and by the subversion of Inkatha by the National Party in the 1980s. I wonder how these kids made it through those times.

And now, of course, those “kids” will all be old farts like me.

And then, 25 years later, on 14 September 1997, I wrote

The papers were full of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings about the death of Steve Biko. It’s hard to think that it was 20 years ago, and the SB men applying for amnesty are all old men. It makes me feel old too. Apartheid, and the struggle against it, dominated and gave meaning to our lives, and a new generation knows so little of it. It is a real generation gap.

And then, less than three years ago, we were visiting some friends who had retired to a dacha in the Drakensberg, Martin and Wendy Goulding. And they had other friends staying with them, Erich and Glenda Dokoupil. It was 1 September 2008, the first day of spring, and the september was all in bloom (in the northern hemisphere those bushes were called “may”, because that’s when they bloom there, but in South Africa they bloom in September).

We had dinner, and sat around the table talking about all kinds of subjects. I supose if I were like Dr Boswell I would record all the conversation, as he did with Samuel Johnson, but I can’t remember all of it. At one point Wendy mentioned that we were living in a more visual culture, with films showing blood and gore and murder. In classical plays someone would come on stage with a message that someone had been killed, but now the death would be shown in graphic detail, and this must influence the minds of people, especially impressionable children, and their dreams. I said that was one of the reasons no one in our family went to see the film of “Lord of the rings” because it would interfere with the pictures in our heads when we read the book. Glenda said she had seen the film and not read the book, and didn’t think much of it anyway.

We discussed the generation gap, and the changes that had taken place in our lifetime, but I said there was a bigger gap between us and our parents than between us and the younger generation. I remember seeing my father in a business suit, wearing a hat, and discussing business with simmilarly attired gents. We had a photo of them at a building site, possibly the still for Gilbeys gin, built at Isando in about 1952. I hated the idea of dressing like that, and wanted nothing to do with “business”. But we dressed in much the same way as the kids of today. Perhaps our generation had started that dress revolution, and it has been accepted by subsequent generations. I mentioned old Deacon Petros Nghandi in Namibia, who had been born in about the 1870s, and came down to Windhoek from Ovamboland for a synod, and had never tasted ice cream, and when he was born there were no aeroplanes, yet he was looking at “Scope” magazine with pictures of men landing on the moon. That generation of people who had been born in the late 19th century had seen more changes than any other before or since. In our day people fly in the same airliners that they did when our children were born. Most airlines still use Boeing 747s which have seen few design changes since 1970, and though there is a new double-decker Airbus that carries more passengers, it doesn’t look much different, and there are still fewer of them. There were far more design changes in aircraft in the preceding 30 years, in our lifetime. Yet our parents, born before air travel was anything but
a hobby for the very rich, had lived to see and fly in the same jumbo jets that our children had known all their lives. The only things that had changed from the 1970s was the electronics, with more sophisticated radar, GPS navigation and things like that.

Well, there are my reminiscences about the times when I used the term “generation gap”. And if you did not enjoy my tale, as Tom Lehrer said (anyone remember him?) you’ve yourselves to blame if it’s too long: you should never have let me begin.

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