Views & Voices

Yesterday’s legacy — past cultures and the foundation on which we’ve lived our lives

Human Legacy. Original Digital Art By Chris Green Copyright © 2011, Ramsgate, UK

Human Legacy. Original Digital Art By Chris Green Copyright © 2011, Ramsgate, UK

Ancient notions formed, now are given,
In earnest manner to all children,
That they will uphold them until,
Death, when such legacies will,
Be bequeathed, yet again.

Such is the cultural cycle of habit and ritual for the continuance of custom and belief. For many generations, the legacies of past cultures have been the foundation on which we have lived our lives.

Human Legacy.
Original Digital Art by Chris Green Copyright © 2011, Ramsgate, UK

Those who have dared question the foundations, sometimes at great peril to themselves, have often supplied us with the means to improve our lives or even our understanding of life itself. Change, however abrupt it may seem at the time, has come slowly enough for most of us to adopt, calling it progress.

We have, as individuals and nations, mostly been able to cope with slow change. Generally we have benefited in our daily lives as labour saving devices have removed the drudgery of our chores; despots however have sought to utilise ‘technology’ for control over others. History shows many instances of sudden change when a culture was disrupted by war, famine or natural disaster, but moderate changes, or even quite significant cultural ones, have happened at a speed and rate that permitted people to assimilate them, albeit with varying degrees of personal sufferings.

Otherwise, ignoring the nature of the obvious industrial and technological revolutions, let’s look at the rate of change that our most recent generations have encountered. For this purpose I have chosen to show the experiences of some of my ancestors in the last century. The experiences may not be typical, but I only want to show how our ability to cope with change includes the rate of change itself.

Similar abilities should be easy enough to recognize in all cultures, though it may not always be progressive in the same way as in Western European type civilizations. Individuals’ abilities to cope with change will vary for a number of reasons, both cultural and physiological. This is the nature of changes, that some people cannot always accommodate them all.

A Sixty Year Legacy

The smell of the wood burning was more prominent than that of the food cooking on the cast iron stove. My grandmother prodded and probed the embers through a little drop-down metal hatch. She added another small piece of wood from the pile to the left of the stove.

My grandmother still occasionally used the old ‘wood-stove’ as she called it, even a couple of years after my grandfather had rented an electric stove for her.

My grandparents were not rich people; in fact, they were poor. I have no idea how they, with two young daughters, survived the Great Depression. My grandmother was a seamstress and made dresses and shirts for the slightly better off members of the local community. On Mondays it was customary for her to boil huge amounts of water in a big copper tub in the rusty iron shed she called “the laundry.” Then she scrubbed everything by hand with a bar of soap, on a rippled glass wash board, before rinsing and putting it all through a hand operated wringer to squeeze out as much water as possible. The ‘washing’ was then taken outside and hung in the sun to dry.

Of course, everything had to be pressed, or ‘ironed’ with an ‘iron’ heated on the wood stove. The electric stove was no good for that. When I say everything, I mean everything; from handkerchiefs, socks, and sheets, to shirts and underwear. All had to be ironed. The house had to be cleaned, food had to be prepared and cooked. Wine and beer had to be consumed and cigarettes smoked.

My grandmother’s days began at five-thirty a.m. whilst her mother’s days began even earlier, and she had only the one wood stove for her entire life. She also had to look after horses and hens and tended to a vegetable garden.

My grandfather started work at six a.m., as a conductor on the trams. He had one job and if luck was with him, it would be his job until he retired. He died first. My bedroom was a corner of the dining room, but my grandfather, on his days off, worked on enclosing the front verandah to make it into a ‘sleep-out’ where I could have my own room, so to speak.

My mother worked as a telephonist . She was between husbands, and you should know it was not easy to arrange divorces. It was a time when a man could, with some difficulty divorce his wife, but a woman would have to prove physical cruelty, or infidelity, if she attempted to divorce her husband. After work, men drank beer at the local hotel until its bars closed at six p.m., then they went home where they expected the wife to have the evening meal prepared for them. It was also the custom that the males were offered food first, and what was left over was for the women, although we didn’t do that in my family.

Downtown Adelaide, South Australia, circa 1953

Our only modern appliance — apart from electric lights, the gas water heater, and the electric kettle — was the radio. The only telephone was a hundred yards down the street in a public call box. Our major source of entertainment, apart from the radio, was a weekly visit to the local cinema for a movie, usually in black and white. All this was just a little over sixty years ago, and more or less the way everyone lived, depending somewhat on where you lived. The rules were simple; you worked and paid your bills, you played and slept, and were supposedly watched by God.

In my forties, after my grandmother died, I found a document amongst her things that had belonged to my earlier deceased grandfather. He had evidently worked, for a time, in a department store.

This document was a signed agreement between his employer and himself. In it he had to take an oath on the Bible that he did not drink alcohol, did not smoke tobacco, that he did not swear or take the Lord’s name in vain, and that he attended church every Sunday. The document required signed references from ‘men of good standing’ in the local community, stating that my grandfather was of good moral character, who adhered to Christian beliefs and practices as commanded by the Lord Jesus.

For all intents and purposes he was an indentured slave with references. Nearly everyone drank, smoked and swore. All this, despite the oaths that were signed in order to be accepted for employment.

At the age of twelve, school children were offered the opportunity to sign “The Pledge” that they would never in their lives drink alcohol. Evidently this had been presented to younger children in earlier days, but by the time I turned twelve, a law had been passed that only children of at least that age could be asked if they would like to sign it — after a lecture with graphic pictures of deteriorated brains, and threats of being damned to Hell.

Children were expected to be seen and not heard unless they were reciting their prayers which we also had to do to avoid going to Hell.

My mother told me she was convinced that Hell was what we were living through here on Earth. The poor woman had exceedingly bad luck in choosing husbands; men who were ecstatic about other women, and even one who was seduced by another man. I wouldn’t learn any of these details until I was nearly thirty. I had at least escaped being sexually molested, until I wanted to be, after puberty.

Homosexuality was never mentioned.

Yet incongruously, the local news paper ran a daily column listing men who had been arrested for acts of gross indecency; this was avidly read by everyone. It was, in fact, one of the ways that we young teenage homosexuals knew we were not alone. There were no gay prides, no gay clubs or bars in those days. The word ‘gay’ was a word which was solely used to express the gaiety, such as it was, in our lives. It seemed that if we did anything that was fun we would be sent to Hell, or to the bedroom.

The Legacy of War and Peace

Gay and lesbian marchers on Christopher Street, in New York City, circa 1970.

These are just some of my memories which I have pieced together to show what life was like before the sixties, before the songs of HAIR proclaimed the then unthinkable unmentionable idea that “..masturbation can be fun.” This was before “the love that dare not speak its name” became the love that shouted who it was, and rightfully wouldn’t keep quiet about it. This was before youth questioned everything with intent to be free of the conditions that had made war instead of peace.

Why do I tell of these seemingly oppressive times, when women, despite being given the vote, were treated as second class citizens and people of colour were not even considered a class at all, when homosexuals were hidden in closets marked ‘non-existent criminals’? Why do I tell of those days in my infancy when genocide of the Jewish people was an active horror under the Nazis; when atrocities of war were justified because the enemy was worse than we were, when heroes were killed and bastards were praised, when entire nations were coerced, forced even, into believing that one political system was superior to all others. It was a time when ‘hoarding’ lost its true meaning of storing food in case of war or famine, and became the seed for greed and avarice.

It was as if all the experiences of life had to be condemned in order to be loved by an extremely personalised God, to avoid eternal damnation to Hell; by 1966 youth was questioning and soon rebelling against their freedom being drafted for war.

Oh, I know you can trace back the history of these things to long before I was born, well before the Red Menace of Communism attained ‘The Bomb’ making us all afraid. You can trace them back to ancient despots who were just as bad as any rising tyrants who seek to impose their will on us all today; of those who are only too happy to reintroduce contracts of morality as a condition of employment, and of those who seek to limit the education and scope of individual intelligence, but that is not the point. We have had to struggle to survive, but the point is, the real struggle is in accepting change.

My parents and grandparents were able to live without changing their concept of who they were. Indeed, their society was built on them having the notion of their own identity remaining constant and experiencing their lives everyday within the same stable community, even whilst they accommodated the changing structure of their society.

As frustrating as they might sometimes have found it, they were able to cope with slow change. They learned how to use technology in most things, from horse drawn vehicles being replaced by cars, to books becoming movies and television. (The only help they needed was from a twelve year old to set-up the video cassette recorder.) It’s really not those cars or movies, or even the technology itself, but that generations of our ancestors learned to accept, and use the new discoveries as normal features benefiting our existence and our cultures.

Industrial and technological revolutions change people’s perception of their abilities, and they found they had the ability to adopt change within their own lifetime.

In similar vein, the following generations found that they could adopt change faster than they thought possible; as quickly as they needed, in fact. Not quite a legacy for the next generation, but certainly a personal awakening. The significant legacies were realized in the defiance of cultural taboo.

We achieve this through recognition of our ability to learn to think for ourselves; to be free not only to be whatever we want, but simultaneously play many different roles in our lives. We do this with a wide general knowledge much like Renaissance Man; much like Kubrick and Clarke described the astronauts in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this capacity to specialize in many disciplines, we are able to learn to change as needed, which then gives us the opportunity to see we are capable of even more.

Concluding next week with thoughts on how freedom changes us, and our evolving legacies.

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