Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
‘Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
(Joni Mitchell, 1970)
I SPENT most of the first eight years of my life in a small village in the southeast of England. A motor car in the village was an unusual sight.
It was an insular existence; there was no television then and the local shop didn’t sell newspapers. Our knowledge of the outside world came mainly from the wireless.
At school we studied the large world map on the wall and marvelled at the vast expanses of pink, denoting the mighty British Commonwealth of Nations.
My parents bought a set of encyclopaedia, the Waverley Book of Knowledge, which I’ve still got. Through its pages I explored the outside world.
There was no immediacy about what we learned of those distant, mysterious and exotic places.
Not like now when we can watch the carnage in Aleppo in Syria or Kim Kardashian’s anguish at having her jewellery stolen in Paris. And we know of such matters just hours, if not minutes, after they happen.
In reflecting on these contrasts, I realised that my young, insular life wasn’t really unusual. It was commonplace in those times. And it wasn’t really that long ago.
Most people throughout the world lived in equal ignorance of what was going on beyond the confines of their small communities.
Even in the industrialised cities, insularity was the norm. For most people urbanisation was a concept not a reality.
We think of those times with a degree of fondness and nostalgia but, of course, life wasn’t all good. Children died of preventable diseases, hard physical work was common currency and there was a pervasive and smothering social rigidity.
There are not too many places left in the world that experience the consequences of isolation and insularity. In such places, suffering is generally the watchword.
And of the places still enjoying their isolation, many are in Papua New Guinea. People with no idea what’s going on outside their narrow communities.
If you wanted to be unkind you could call their state one of blissful ignorance and deride them as bush kanakas.
But a part of you might also wonder whether they might have something good; something better; something that we have lost.
In our hectic and information-saturated world we often feel overwhelmed and the simplicity of those communities can seem attractive.
However, yearn as we might, it is a world beyond our grasp. We have sold our souls to something more powerful and there is no going back.
For us, there will never be comforting embers glowing on an earthen floor, the smoke filtering through thatch. And, even if there was, I suspect we could not cope.
Instead we will have to make do with the electric glow of Kim Kardashian’s anguish.