Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

Zero to a hundred

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Sculpture at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery, Madrid

Sculpture at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery, Madrid

A change from the usual books and films. A spot of real life.

On Friday, my Granny celebrated her 100th Birthday. The family gathered, champagne was drunk, the card arrived from Her Maj. (A card also arrived from the Department of Work and Pensions, signed by Iain Duncan Smith. That lowered the tone a bit. We suspected he might be checking she still needed her pension.)

The day before, a friend gave birth to a baby girl; let’s call her C for the sake of this post. 8lbs of tiny human delivered with care and safety by the NHS.

It’s hard not to reflect on the different worlds that these two people were born into. You could pick any area of life and fill a book with examples. But as longevity is what we were celebrating on Friday, health seems like a good one to look at.

In 1913 there were no antibiotics beyond a few folk remedies. There were vaccines for smallpox, rabies and the plague, but not for diphtheria, whooping-cough, tuberculosis, tetanus, yellow fever, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A&B, flu, pneumoccocus, HIB, meningoccucs, cholera, typhoid, chicken pox, Q fever, rotavirus, HPV.

A cornea transplant was performed in 1905, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the first kidney transplant happened. And now we can transplant livers, pancreases, hearts, lungs, knee joints, hands, faces, ovaries, penises, arms, legs, and probably some other bits too. The remission rate for paediatric cancers is  in the region of 70%, if lower for adults, as many cancers remain diseases of aging. Intensive care wards pull people back from the brink day after day. I could go on. So, whatever it is that Doctors Don’t Tell You, it’s worth paying attention to a lot of the things that they do.

In 1913 in this country, large portions of the population worked in backbreaking labour, lived in conditions of abject poverty and squalor, and died young from frightening infectious diseases, or middle-aged from painful and chronic diseases brought about by their living and working conditions. (That this is still true for some parts of the world means we have a way to go.)  Average life expectancy at birth in 1913 in England and Wales was 51 for men and 55 for women. The worldwide average was closer to 30. Today, life expectancy in the UK is over 77 for men and over 81 for women (globally it’s about 67). Of course averages tell only a bit of the story. Today, infant mortality in England and Wales is 4.1 per 1000 live births. In 1913, it was around 130. That’s nearly one in every eight babies dying before they reached their first birthdays.

What this all boils down to is that at birth my Granny had a 1.1% chance of living to a hundred. Little C has something around a 33% chance.

I don’t know about you, but I like those odds.

Of course all those births amount to one of the reasons that my Granny was born into a world of 1.65 billion and C is born into one of over 7 billion. And those numbers, put together with some other of the other changes, are not without costs. To take one example, there were something like 20,000 motor cars a hundred years ago. Today there are over a billion, and transport accounts for 23% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions In 2050 there could be 2.5 billion cars.

So, yes, I have occasional sympathy for John Gray’s position on the myth of progress, the arrogant teleology that supposes we are heading for some enlightenment utopia. The last century has hardly been a steady linear progression of betterment, nor is it consistently so now – as Primo Levi or Malala Yousafzai could testify. And it is hard to look forward to the next hundred years without a sense of foreboding and uncertainty. In 1913, Europe was about to plunge itself into four years of senseless carnage. Today we slip-slide more perniciously into environmental degradation, and death is delivered by the unblinking drone and blinkered suicide bomber.

But my Granny’s birthday was also International Women’s Day, and if I had a daughter it’s not a hard choice about which world I would want them to be born into. In 1913, only Australia, Finland, Norway and the Isle of Man had achieved women’s suffrage. Even Saudi Arabia is now (sort of) coming round to the idea. Sure, there is still an awful lot to fight about, from gender inequality in pay, to genital mutilation, to everyday sexism, but maybe, stutteringly, we’re getting there.

So 2113 might end up being a dystopian Google Panopticon, overcome by runaway climate change; an obesity and diabetes-ridden population kept in place by entrenched and growing inequality. Or, perhaps, at least some of the better angels of our nature might win out.

But what can you draw from these not particularly novel observations – these hundred years of platitudes? I’m not sure. Conclusions are not really the point.

As the old man in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead says, a human life is a mustard burp, momentarily tangy and then forgotten in the air. It is a geological blink, a cosmic pico-blink. But a human life is also a great span of history. It is a possibility that my Granny could have met a survivor from the Crimean War. It is only two long lifetimes since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Even my Granny’s husband, my grandfather, was born in 1898 and fought in the First World War. I never knew him – he died the year before I was born – but I do remember going as a boy to Remembrance Day parades and seeing long lines of veterans from the First World War filing by. Now that generation is all gone, and the one after it is passing. You don’t have to be a nostalgic for over-mythologised wartime glory to see this as significant: defeating fascism and helping build the welfare state shortly after isn’t a bad achievement for a generation.

So, if you have grandparents left, take time to go and talk to them. Ask them about what it was like when they were children, when they were young men and women. I know I haven’t done that enough. If you have children, take them along to listen – or if they’re too young to understand now, take time later to pass those stories on.

Happy birthday Granny, happy birth day C. I don’t expect you’ll ever meet. Your lives have been, are now, and will be different in so many ways – some that we can only imagine.

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