Man out of time

Sam Neill

21 Jun 2014

It’s probably my age, but weird things seem to be happening to time.

For one thing, it seems to be speeding up. As a child, the summer hols were always an age away; nowadays — bloody hell, here they are again. I could have sworn I put away the bathers only last week.

And have you noticed how bottles of wine seem to empty themselves in the blink of an eye? And then there are the friends you run into after four or five years who have aged 30 years. Turn around and catch yourself in a mirror — same thing. Once upon a time the hours dragged by; now I seem to be in a supercharged hatchback hurtling towards the grave.

The second thing is that time seems to be on repeat sometimes. For instance, with monotonous regularity, some really clever chaps are able to convince the rest of us that they’d be doing us a great favour by taking all those bothersome assets off our hands. Dreary things that we don’t want or need. Like oil, or gas, or telecommunications, railways, banks. Never mind that our fathers, grandfathers and so on spent decades paying for all that stuff as honest taxpayers, the silly old duffers. In New Zealand, for example, this started in the 1980s; privatisation was embraced with wild enthusiasm and labelled ‘reform’. Billions were rapidly trousered by a few very smart men who bought yachts, football teams and younger mistresses, and went straight into tax exile. Some of them were knighted by a grateful nation. It all happened so fast that the people hardly noticed, and when they finally did, they turned to beer and fast food for comfort. The breweries and the crappy food franchises, of course, were owned by the same chaps. Score!

Soon after, it was all change in Russia. Communism was crap, but it was slightly better than dog-eat-dog. In a matter of minutes, about a dozen really, really smart men not only trousered billions of billions, they ate all the dogs too. Same acquisitions, except the yachts were gold-plated and the size of liners. The people, now impoverished, turned to vodka and bad food. You know already who owned the distilleries. Now, in New Zealand and Australia, we are in for round three of privatisation. Maybe I really do have Alzheimer’s, but honestly this repeat thing is too much. Doctor!

And thirdly, in some ways, time seems to be in reverse. And not in a good way. We seem to be regressing, going backwards fast. Over the past hundred years, we often chose to do the worst possible things we could to each other. Gassing, bombing, butchery, ethnic cleansing, total war. On the plus side, we took some steps to avoid being as stupid again. For one, we formed the United Nations. All of humanity represented under one rather beautifully designed roof. Now there were very many things about the Bush regime that were, shall we say, regrettable. But among the worst was the contempt with which the neocons treated the UN. For me, if you spit on the United Nations, you spit on your fellow man.

Then there’s Europe, that viciously quarrel-some corner of the world, which made the sensible choice of unifying. Yes, I’ll say it, I’m all for the EU. Go on, throw good British horse poo at me if you wish, but I think the only civilised position is for unity, wherever you are. But all over Europe, we see the rise and rise of nationalism. It seems so chillingly familiar, particularly the way we are encouraged to demonise the ‘other’. The immigrant, the Romanian, the Bulgarian, the Muslim. Not only is it pathetic to blame others for whatever is ailing you, it is also very dangerous.

Of course, you’d be cracked to maintain that the EU is anywhere near perfect; what institution is? But no one can persuade me that a pan-European bureaucrat is any worse or better than one’s own public servant. The very fact that it has been unthinkable since 1951 that Germany, France and indeed Britain could go to war against each other is a massive achievement in itself. The march of progress is surely towards unity; the way backwards is to provincialism, disintegration and ultimately tribalism. Can we really abandon the brave project of a peaceful open Europe? Or indeed a United Kingdom?

In the meantime, I am determined to do something about this time business. I paid good money for my Swiss-made watch, and it has no business going backwards, or going into overdrive. Hang on — come to think of it, this could be some vile plot hatched in that modern Gomorrah, Brussels. Yes, that’ll be it. Evil European bureaucrats have been buggering about with Greenwich Mean Time. That is surely the last straw, let’s get out of Europe immediately! While we’re at it, let’s abandon Westminster and local government! Let’s all buy guns (British-made, of course). And let the dogs eat the dogs. Unless the dogs have some kind of foreign look about them, in which case, give ’em both Purdy barrels first! Someone throw me a Union Flag I can wrap myself in! Oops, drop the ‘Union’, just a Flag will do. Hurrah!


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