One review of Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Home” says that “it makes all other writing seem jejune for ages afterwards”. Reading the 600 pages of Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” straight after finishing the novel, the “ages” did not last very long, but the review did prompt thoughts as to how something changes one’s perceptions of all that follows. An email from a friend in Rwanda served as a reminder that the sense that what comes afterwards is naïve is not confined to writing, there are experiences that set things that follow into an altogether context.
Walking down the street after reading his email, there were a series of shops selling the usual plastic ‘tat’ associated with European seaside resorts – inflatable rings, boats and animals; balls and rackets; sunglasses and beachwear. With the latter half of August approaching and the great “rentrée” at the beginning of September looming large in people’s minds, there were signs announcing discounted prices: “-30%” declared one large board.
When did we discover such an appetite for spending money on such volumes of plastic items that are hardly used more than once? When did it become part of our culture to literally throw away money?
The friend in Rwanda works in a community where even if the prices were virtually zero, they would still be beyond the reach of most people, but it is an Irish friend’s story of an encounter with a woman in that community that has set the weeks since into a different context; her description of that encounter is evoked each time I see plastic toys.
My friend was welcomed into the house of a woman in a very poor village, a community living in poverty unimaginable to most Europeans. The house was built with bricks baked from mud and had a corrugated iron roof. The windows were simply square holes in the walls, window frames and glass were unaffordable luxuries. The house was unfurnished, the family sitting and sleeping on the floor, with the exception of a hand made wooden table that sat in the middle of the room. The table was adorned with a crocheted doily upon which sat the woman’s only other possession in the world – a “My Little Pony”, a plastic toy popular with little girls in Europe.
My friend was visibly moved as she told the story; the plastic toy bringing an overwhelming sense of pathos to the woman’s already dire plight.
The beach balls and the plastic crocodiles belong to a silly and naïve world where the sordid behaviour of celebrities counts as news and where the “Daily Telegraph” in Britain reports that one of the English Conservative members of parliament described his salary of tens of thousands as having to live on rations and as being treated like excrement. It all seems very jejune.