Marking Time

21 07 2009

[You can listen to this episode here, or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store]

Perhaps inevitably, those few months that surround graduating from University tend to be a time when many people offer up advice. Some of this advice is tempting to follow, though I sense moving to the Caribbean and setting up a surf shack may have to wait a few years in my case.

Other advice is well meaning, and probably fair, but rather depressing. The main theme of the advice I have received recently has been something like this: Don’t waste time. Once you’ve left university, you won’t have very much of it.

Moon LandingsWell, I have already seen that this is true. I only started work a few weeks ago, and already I am struggling to keep my head above the water. For the first time, I now know what it is to envy Hermione Granger her Time Turner (for reference, see ‘Rowling, J.K., “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”’).

Not only have I started to appreciate the value of time as a regular person, I now appreciate its value as a radio presenter. Or, more accurately, as a regular podcaster. The blight of the radio studio is the presence of a live audience  – tuning in expectantly, waiting in anticipation for your words at a particular time on a particular day. Well, the joy of podcasting, as you may have noticed, is that from time to time you can let an episode slip by a few days. The more observant amongst you will have noticed that this week I am exercising this right. I assure you it will not become a habit.

The past week has given us several reminders on the significance of time. One man who was particularly aware of it was Henry Allingham. Just a few days before his death at the weekend, Henry was declared by Guinness World Records to be the oldest man in the world. At the age of one hundred and thirteen years, he came to the title following the death of a marginally more senior Japanese man.

Henry was born in 1896. This was the year of the first Olympic Games in the modern era. William McKinley was elected the President of the United States, and Queen Victoria became the longest-reigning British Monarch in history.  In fact, it may help to give some sense of Henry Allingham’s age if I tell you that in 1901 he was old enough to remember Queen Victoria’s death.

At the climax of his considerable seniority, though, it was Henry’s time serving as a pilot in the Royal Navy during the First World War, that dominated his public figure. Now that Henry has died, there are only two remaining British veterans of that war. His powerful combination of gallows humour and profound humility provided an almost unique link into history, and to that awe-full conflict.

At the commemorations of the ninetieth anniversary of the armistice last year, Allingham led the country in remembering all those who died. Along with two other veterans, he placed a wreath to his comrades at the Cenotaph in London. He was recently persuaded to publish a book, to share his memories with eternity.

But the First World War was just a small part of Henry’s life, and he was never keen to talk about it. We should not forget the other things that Henry saw and experienced: the Second World War, for one; the invention of the motorcar, and of powered flight. He saw the granting of the vote to women, and the unravelling of the British Empire. He saw the foundation of the NHS and the state education system. He heard Martin Luther King tell of his dream.

The Cold War was, to Henry, a feature only of his retirement. The issue of aids, disease and famine in Africa a relatively recent problem. Who knows what he thought of the internet.

But the passing of Henry Allingham was not the only thing to prompt me thinking of time this week. There have also been a series of celebrations, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the moon landings in 1969.

The moon landings were all the result of a dream pushed forward by President Kennedy. He committed the US to landing a man on the moon ‘by the end of this decade’ in 1962. There can be few people, President Khruschev included, who were not astonished by NASA’s achievement.

Neil Armstrong, like Henry Allingham, has been reluctant to seek celebrity or profit from his place in history. But the enormity of his ‘small step for mankind’ remains with us, and will remain with us for a very long time indeed. It is a fundamental moment in the history of the human race.

In order to get some scale of how remarkable it was to place a man on the moon, it may be worth looking back at Kennedy’s other projects – the other things he regarded of similar magnitude – and as we do that, we become slightly uncomfortable.

In a different speech, his inauguration speech, Kennedy listed the common enemies of man as follows: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Henry Allingham was already seventy-three. Tyranny, poverty, disease and war were at that time enemies in a very real sense. As he died on Saturday morning, it is difficult to see how the world can be proud of the small progress we have made.

Aids, Malaria, Typhoid and Cholera kill vast numbers in the poorest parts of the world. The gap between the richest and the poorest has never been bigger, and war still rages in too many parts of the globe.

As Henry Allingham will have been aware, the human race does not hold an unblemished scorecard for the past one hundred and thirteen years, but to leave you on such a depressing note would surely be unfair – and I still have a few moments left, to recover the mood.

Earlier this week I was formally welcomed, along with the rest of my cohort, onto the Teach First training programme. In his welcome, the CEO Brett Wigdortz asked us to imagine what our pupils may be achieving in twenty-five years’ time.

Well, I wonder what we might find if in one hundred and thirteen years’ time, we asked our pupils to reflect on what they had seen in their lifetimes. We are producing today generations of enlightened, confident and caring young people. Our potential is multiplied by the possibilities opened to us through the internet and global communication.

Just like Kennedy’s generation, we have the tools at hand to tackle the world’s challenges. We may find that the difference today, and in the future, is that we also have the imperative, and the inclination to act.

There will be many anniversaries over the next hundred and thirteen years. We should use every one of them to measure our progress.

Time may be tight after graduation, but that’s only because we’ve got a lot to be getting on with.

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