Saturday, 10 June 2017

"Further progress is unimaginable"

After dinner was over, we retired to the drawing room to continue our conversation over some brandy. An air of contentment spread across the company after a most splendid meal of pheasant followed by Armagnac sorbet; cigar smoke hung thick was in the air. All around, the oak panels, the portraits of our chairman's predecessors gazing down upon us.

As we made our way across, Sir Alfred made it clear that he wanted to continue to discourse upon the main topic of his after-dinner speech. "Let us return, gentlemen, to the England of our childhoods, and consider the progress that our generation has bestowed upon Mankind." We took our places and beckoned the waiter to bring some fine whiskies. Sir Alfred continued: "No more are we isolated in the villages of our birth - within two or three hours, we can be here, in Central London, from any point in the Home Counties, thanks to the magnificent network of railways that we have constructed. Furthermore - thanks to the telegraph, we can send telegrams to any point of the Empire! Gas lighting illuminates our homes and our factories! Printing presses bring us fresh news each day and the great works of literature are accessible in our bookshops! Our people are healthier, better educated and better housed, better clothed than at any time in history! Such, gentlemen, is the progress that we have bequeathed to the next generations! Will they be able to better us?" he bellowed.

A self-satisfied glow befell the retinue, there were some misplaced tipsy mumblings of "hear, hear" - but the answer to Sir Alfred's question was surely 'no".

But I took upon myself the onus of reply. "Chairman, gentlemen; may I cast back reminiscences to my own childhood; that balmy day in the summer of 1851 when my father, Lord _____, took me, nine years old at the time, along with him, at my insistence, to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Half a century has elapsed since that day, and yet my memories of it are sharp and clear; I was overwhelmed with a strong sense of pride - of being English, of being a young Victorian gentleman, with this vast panoply of technological advance that would be accompanying me into my adulthood. Technologies that had just begun to make themselves felt on the everyday life of our countrymen, let alone the denizens of further parts would change the world into which I'd grow up.

"Since then - the steam engine has become ubiquitous; we think nothing of catching the eight-fifteen up to town each morning - I've been doing so for two-thirds of my life! The telegram allows me to make contact with my youngest son working in the Indian Civil Service, currently stationed in Cawnpore. Photographs of my family adorn my Bedford Park home, which is modern in every conceivable way - airy, spacious, uncluttered," I boasted. And then as if to deflect that thought, I went on: "If, with the aid of a time-machine, we were able to drag a man born a mere century earlier than ourselves to this day and age, I dare say he'd be unable to cope with the marvels that he would behold wherever he gazed. Imagine, packing such a man, born in the 1740s, onto the 8.16 from Rugby Central to London Marylebone, then alighting from the train to behold the marvels of our capital!

As that thought sunk in amongst my listeners, I allowed myself a pause to take a sip of whisky and soda. I continued:

"Now, gentlemen, let us imagine stepping forward into 2001! How will our dear old London town appear to us then? What wonders would we witness? Flying machines in the skies above? Horseless carriages in the streets? Cinemas on every corner?"

Sir Alfred stood up and intoned: "I cannot imagine anything more than incremental improvements over what we ourselves have wrought these past few decades. It would be folly to consider that progress could continue at the same pace that it had done over the past century; it was an epoch of great men - great inventors, engineers, manufacturers - mankind cannot hope to be blessed with such a munificence of talent in every century! The Renaissance was the last time that Providence had blessed us so generously with talented creators. Mankind will not see such progress as has befallen us in our lifetime for several hundred years! We have been unusually fortunate as a generation!"

A small fellow, short and thin of face - one I'd not met before - waved his hand impatiently, and Sir Alfred, looking irritated, grudgingly allowed him to speak. The man rose and "We speak of progress as though it goes but in one direction. Industry has brought mankind many benefits, but it can be used to bring harm to a great many in ways that we've not ever considered. Imagine, if we may, the flying machines that the Honourable _____ mentions being used to drop explosive devices, killing civilians by the tens of thousands. Progress is not necessarily desirable," he said as he sat down.

My sanguine hopes for the new century looked too bright - I had not considered the possibility of technological progress being harnessed for bringing harm. Sir Alfred pulled out his pocket watch, squinted at it, and announced: "Gentlemen, fascinating as this evening has been, I must now depart for St Pancras to catch the last train of the evening to my country seat. Tomorrow I will oversee the delivery of a steam tractor which will revolutionise work on my farm."

And so ended a most insightful evening.

This time last year:
Baletowa reopens as rail works move on

This time four years ago:
Polish doctors in UK offer new healthcare model

This time seven years ago:
The closure of the Góra Kalwaria - Pilawa railway link

This time nine years ago:
My blazing bus pic gets on front page of Gazeta Stołeczna

This time ten years ago:
Storm clouds rising

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wondrous literary fayre. The photo could have been taken by E. Hoppe of a magisterial Conrad.

Frater Periodfeel