As we slobber before our mega-tellies laughing at gypsies or braying neon quiz shows it sometimes escapes us that we’re totes living in teh futur. We regularly eat space pills, for instance, and clamber aboard our personal UFOs for weekend breaks at Moonbase Alpha. Anti-gravity holes in the floor, the ubiquitous uppy-downies, have long replaced the jagged slashes of carpentry our comically primitive ancestors subjected themselves to for trivial vertical translation. And I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t live without my nuclear fusion podule. I keep mine in the cupboard under the— er, the cupboard beside the uppy-downy, with the spare robot parts and the Yahtzee.
Well, maybe we’re not quite there yet. But we have smartphones and the internet, and the instantaneous global communication of 140-character inanity that would’ve looked miraculous to my beflared, jazz-patterned, unbald seventies self.
Like many of a certain age, this cheeky mewling scamp annually devoured the Norris McWhirter non-fascist factorama that was the Guinness Book of Records. It was a more innocent time, a time before spurious non-record records (“most critically acclaimed seventh-generation puzzle game”), a time before full-colour illustrations, a time before graphic design. Simply column upon column of facts, cold hard facts, longest serving this and first that, perhaps accompanied by a blurry half-tone image of Roger Bannister wheezing.
I was fascinated by the simpler human records like tallest man and in particular oldest living man (I was — please prepare yourself — uninterested in the women). At that time the record-holder was a Japanese man, Shigechiyo Izumi — since expunged from the book after it was realised he’d never been seen in the same room as Clive Dunn. According to the Guinness World Records web site the current holder of the record for oldest (not living) man is Christian Mortensen, who died aged 115. Though since the relevant page claimed for some time that he was born in 1825 rather than 1882, I suspect their fact checking has gone to cock since McWhirter relocated to right-wing stats heaven.
While Izumi was still being worshipped as lord of the undead my young mind boggled that someone (allegedly) born in 1865, before even the invention of the trimphone, might still be alive at that time. The oldest living person today, in our velour spacesuit future, was born in 1896 — and there are only twenty-six people verified as born before 1900 and still going (just one of them, the youngest, British). These numbers will, alas, soon dwindle: seven have died so far this year. Within a few short years there will be nobody alive who can claim to have twice endured the tedious arguments about which year begins a century. But there are certainly some now living who will be able to make that claim, in another 88 years or so. A mere geological and by then gerontological trifle.
There should, I contend, be a hands across the centuries event while such a thing is possible. Richard Branson or David Cameron or another PR luminary should bus and stairlift in everyone born before 1900 to a great gathering at Greenwich, on the meridian, whether they want to or not, and have them mingle with confused young children and photographers. They could shoehorn it into the Olympics somehow, and have Boris Johnson or his earthly representative fly in on a sponsored zip wire. Somewhere in the mix will be a child who will see the first nano-fireworks of the twenty-second century fly and spin and footle disappointingly, from their hoverchair in an Old Folks’ Home on Ganymede, and whose weary space fingers could gesture up the holoimage of them being thrust into the face of a refugee from the nineteenth century. What a moment that would be. A dull moment, true, but a moment.
I’m sure, although the execrable Guinness web site refuses to allow me to locate it, there used to be a record along the lines of “last parental link to the eighteenth century”. Luckily the internet and the wonderful @lettersofnote Twitter feed tell me the answer: the father of Alice Grigg (1863-1970) of Kent was born to a small collection of powdered wigs in 1799. A total of 171 eventful years between the start of one generation and the end of the next.
However, and still bogglingly, there are extant grandparental links to those times. Indeed of all people the tenth president of them there United States, the lowly regarded John Tyler, who was born in 1790, has two living grandchildren. Three generations spanning almost the entire history of the country, from beginning to end (do you see what I did there?).
Compare that to today in Cameron’s Britain, where people are having grandchildren almost before puberty. January’s newborn is December’s four-greats. Generations are flashing past more quickly than Andrew Lansley at a heckling competition.
In my day you didn’t have children, you had 16K and were happy with a Jet Set Willy knock-off. Still am, come to that.