[SCMP Column] Christmas Ghosts

December 22, 2018

Let my ghost of Christmas Past sweep me back through fragmented memories to that noisy crowded post-war council house home in the British Midlands that was my childhood home.

Unlike Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, those years were short on scars or sadness. These were simple, innocent, optimistic years – such a contrast to today. My father bicycled to work. Cars were rare and for the rich. The milkman delivered two pints of milk to our doorstep every morning – and took away the two empty and cleaned glass bottles that had been delivered the day before. The grocery lorry stopped in the street outside twice a week, and blew his horn for us to rush out for vegetables and other basic necessities. The idea of persuading us to drive to the supermarket rather than the supermarket coming to us had yet to be germinated. I don’t remember much plastic.

I joined my father every weekend to groom the vegetable allotment. This was my father’s pride and joy, and made the world of difference while post-war rationing was still in force. Not much we ate was processed. And if it was not in season, then it was not on the table. No exotic stuff like avocados or yoghurt.

Winters were cold, and snow was with us for several months a year. I remember ice skating on the local canal, and sliding on ice slides in our school yard as late as April. The idea of growing grapes or making English wine would have drawn a laugh, as my father brewed ginger beer and all manner of weird vegetable wines in the outhouse.

Santa and Christmas were gloriously celebrated, because this was the only moment in the year – apart from our birthdays – when we had new clothes, and a patiently-awaited gift or two. The self-indulgent concept of “unbirthday” presents had yet to be conceived. The intensity of patience and careful saving of those times seem absent today. Oh, the joy of that second-hand bicycle on my 11th birthday.

The culture of hyper-consumption and instant gratification were still far in the future. I don’t think I stepped into a restaurant until I was 10. The one holiday each year was a wonderful bracing week in a caravan in Skegness, and I was in my teens before even the richest kids got on a plane. You could draw a 10-mile ring around my entire universe.

I may be blotting out the bad stuff, but my ghost of Christmas Past toured me though a happy and quite fulfilling time, with simple pleasures, and time to savour them. I’m sure my impact on the environment was modest, and the challenges of climate change, pollution, and plastic endemic to the Anthropocene era were largely invisible.

But now up swirls the Ghost of Christmas Present, showing our marvelous material affluence, everyone swooping off across the world for sun-and-sand Christmas breaks (actually, I am in freezing Istanbul, jostling with thousands of Mainland Chinese tourists who back in the 1950s were literally chewing dirt, but who is quibbling?).

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows me homes that are teeming with marvelous digital gadgets that have purged the chores that shaped my mum’s grueling weekly calendar. He shows me families in China and other once-dirt-poor countries that have today been lifted out of dismal poverty to join our hyper-consumptive frenzy. But he also shows me families fragmented across the globe, and “citizens of nowhere” like me who will spend Christmas thousands of miles away from parents, grand-children, and most of our childhood friends. He shows us under-exercised and over-fed on alarmingly processed food, and fades away just in time to usher in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Because Dickens’ Ghost of the Future is mute, he points, but refuses to guide. But he seems to be carrying the IPCC’s latest report on climate change under his arm. With Santa-like speed, he swoops me through forest fires in California, hurricanes in North Carolina, choking pollution in Bombay, and Blue Planet images of ocean life choking on plastic. His pointed finger invites me to surmise where this all leads.

As Dickens himself prompted Ebenezer Scrooge to whelp: ““Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?

“Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?'

Because the Ghost is mute, Scrooge doesn't receive an answer to his question – and nor do we.

But as academics over the past century and a half have dissected Dickens’ work, the answer is clear. The Christmas Carol is all about choices: the choices our leaders in the west made in the post-war 1950s to lift communities across the world out of poverty, regardless of the resource ramifications; the choices we are making today in spite of the clear evidence of urgent unsustainability; and the choices we and our governments can opt to make to bring the Anthropocene era back into some kind of equilibrium.

The shadows identified by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are clearly not telling us what definitively will be, but he has shown us the “shadows of things that May be” – with strong evidence that time may be running out if we fail to change our ways very, very quickly. And as with Scrooge, the only thing that can help prevent the catastrophic “maybes” is our own actions – our own initiatives, words and deeds.

Scrooge was sufficiently shocked by what his ghosts showed him to change his ways – and to escape ending his days despised and in desolate loneliness. I wonder what shock we need to prevent us from sleepwalking off a precipice. Oh... and Happy Christmas.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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