Friday on my mind – The more things change, … ; The Global Village; And other reflections on turning 70

By Michael Barker

I can now relate to those ‘really old’ friends of mine who are 70, and beyond. In a few days I will join them. I can’t believe I am about to be that old. Just yesterday I was a kid!
When I was a kid one of the most exciting things to do, on a weekday when home sick from school (but not all that sick) or during the school holidays, was to lie in wait for the postie’s whistle so I could pounce and be the first to pull the mail from the letterbox, if not right out of the postie’s hand. I think it was all to do with a sense of connectedness to a big, distant, outside world that one got from holding the mail in one’s hands. Some of the letters had a distinctly foreign, far-away look to them.
Probably the most exciting letter I ever collected was delivered way back then. It came, personally addressed to me, from the Soviet Socialist Youth Organisation. The envelope itself was a thing of beauty, with colourful stamps all over it. Inside was a short, typed letter acknowledging my letter to Nikita Khrushchev, who at that time, 1961, was Premier of the USSR. (Just before I wrote to him he’d become notorious for banging his shoe on the delegates’ desk at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.) I was 10 turning 11 around the time I wrote to him. I asked if he might kindly send me some stamps to fill the gaps in my Russian collection. (As you do!)
I’m sometimes amazed, when I try to think back, at my own – not sure of the right word – adventurousness, perhaps, in writing to the head of the world’s leading, bad, bad, godless, hammer and sickle, Communist regime in the middle of the second decade of the Cold War. Especially given my upbringing as a good young Catholic boy being schooled at the local St Joseph’s Convent in a small town in wheatbelt Western Australia. But then again, everyone knows Saint Mary McKillop’s Brown Joeys were Fellow Travellers – not!

Nikita Khrushchev

I was told years later, by people who had visited Moscow in the dark days before the Iron Curtain finally fell, that Western visitors would often be greeted with a giant map of the world dotted with little red pins. Each pin, they were informed, represented a Friend of the Soviets in parts of the world flung far from Moscow. I came to realise the small town in WA probably had its very own pin way back in 1961, 44 years after the Bolshevik takeover of Moscow. I’ve often wondered how dotted the map of Australia was!
In those long ago days, not only was the mail usually delivered by the postie, but the bread was also personally delivered by the baker, often on a horse and cart; the milk similarly, by a milkman who would ladle out your order; the iceman would similarly cometh, unloading ice for your Coolgardie safe right at your front door; the veggies and fruit were also delivered that way by a greengrocer; and the sick, in those long ago days, often had health services delivered direct to their beds, at home, by their local GP. Everything was very local.
On top of all that, the bloke (the expression ‘guy’ only entered my lexicon much later – indeed, in our household Americanisms were verboten!) who had the newspaper round home delivered The West (then a healthy specimen of a newspaper, with a monopoly on news in those days, of course – no internet), The Sunday Times (which had a monopoly on the salacious and the all-important Saturday sporting results), and magazines like The Australian Women’s Weekly (which kept us up to date on the Royals – some things never change!), always aiming to hit something that would ring out loudly at 5.30 in the morning waking the whole household. But then again many rose early in those days and were often already pacing around the house complaining about the paper being late.
Way back then, the way the world worked, and not only in countries like Australia, began to change. Science & Technology were the buzz words. As bad, bad, godless, hammer and sickle, and Communist as they were, the USSR, in 1957, with Sputnik, managed to put the first satellite in Space. And then, in 1961, their Yuri Gagarin became The First Man in Space. The Americans, mightily annoyed, then upped the Space Race ante. They were determined to put the first man on the moon. Each side had lots of German scientists from the Second World War, to help get them ahead!

Yuri Gagarin

All this global activity in science and technology seemed to have the effect of shrinking the world. The concept of a Global Village took shape, introduced by the Canadian thinker (no, that’s not an oxymoron), Marshall McLuhan, in the first half of the same 1960s. The peoples of the planet were obviously an interconnected, whole thing. ‘The medium is the message’ was McLuhan’s calling card. (Look it up, I’ve never been able to explain it properly!)
All this spilled over into the world of manufacture and trade. Things that used to be made in most countries, take shoes as an example, came to be made in just a few. Global trade flourished. Increasingly large ships were able to carry virtually everything one needed from somewhere else. Containers on ships subsequently consolidated these changes. Countries like Australia relaxed their tariff barriers to allow cheaper products into the country at the expense of more costly locally produced products. Great for consumers, but …The shoe industry quickly died. Pearse & Swan in Perth, for example, no longer exists. Nor does the Australian car industry. And many others industries fell by the wayside.
Australia in turn played to its perceived strengths, exporting its natural resources. When I wrote to Khrushchev, we In Australia were living off the sheep’s back. The expression, ‘We’re not playing for sheep stations!’, meant something. Now, many of those same sheep stations are wild goat expanses. But since then, and now – well, at least until covid – our economy became one dependant on the export of coal, oil, gas and iron ore. We’ve been busy quarrying Australian, in effect, for years. And we’ve done well from it.
As technological innovations abounded, after the 50s, our connectedness with the distant other parts of the world skyrocketed. Literally, we could fly virtually to anywhere on the planet, if not directly, then directly and quickly enough. Soon flying from Australia to major world cities became commonplace. And when we got there, at least from the time the BlackBerry and then the iPhone came on stream, our smart phones and tablets enabled us to stay in touch with everyone wherever they were. Not so long ago, I was able to give my elderly Mother a tour, on Messenger video, of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, to her great delight. Steve Jobs was deified in this modern, secular, technological society. We worshipped, and still do to a large extent, at the altars of Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Globalisation was the shared holy text, not the heresy it seems to have become lately in so many parts of the Global Village.
Globalisation, not so suddenly, then suddenly became a very dirty word, especially as jobs were effectively transferred from big economies to developing ones, for example, from the USA to China and many poorer countries. In many ways this seemed a good thing for residents of the Global Village, as it meant that in the poorer parts of the Village, where folks’ education and skills were low and unemployment was high, they got the chance to improve themselves and make money – live the Dream, the same one Aussies, Americans and so many others in the West had been dreaming for decades.
But all this happened at a time when old manufacturing industries in the older, well-established parts of the Global Village, were slowing down and indeed closing as they became redundant or went offshore with competition kicking in hard around the Global Village. Many who had been employed in those industries suddenly found themselves out of work, and were resentful about the circumstances they found themselves in. Donald Trump largely got himself elected President of the US by tapping into that discontent, promising to restore the jobs of those in the old parts of town at the expense of those who had picked them up lately. He has his emulators around the planet.
The idea of the Global Village has been taking a battering. I wonder what would happen if Marshall McLuhan came back today!
And then along came covid.
A pandemic. Not just an epidemic, which is merely an infectious disease confined more or less to a country or three, but an infectious disease, like the 1918 Spanish Flu, that takes hold around the entire planet – a pandemic.
We have struggled to deal with it. We continue to do so. in Australia we’ve done remarkably well to keep deaths from covid to under 100, so far. The US is currently deeply affected by some 50,000 deaths, with the tally fast growing. The UK, as I write, has just surpassed Italy, the previous European leader, in the number of deaths it has suffered.
Everywhere, more or less, on the planet is affected by covid and we have all, more or less, locked down our residents and introduced restrictions to contain the spread of the virus; and in the course of doing so, closed down our economies. As well as national borders. The Global Village has some strict quarantine measures in place cutting off many parts from the others. Australia, and Western Australia in particular, are prime examples.
The result is – as I approach my 70th birthday, and my children are working from home, and their children are at various stages of remote school learning or returning to school and living through an event like I could never really have imagined – that many are now wanting a return to times that have a very local feel to them, before we spoke of the Global Village.
There are understandable calls for Australia to be self-sufficient in so many areas of the necessaries of life in the future, after covid. Mask and PPE production is just one of them. Production of food is another. All manner of local manufacture are mentioned, but so far not the car industry – although I may have missed a recent news story!
During covid a remarkable community spirit has surfaced. Not surprising really, but remarkable nonetheless. We have enjoyed supporting our local businesses. Getting our takeaways. Calling our friends and family on Zoom. Even doing business on Zoom. Having socially distanced street gatherings. Being a local community.
There can be little doubt that the times, they are a changing. Zoom, I suspect, is a real signal of this. Many have found how productive they are, when working from home, whether in business or at school, or publishing an online magazine all about Fremantle. My 13 year old granddaughter is a testament to the benefits of remote schooling; she loves it. Not for the break from school, but for the power of learning it brings with it. There is a case to be made, that many of us have done well at home, and could continue to operate in this way successfully after covid, although I understand that that’s not a universally shared phenomenon. Domestic violence is reported to be greatly increased too. And mental health problems.
But we have got used to being local once again. The postie has been busier than ever. Couriers never busier. Catching the arrival of the postie and courier guy is as exciting as it ever was. Home deliveries by Coles and Woolies vans is a daily event up and down our streets, although I have preferred buying locally produced goods from our local stores – and it has to be said, the accompanying outing! The doctor is also, once again, delivering services locally, doing telephone consults! And doesn’t it make sense? All of it? Even the milkman has made a bit of a comeback in some places! But the iceman has not made a comeback, he does not cometh. The fridge still works. (Oops, I hope I didn’t speak too soon.)
All manner of pre-covid industries are now beginning to reinvent themselves, or at least thinking aloud about how they will reinvent themselves post-covid. International travel is plainly going to affect so many. Qantas, its CEO said the other day, will be quite different in 2021 from what it was in 2019. And so will so many others. ‘Downscaling’ is the operative expression. And ‘covid-ready’ another. Most likely, so many of us who are free to travel, like those of us who have attained the veritable old age of 70, will no doubt mainly travel locally.
Local, I believe, will be the universal catchphrase. ‘Buy Local’ was a strong marketing campaign a few years back, but now it will resonate like never before. Schools and universities, daresay, will be introducing courses on ‘How they did Local in the Old Days’. Baby boomers will be in great demand as consultants and guest lecturers, or simple curiosities to be gazed at, reminiscing and writing about the 50s and early 60s.
Whether, though, we will all flock back to fashion, fast or slow, remains to be seen. Fashion may also be a victim of changed cultural times. We may have witnessed the ultimate dressing down of Australia. And if we buy new clothes, may be they will be simple and local too.
For all that, Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village is for me still an enticing concept. I’ve always been attracted to the interconnectedness it suggested between nations, between peoples, and I don’t think that will dissipate quickly in the aftermath of covid – at least I hope not. But plainly we will be wary of anything that may expose us to a renewed outbreak of covid, or anything like it. We will want to be prepared to survive any such event again in the future. Political parties, one suspects, will contest over their respective abilities to keep the country ‘Covid-ready’. That aside, I think we will in many ways be prepared to live more simply. And this means finding the things that sustain us and nourish us and bind us together locally. In arts and entertainment, restaurants and bars, cultural activities and physical exercise generally, with our friends and families, and in travel with those closest to us. And I’m sorry to have to be the bearer of this news: we may, in Freo, all have to become South Fremantle Bulldogs fans.
And what about the Global Village. Well, there will always be someone out their wanting to assume the role the USSR played in the Cold War days, there will always be someone somewhere hell bent on world domination, or oppressing their peoples or minority groups, and wanting to exploit the environment to death. There will always be a need for us to strive for harmony among nations. And peace and prosperity for all. And despite all I’ve written, there will continue to be a great need to trade. And at the same time to deal decisively with climate change. Human civilisation seems to depend on it, whether we subscribe to a capitalist type system or long for a degrowth society. So I think the Global Village concept is a long way from dead, despite the US’s attempts to kill off bodies like the WHO.
But perhaps these musings are to be treated, as they are, simply as those of a nearly 70 year old grandfather who is largely pleased to potter about the house, and sometimes the garden, who plays the occasional game of Pickleball, and spends his spare time imagining how his locality of Fremantle is looking today and might look tomorrow. His granddaughters no doubt, at some time in the future from some remote part of the global village far distant from Freo, will look back on what happened in 2020, with an historical and slightly bemused eye, and wonder what on earth Poppy was on about!
Until next time …