When Gulliver – of Travels fame – reaches the island kingdom of Luggnagg, he discovers this oddity: they aren’t very small like the Lilliputians, or very large like the Brobdingnagians, nor are they super-smart horses like the Houyhnhnms, who regard humans as mere brutes. No, the Luggnaggians’ singularity is that every generation a few of them are born with a distinctive red dot over their left eyebrow, which indicates that this child will be immortal.
Quite possibly responding to the high death rates of his own native land, Gulliver is entranced by the idea of these “struldbrugs”, as they’re termed. Surely, he questions his hosts, they are an incredible benison, representing a repository of knowledge and wisdom that is carried down through the generations to the advantage of all? Moreover, surely the sheer fact that at least some are delivered for ever from the grave is likewise a source of great happiness to all, for the struldbrugs appear at random, so that any parent may have the joy of bearing a child they know will never die.
The Luggnaggians listen to Gulliver prattling on for a while along these lines, laughing a little behind their hands, before disabusing him in no uncertain terms: it’s true that the struldbrugs never die – but nobody said they never aged. On the contrary, at 40 they’re already tormented by the melancholy knowledge that they will outlive everyone they know, and by the time they’re 80-odd most are pretty senile, while a few years after that they’re declared legally dead.
Throughout the land these dispossessed idiot-hairballs are to be seen rolling along the turnpikes, of no use to themselves – and certainly not to their descendants since: “They have no remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their youth and middle-age, and even that is very imperfect; and for the truth or particulars of any fact, it is safer to depend on common tradition, than upon their best recollections.” Moreover, given that the Luggnagg language – like all others – is in a state of continuous flux, the struldbrugs of one generation are increasingly unable to understand those of the succeeding ones.
The awful reality of Luggnagg and its struldbrugs never ceases to reduce me to abject merriment – since, in common with all the finest satire, far from being some fanciful reverie, it’s simply an exaggeration of the reality most human societies exhibit. True, we don’t have actual physical immortals, but what with advances in medical technology and living standards, there are far more people living into their 80s, 90s and even 100s than there were heretofore.
I’ve written before in this space about the pernicious cultural impacts of an ageing population: the death of the avant garde and the stultification (for which read “classicism”) of our arts. Moreover, the pandemic brought to the fore the harsh truth that we’re a risk-averse, querulous and forgetful bunch; and in common with the struldbrugs “opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain and talkative.” The crisis in our care homes is, quite simply, that we have them at all – since it indicates a want of natural affection – as Gulliver would put it – between the generations.
Anyway, the struldbrugs came to mind on this occasion because of the untimely death of one – Nigel Lawson (91) – and the painful endurance of another: David Attenborough (97). True, it could be argued that since they had diametrically opposed views on the climate emergency they’re not to be compared, but then again… it took the latter until the mid-2000s (when he was a mere stripling of 80) to fully acknowledge that global heating was caused by humans. As for the former, his denial of anthropogenic climate change was merely the final garnishing of the big bowl of wrong that constituted his economic policy while Thatcher’s chancellor.
Anyway, Attenborough, very much like any struldbrug, is still bowling about the world, emitting untold amounts of GHGs so as to provide his ageing and corpulent viewers with the sort of nature porn to which they’ve become sadly accustomed – while Lawson, although he may be brown bread, was afforded a bully pulpit from which to espouse his loony opinions almost to the very end. My hunch is that the two phenomena – climate change and an ageing human population – are indeed causally related. Let’s face it, no one – and I mean no one who didn’t have inclinations in that direction before – was ever converted to the green cause by listening to Attenborough’s lubricious tones extolling the beauty of the world around us; while as for controlling the money supply, in the last couple of decades the amount of money in circulation has increased more or less in lockstep with the emission of… GHGs.