Once we worshipped our ancestors, now we worship our descendants

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE other day, I rented a box in a bank safe-deposit vault. This seemed a rational act. There must be a better way of keeping a Victorian gold watch, a cameo ring and some cufflinks than stuffing them into the toe of a grey woollen sock underneath some shoes in a cupboard. Nothing, however, had prepared me for the ancient, funereal majesty of the vault.

The custodian greeted me gravely. To reach him, I had descended into a cellar and then passed through a sort of air-lock chamber, with a sealed door at each end. On the wall of the airlock there was a red button. The custodian advised me that if he were to fall dead or suffer incapacitating seizure while I was in the limbo between the sealed doors, the button should be pressed to summon help. Otherwise, as he would be unable to release me, I would be trapped and eventually perish there, like those tomb robbers whose skeletons are sometimes found in the access tunnels of Egyptian graves.

Once inside, I found myself facing a movie set familiar from Rififi and all its tribe of thriller progeny: the three-ton steel door hanging open, and beyond it the aisles of safe-deposit boxes. Each box was equipped with a brass dual-key lock, once the latest in Edwardian technology but reconditioned countless times over the last 80 years for every new tenant. I was handed my own lock, which at once had an incapacitating seizure and had to be carried away with a key inextricably jammed in its midriff. A bell was rung for another.

Finally came the moment of deposit. The gentle custodian looked away, averting his eyes in a sort of modesty. I put my junk into the black japanned- tin box and shut it. We locked it, one key each, and slid it into its recess, and on the instant I wished that I hadn't.

"Safe-keeping"? Nonsense; these articles had been thrown away. More accurately, they had been sacrificed. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, Europeans made a habit of throwing valuables away as an act of piety. Sometimes they laid them beside a corpse as grave-goods, to serve as weapons and ornaments required in some afterlife. But often they pitched them into a river (like the Battersea Shield found in the Thames) or into a peat-bog. These were calculated acts of giving, intended to put the gods or water-spirits in the giver's debt. The supplicant gave up gold torques, ornamental swords, silver harness-fittings; often these were articles never used but apparently made for the sole purpose of being lost.

My bank vault was such a place of committal. It felt tomb-like: the underground crypt, the hushed ritual, the metal box-drawers like niches in a catacomb wall. And there were other scythe-and-hourglass touches, like the suggestion that the safe-deposit papers, together with one of the antediluvian keys, should be attached to my will. Suddenly, the notion that I might one day skip down here, open the deposit box and take out the gold watch for a night on the town seemed obscene - like borrowing a family thigh-bone from the cemetery. No, these articles had been withdrawn from human use and offered up. But to whom, or to what?

To the future. That is what we worship in the late 20th century. Every day and on every scale, bits of here and now are pulled out of normal use and chucked into the tomb or into the peat-bog as offerings to "the coming generations", or "our grandchildren". Every week, it seems, some field or wood is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Digging a drain in an SSSI or plucking a bunch of heather in an AONB becomes as blasphemous as holding up your trousers with the Sutton Hoo belt-buckle (Anglian gold and garnets) or arranging dahlias in the Port-land Vase.

It is worth stopping to reflect on just how odd this habit of dedication to the future is. It has become so universal and so conventional that it is hard to see that any question can exist here. And yet no other age worshipped only the future.

Of course, people have always set aside for their heirs things that they might have consumed themselves: a savings account, a clock worth a few bob. And there have always been princes who gave parkland to their subjects to enjoy for all time, and old men who planted oak trees whose shade they would never enjoy. What is new is the way in which self-denying piety looks exclusively forward. Ancestor worship has been replaced by descendant worship.

This century has been full of examples, some horrible but others touching and worthy. At one extreme is the totalitarian summons to the future: Stalin forcing a generation to undergo hunger, poverty and terror in order to build a shining socialist future for their children. In the middle is the grand assumption of "stewardship" for absolutely everything but especially for the planet. On a lower plane, archaeologists who discover a tomb - or a treasure vault - now often restrain themselves from digging it up, on the grounds that future excavators will have far more sensitive techniques. And at the other extreme from Stalin is the heritage industry itself, which consecrates to the future not the present but the past.

There is plenty to admire here. There is going to be a future of some sort, but if we now eat all the fish, spawn all the babies, foul all the water and burn all the fossil fuel we please, it will plainly be a future of a diminished sort. Aware of those facts, most people will be shocked by the brutal iconoclasm of Professor Wilfred Beckerman, who was quoted last week in the Guardian asking why we suppose that future generations have any rights - especially to resources which could be exploited right now. But Beckerman asked the right question, all the same. Lewis Carroll's quote "Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today" may be Victorian in origin but it is a cultural motto for our own times.

Once people withdrew precious things from circulation out of respect for the past. They put them with a past person, in a grave; they offered them to ancestral family or clan ghosts, or to items of landscape which seemed to have existed for all time. The future was involved in this process of offering, but only as the other half of a bargain. That bargain ran like this: I dedicate a bit of the present to the past, in order to win something in the future: a good harvest, a safe birth, a happy afterlife for a dead child.

But sacrifice these days is made directly to the future. And yet the future is that region about which we know little or nothing. How do we suck up to it? What pleases it - human sacrifice, or a burnt-offering of elephant tusks seized from African poachers? Hammering a thousand "decommissioned" Armalites to scrap, or incinerating a billion Baring pounds into the ash of cyberspace?

There is no safe answer. The past may be another country, but at least we have seen it and there is some notion about what pleases ancestors and heroes there. But the future is dark, and perhaps implacable.

Why have we suddenly begun to use the words "out there" - as in "millions of potential customers out there", or, more ominously, "something on the move out there"? The phrase is about a new fear of the unknown with its invisible face which may be smiling or snarling. What lies out there, beyond the light of the campfire, is an abstraction which returns no answer and promises no favours in spite of all the delights which human beings fling into that darkness. I wish I still had my gold watch.