Reaction to the death of Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, has shown a sharp generational divide. Leaving aside the shock (and to one of my generation it is a shock) that there are young people who appear not to have known who Neil Armstrong was, it’s still possible to see the division between those of us old enough to remember and those for whom this is something second-hand, a piece of history.
You had to be there. You had to be one of those who watched those flickering, black-and-white pictures in July 1969 and thrilled that a man was walking on the moon. I was eight years old; I and my peers knew that this was something momentous, something that was a milestone in history. And we eight-year-old boys knew our stuff; we knew the stages of the Saturn V rocket, the orbit patterns, the way in which the LEM would separate from the command module. Perhaps we had the Airfix model (did that come later) with the tiny capsule perched on top of this huge cylinder of fuel. You asked a boy what he would be when he grew up – “astronaut” would be the unhesitating reply.
It was a time of hope, and a time of progress. Ask my eight-year-old classmates – ask our parents – about the future and you would have heard optimism. The defeat of Hitler and the creation of the welfare state were fresh in adult minds – most of the parents of those classmates had as children themselves lived through war, and had seen the welfare state created in front of their eyes. We had boundless faith in technology; we were largely innocent of the damage already being done to the planet; we saw a steady progress in material standards, the expectation (that our parents did not have) of a free university education, of the enjoyment of a decent home on the national average wage, of employment and prosperity in a more leisured, more easeful world; of a society that would ensure that we had a decent safety net if those things failed. Yes, the world was a far from completely benign place – we had Vietnam, we had the protests of 1968, but there was progress and the confidence of progress.
A couple of weeks after the moon landings I was rushed into hospital with acute peritonitis. I nearly died. Amidst all the anxieties for my parents, there was one that, unlike every previous generation, they did not have – how to pay for the medical care (the worries that had blighted the life of my invalid grandfather, his lungs destroyed by working in a mine and, when that proved too much, a sawmill). I think if you had asked my grandmother then, she would have expressed her joy and gratitude that such fears had gone for good. A vigorous socialist by conviction and life experience who did not live to see Blair and New Labour, I can only imagine her thoughts on Labour’s abandonment of the New Jerusalem for the economics of the 1930s and the rhetoric of Ramsay Macdonald (about the Tories and Liberals she would not be surprised in the least).
Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion, and sentimentality is always Fascism’s friend. But I guess that my generation – those who remember those times – are perhaps mourning not just the loss of this iconic man, but an age and a temper. Ironically so, perhaps, because it is that same generation that predominantly wields wealth and power; I am six months older than Barack Obama, one month older than William Hague; perhaps it is the failure of that generation of eight-year-olds to live up to those ideals, the way in which we have been lured from the path of collective decency by greed and ideology, that we are reflecting in our mourning too.
And perhaps we know that the most pernicioius effect of neoliberalism – at least as practised by Britain’s political establishment – is the destruction of hope. And that is why this passing means so much to us.