Last week I was stimulated by very different items in the media. On Monday, in the London Evening Standard, journalist Amol Rajan wrote an article under the headline “In this rich city my neighbour died in poverty, alone”. He described how someone who lived in his block, a man with severe learning difficulties, who had suffered all his life yet was always cheerful and friendly, was let down by those who lived close to him; not his family but those who describe themselves as caring neighbours.
On Thursday, I watched a wonderful documentary on BBC television called Wild Shepherdess. This story followed a Welsh sheep farmer as she explored relationships between people from other cultures and their animals. The episode I saw took her to a remote area of north-east Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor. Part of the interest for me was that it was set in Afghanistan. The people were friendly and welcoming and there was not a gun is sight, contrary to images we know of contemporary Afghanistan.
As the film unfolded, we were shown the natural way the Wakhi people follow ancient rituals, work hard and unceasingly as they care for their animals and each other – in particular the elderly. The film maker, Kate Humble, describes the lifestyle as primitive, certainly unsophisticated, illiterate and simple, but not uncivilised. I really think if you can get this on the BBC i-player it is worth watching. Episode 2, shown on Friday 28 June took Kate to the Andes in Peru where she met alpaca farmers.
What particularly moved me were the relationships between primitive and civilised, as descriptors of a culture. What are the markers of a civilised society? Surely one of them is that people do not die alone, in poverty, in the heart of a community. What does it say about how we live our lives? Clearly we are sophisticated, educated, technological and so called advanced, but how well do we care for those around us in need? The Wakhi, on the other hand, do not have a vehicle, apart from a few horses and saddled yaks, have never seen a computer or mobile phone and live in basic yurts (nomadic tents), yet they care for each other intensely. Which society, I wonder, is more civilised.
As I write this, I reflect on George Osborne’s financial statement and spending review, with its extra £12 billion to be spent on HS2. I guess that’s another mark of an advanced culture, but how will getting to Birmingham twenty minutes quicker make our society any more civilised? How would you spend £100 billion?