Lady of the Cake
Fin Keegan longs for a time of grand ambitions and big ideas – such as ladies delivered in cakes.
The Circling Fin
Think of the world of 90 years ago and phrases like the ‘Roaring Twenties’ or the ‘Jazz Age’ might come to mind, together with images of bright young things dancing the Charleston. Here we had a grimmer time, dominated by the Treaty and Civil War, but even in the Irish popular imagination the 1920s features as a wide-smiling, largely American decade of glamour and cocktails and dancing – the kind of world in which no oversized, multi-layered cake was complete without a long-legged flapper bursting out of it unexpectedly, champagne flute in one hand and filtered cigarette in the other.
Isn’t it odd then to realise that alcohol was prohibited in America for the entire 1920s and that all those images are in fact from an underground society of speakeasies and private functions? Ask a party animal in 1920s Manhattan what his era stood for and he might well have said ‘puritanism’ or ‘boredom’.
In sum, there’s no telling what any decade will be ultimately renowned for: We touch-screen addicts of the early millennium assume that our tech innovations will astound the ages. Your grandchildren’s grandchildren are unlikely to agree. For one thing, technical advances (unless accompanied by symbolic images such as moon walking) tend to be invisible to later generations.
Victorians, for example, assumed that ‘progress’ would be their legacy. In fact, their great innovations have been eclipsed by sufferings they tried to ignore: enslaved children or the Famine. Where educated Victorians saw wondrous chimneys and unprecedented production, we see sprawling cities choked with smoke; where they saw civilised decorum we see hypocritical prudery; and their medical breakthroughs are overshadowed by dangerously archaic practices in psychiatry and female healthcare.
But the bigger issue with legacy is human amnesia. The vast majority of our descendants won’t give this epoch a second thought. What is the average amount of minutes any one of us, outside of a classroom, has devoted to thinking about the first quarter of the 19th century? All those millions striving to improve their lot and their children’s lot? Those people without whom not one of us would exist? We don’t give them a nanosecond’s reverie.
Practically all our artists and entertainers will not even make it to the footnotes level of future history books. Among people of our time, Neil Armstrong and the co-discoverer of double helix DNA, James Watson, might make it into 22nd-century consciousness, but not too many others. The late Seamus Heaney and Nelson Mandela perhaps.
But, even if new-and-improved Shakespeares, Mozarts, and Einsteins pop up, we will be justly forgotten for the simple reason we don’t even have a proper name for our decade. The next one will be the Twenties, the one after that the Thirties … but what is this decade called? Surely we can’t call ourselves People of the Tens or, worse yet, People of the Oneties! All in all, I am already hankering for the Twenties and the return of leggy dancers prone to popping out of cakes.
Fin Keegan is a writer based in Westport. This column is based on his weekly radio essay, heard on WRFM radio, and online at thecirclingfin.com.