Alan West has a crack at predicting the past.
Yogi Berra the American baseball star of the fifties and sixties (and not the cartoon bear of similar name), once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” He also famously said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and “It’s like déjà vu, all over again.” He might also have added that it ain’t that easy to make predictions about the past either, given that the past is a complete mess and has a habit of playing tricks with your memory.
I have been thinking about such things lately because, in my research for an article about the perils of prediction, I have been trying to remember what life was actually like in the early 1970s and this took me back to my student days in Bristol during the winter of 1971-1972. In any account of British socio-political history of the twentieth century, this period must surely be one of the low points – with miners’ strikes, three day working weeks, power cuts in prospect and a beleaguered PM Ted Heath preparing to do battle with Trade Unions over who governed Britain. A silly question if ever there was one, because of course, they did, and for many of us back then the future seemed to contain only uncertainty and the prospect of endless conflict.
My friend Ken, who was one term into a year-long experiment to see whether he could live on a diet of Harvo malt loaves and beer, had called round to visit me in my student digs just off the Whiteladies Road. I had just fed my last five pence piece into the gas meter. The icy wind that was blowing straight off the Bristol Channel had squeezed under my door and across the linoleum floor to where we sat warming our hands over a flickering gas fire. The fire’s broken heating elements, grinning inanely like set of bad teeth, were barely able to make an impression on the frost on the inside of the windows. But our thoughts were elsewhere; we were both looking forward to fleeing homeward the next day to the bosom of our families.
Ken had with him the proceeds of a postal order, which we were going to enjoy in the pub, where we could at least keep warm for a few hours. We waited for that ominous clunk that signalled the end of the coin and, as the flames began to die down, Ken sighed and said, “You know what, Al? You know what I’d do if I was a millionaire?”
“No Ken, I don’t.”
Ken paused before replying, as if to gather his strength, “I’d have this fucking gas fire on all day long, that’s what I’d do.”
We had learned all we needed to know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and understood that, in Maslow’s scheme of things, we were somewhere near rock bottom. The idea of being a millionaire some day was a hilarious flight of fancy. Our horizons were constrained by the dark and the cold and, in Ken’s case, by his subsistence diet, which, had he been able to look that far ahead, would land him in hospital four months later with severe malnutrition and pleurisy. I don’t know where Ken is now or what he is doing, but I sincerely hope he is a millionaire. He deserves it.
Even now, I wonder what rich people do with their money. There is, after all, only so much Harvo malt loaf to be eaten, only so many yachts to be aspired to, and having the gas fire on all day still seems a huge extravagance.
But I digress. I had better get back to Yogi Berra who, having been widely quoted and misquoted in his lifetime (he is now 87) has also said, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”
And indeed, he never really said, “It’s tough to make predictions, etc.” It was actually Niels Bohr the Danish physicist… or perhaps his friend Albert Einstein, or even Sam Goldwyn. The quotation has been attributed to at least 20 others and there is even a web site dedicated to its provenance. Thus nobody is quite sure who actually did say it, or who said it first.
So, as I said at the start, the past is a complete mess. But don’t quote me on that.