‘Question 2. In which year did the Berlin Wall come down?’ shouted the quizmaster. And then he repeated this with dramatic pauses, as quizmasters are apt to do: ‘In which year…did the Berlin Wall…come down?’
‘Oh, yeah!’ said the youngest person in our team. ‘I just got that!’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Berlin Wall!’ she said, with a huge grin on her face.
‘1989,’ hissed one of the team members. ‘Yup, 89, definitely,’ whispered another member. ‘I remember because I’d just got divorced and I was driving down the Santa Monica Freeway and…’
But the youngest member of the team was still having something of an epiphany. ‘Berlin Wall!’ she kept exclaiming.
I now wish she had not continued telling us what it was she wanted to confess. Because now she has, I don’t feel safe at all in this strange world we inhabit. I already felt pretty unstable in it, as you know. Now I just feel desperate. Disconsolate. Hopeless. Dejected. More convinced than ever that we are all sleepwalking to a terrible end in which civilisation will be abandoned in favour of eternal chaos.
I don’t know who to blame, exactly, nor which institution above all others should be held accountable for this decline. All I know is that a twenty-something member of our pub quiz team beamed with satisfaction as she declared: ‘I never realised there was actually a wall. In Berlin!’
‘I’m sorry?’ I said, as my heart thumped with foreboding.
‘The Berlin Wall!’ she laughed again. ‘There was a physical wall, then? That came down?’ She sipped her drink, looking pleased, as if she had just solved a riddle that had hitherto been impossible to get to the bottom of. ‘It always puzzled me, you know, when people were going on about the Berlin Wall.’
‘What,’ I said, barely daring to venture any further but also needing to, as if by knowing the worst I might get over it, one day, somehow, ‘did you think people meant when they talked about the Berlin Wall?’
‘Well,’ she laughed, ‘I don’t know. I just thought it was some kind of ornamental thing. You know? But it’s an actual wall, is it? Actually in Berlin? That came down?’
And she was doing that thing that young girls do nowadays when they slice their sentences into short phrases, each of which ends in a question mark? Which is actually not stylistic? I now realise? It’s because they need to keep asking questions? As they go along? Because they don’t know anything?
They think Baracco Barnowl is President of the UK and Kelly Osborne has done really well for herself by becoming Chancellor of the Eggs-Checker. As I say, I don’t know if there is a political party, educational establishment or set of beliefs we can blame. But I feel it might have something to do with a man I met recently, also in the pub, who told me he was the head of a start-up company pioneering an app so you could read books on your iPhone.
‘And so it all ends,’ I heard myself saying.
‘Oh, no, no, no,’ he said, taking the bait. ‘Don’t give me all that bilge about how we need to preserve books and reading. If we don’t adapt and give the kids what they want they won’t read at all.’
‘Do you have children?’
‘Yes, a teenage daughter.’
‘And if you could have it your way, would you prefer your daughter to read a book, or squint at her iPhone?’
‘Ha!’ he laughed. ‘That’s easy. She won’t read books, no matter what I do. So by giving her an iPhone book I will be encouraging her to read.’
‘That wasn’t my question,’ I said, moving in for the kill. ‘What I asked you was, all things being equal and ideal, if you could have what you really, really wanted, would you rather your daughter read an actual book, or a book on her smart phone?’
‘But she wouldn’t read an actual…’
‘Answer the question! If you could have your way?’
And so it went on until eventually he visibly slumped in his bar stool and said: ‘A real book, obviously.’
‘Thank you. I rest my case.’
‘But she won’t.’
‘Of course she won’t. Because you are in the process of making books free and authors penniless so that your daughter could, in theory, read War and Peace on her phone.’
Or a tiny bit of it. And then a tiny bit of another book. Depending on her mood. And then maybe do a shuffle. In which she moves between the best bits of various books. A paragraph from Pride and Prejudice, a sentence from Moby-Dick.
And maybe, just maybe, somewhere in all the shuffling, there will be a bit about the Berlin Wall. But then again, maybe there won’t.
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