My great-grandfather was a man so impressed with his time he gave all of his children, boy and girl, the middle name Villiers after the engine that became famous from 1912. He was born not long after the Industrial Revolution and took a somewhat mechanistic approach to the world; to work, procreation, the very concept of love. Never mind the fact the Titanic sank in the same year his beloved engine was developed, man and machine were one and together they would dominate the world.
His comfort with this arrangement was, I suspect, due to the fact you could not take home an industrial loom and check your emails on it before bed. A cotton gin could not plan your social life via intrusive calendar updates.
Sure, we lost more children down chimneys than we might be comfortable with, and the machines were governed by no safety legislation, but although they could take an arm or leg, they could never take your mind.
A man with the singular lack of imagination required to name all of his progeny after an early 20th-century engineering marvel would not travel well in the present day.
The only things that machines, computers really, mass-manufacture for me these days are opportunities to excuse myself from events so voluminous and preposterous as to require explanations of a similar order.
“I’m sorry I can’t make it,” I text a friend, explaining that however much I would enjoy the vegan shoe-making class (I absolutely wouldn’t) I couldn’t possibly get there on time on account of the family of bush animals that has suddenly come into my care.
The modern world has precipitated the birth of modern anxiety. There is more of it than ever before, and we are in need of a new suite of support groups. Support groups for the 21st century. Support groups that scream “yes the world has become a scarier place since the industrialisation of weaving but please don’t take it out on the spinning jenny, save your violent passions for DARPA or whoever it was that really invented the internet”.
It’s a bit of a long slogan, I’ll grant, but the thrust of it is there.
There will be groups for people who have lost children during the hysteria of trying to wire a home-entertainment system. A parent should never bury their child, particularly not after sending them around the back of a flatscreen television to plug in an HDMI cable.
There will be body-image workshops for people’s dogs, especially dachshunds, sparked by the sudden realisation your sausage dog looks remarkably like the cylinders of processed meat you’ve been feeding it.
There will be a support group for the French man who jumped innocently in his Renault Laguna to go to the shops and ended up stuck in his car as it travelled at 200km/h, incapable of being stopped, towards Belgium.
In this cantankerous century, there will be get-togethers for those who did not care loudly enough when loud people demanded it.
There will continue to be support groups for people afraid of spiders, as is just and right. A plan will be hatched to turn spiders into roam- ing WiFi hotpots, forcing us to choose between our hatred of arachnids and our need to be connected. This will teach us, too, about the impermanence of living things when the WiFi signal drops out, presumably because a huntsman hotspot has died and blown away in the wind.
Accordingly, there will be a support group to help deal with the peculiar contours of this grief.
I make few petitions for groups of my own, though it would be nice to attend a class whose sole aim is to soothe my guilt about all the people who wished me happy birthday on Facebook for whom I never returned the courtesy.
The problem with longing for the “simpler” times of my great-grandfather’s era — when men were men and Villiers motor engines were suitable inspiration for the births registry — is that one is required, too, to take smallpox and polio as fellow travellers. It’s like going backpacking in Europe but having to do it with a predatory big cat, or your high-school mate Tom, at your side. It’s a bit much, really.