There’s a lot of good sense to be had in a lot of reggae lyrics, but not in Junior Murvin’s ‘Solomon’ :
‘Solomon was the wisest man,
But he didn’t know the secrets that I know now.
I am wiser than Solomon …’
Every time I listen to it – frequently – I can’t resist quibbling: Yes, Junior, we now know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, that Beijing is in China and that potatoes taste good with butter and salt, and poor old Solomon didn’t know any of those things. But that doesn’t mean we’re any wiser than he was.
It’s all too easy to condescend to your ancestors, even if you’re a good Rastafarian. Time and distance naturally simplify things, and there is no doubt that our lives are very different to lives lived even 100 years ago. It is hard not think of people who lived in previous centuries as somehow less complicated than us.
Genealogy is a good cure for such thinking. The more you find out about your ancestors, the more complicated and individual they become. You can’t think of them as quaint, fixed to the one spot, sepia-toned. They moved and worried and loved and lied, and they were just as uncertain about their futures as we are about ours.
The biggest contrast between their lives and ours is comfort: we have central heating and anaesthetics. That doesn’t make us more complex, or smarter, or wiser.
And the most substantial thing that they didn’t know, and that we know now, is what was going to happen to them. There is irony in this, and some sadness, but no basis for disrespect.
The only real difference between us and our ancestors is that they’re dead and we’re not. And that’s not going to last.