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The Best of Times

From the album India

Are you looking at us now
Are you wondering how
We could let the world get in such a state
Is your heart filled with pain
When you see torrential rain
Drowning cities and leaving them to fate
Are you sitting with your friends
Asking if this is the end
And wondering if there is any hope
Could the precious gift you gave
Tell us how to behave
Or have we slipped too far down the slope

Yours was the best of times, that’s what you say
That life was so much easier than the one you see today
But yours was the worst of times, surely you can see
Most of the things you dreamt of have now come to be
As bad as things are now
These are the best of times

I have never seen
Sitting at a guillotine
A woman knitting as the blade hits its mark
I have never seen a child
From hunger made wild
Abandoned and crying in the dark
There are far far better things
Than your arrows and your slings
Outrageous fortune though for some will always be
The poverty you knew
And the icy winds that blew
Have now weakened, surely you can see


Most of the time, a melody comes to me with a first line, but in this case, there was nothing, so I turned to google for inspiration. I searched for “best first lines from books”, and unsurprisingly top of the list was “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This song has no connection to the story in the book, but the title reminded me of a frequent discussion I used to have with my father. He was not the most positive of men and frequently commented on how things were so much better in the “old days.” Considering his upbringing, I found it a strange thing to say.
He grew up in a slum in London and fought in some of the worst battles of World War II, so his nostalgia didn’t make much sense. When I presented him with the arguments against, he always accepted them but ended the conversation by saying, “That’s true, but at least we had hope.”

In 2012, I went to visit Piove di Sacco, the town in Italy where my mother was born. A few months earlier, I got her to write her memoirs and was shocked to discover how poor her family was. I went to see the tiny apartment where six of them lived. It included her illiterate grandmother, who had lost her husband and son to tuberculosis. In her memoirs she wrote, “The words to want just weren’t in our dictionary. We knew our parents had nothing, so we never asked for anything.” Things got so bad that they moved to Milan where their situation improved, but then the war came, and things got worse than ever.
After I walked around the town and had coffee with some long-lost relatives, I went to a large supermarket where the shops were stacked with every conceivable type of food and people were queueing at the checkout with trollies filled to the top. It was then that a thought occurred to me. When my father went to Piove di Sacco in 1945 to visit my mother’s relatives, if a genie had appeared before him and asked what he wished for, what would he have said? He would have wished for a family, a nice home by the sea, an abundance of food, regular foreign holidays and for his children to enjoy the same luxuries. Everything that he would have wished for has come to pass.

As I write this, we are in the middle of the Covid19 pandemic so I am sure there will be plenty of people who will be horrified by me describing this as “the best of times,” but when making comparisons with the past, I believe we must compare like with like. We must compare a bad time now with bad times from the past. Ask yourself, if you were poor, would you rather it be now or in Dicken’s Times?