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The changing self

 

Shakespeare is supposed to have had ‘small Latin and less Greek.’ I, obviously not at all like Shakespeare, have the reverse, so that when a friend sent me the saying Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, I had to look it up. Times are changed and we are changed with them.

Certainly times have changed, and perhaps I notice this development in Australia more, because I am here so infrequently. One area of great change I notice is that of dress. I’m not sure how many people realise that dress is a code, but when I was young, dress was meant to convey respectability. My grandmothers always wore their hats and gloves to town, and most professional men wore suits and hats, with an occasional venture into tweed sports jackets for casual occasions. For girls and women an out-of-place bra strap meant social death, while signals were given for a wayward petticoat: It’s snowing down south. These days girls wear as an outer layer what we would have considered underwear.

But perhaps times ebb and flow in the same way as skirts have gone up and down throughout history: take beards, for example. After the Victorian era, beards returned in the 1960s, went out again, and are now back in a bewildering variety of shapes and thicknesses. I recently saw a young man with a waxed moustache exactly like the one my grandfather wore at his 1910 wedding, while a couple of days later I saw a moustache dyed a bright greeny-yellow. As for hair: show me the girl who puts her hair in rollers at bedtime, and the boy who favours the short back-and-sides of yesteryear? I suppose such practices could return, but it seems unlikely.

Of course there are many other changes. As one friend remarked after a trip to the pictures the implicit has become explicit. And how, at least in some cases. Modes of behaviour have also changed: people are louder, for example, whereas my mother used regularly to quote the reference to Cordelia in King Lear. Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman. My mother also had a thing about what she termed sloppy speech, while today nobody seems to care very much about how they sound. Or about their grammar. Women have become more assertive: well, that needed to happen.

I suppose people do change as the times change, although I also think most people believe they have a core self that remains much the same, despite the effects of age such as increasing irascibility and impatience. I was always fairly cautious by nature and still am: I never believed I was bullet-proof, and am rather surprised that I have lived as long as I have.

But I think I pay rather more attention to the natural world now, whereas once I tended to take it for granted, as young people do. I also pay more attention to the political world, and this tendency has naturally had the consequence of making me much more pessimistic than I was, for it is increasingly difficult to ward off despair in the face of so much power play, greed, pain and destruction, and when we see, all about us, the wicked prospering.

 

'Hilary Mantel once said that we look forward to technology, while the people of the past looked backwards to virtue.'

 

I hope I’m more tolerant: another thing that needed to happen after a rather priggish, Puritanical youth. I certainly care less about what people think and how I look. But the defining fact of my life has to be my long-ago migration to Greece, in which place and society I was forced to learn and to change in a process that probably has not stopped. I had to adapt, but the world I entered did not want to adapt to me (why should it?) and was not readily going to accept the stranger in its midst. I eventually had to accept that my pioneering background was very different from the peasant one. Australians were used to making things up as they went along, and traditional Greeks were committed to repeating an age-old pattern. I learned that later is not necessarily better, and that I could not necessarily assume anything about customs, ethics, values, tastes and ways of doing things. Genius Hilary Mantel once said that we look forward to technology, while the people of the past looked backwards to virtue. So times are definitely changed.

Mantel also said that much of her writing consisted of messages from the people she used to be. I know what she meant.

 

 

 


Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Change, Life, Adaptation, Evolution

 

 

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Existing comments

A little while ago, I was shopping in a large department store and was looking for a petticoat and couldn’t find one. On enquiring of the almost-extinct but youngish shop assistant about such a garment I was asked “A petticoat? What is that?” And I like your taste in reading material, Gillian: Hilary Mantel is wonderful. I have yet to read “A Memoir of My Former Self”. It’s sitting on my bookshelf so I’ll have to make it a priority. After “Mythos” by Stephen Fry.


Pam | 20 March 2024  

History, by definition, involves change; but contrary to the popular French notion " Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose", the rate of technology and the basic ethical questions its accelerated advance poses in our time, we should be saying " . . . ce n'est pas - pas du tout - la meme chose."
That said, there are radical, objective continuities in what constitutes the human, and in shared values and common social mores that preserve our understanding of humanity (dare I say "human nature"?) Maybe it's time as individuals and as a society we rediscovered and placed focus on them rather than blobby, increasingly empty cliches like "diversity".


John RD | 21 March 2024  

a truly nostalgic piece, Gillian. We share many memories of times past. I remember my shock when I moved to Canberra in 1978 and found nobody wore gloves to Civic, except in winter. Hair colour and cut, too. Remember when ‘showing your roots’ must be avoided at all costs? What is indeed notable and horrific is the increase in dictatorship throughout the world, something I would never have imagined in my actively political life. Thanks for your thoughts.


Juliet | 23 March 2024  

I find myself - of a similar age to the writer - finding much to smile about (ruefully?) and to relate to - other times other ways - even within the one culture. Our young guide here in Cairo took us to a beautiful mosque in the old historic part of the city and did his best to explain to us the Five Pillars of Islamic practice and then move into social customs and greetings following a question from my wife on why only women have to cover themselves up... But in terms of social greetings he said kisses would be exchanged within family settings - when meeting his grand-mother - she'd give him six kisses. I recall the kisses of my Scottish grand-mother when I was a lad - sloppy (it seemed to me) on my lips - and which I would immediately wipe off - to the glare of her daughter-in-law - my mother. That I would shake my brother's hand when we met after long separations - when he was in his conscription days posted to Melbourne or upon meeting up in London or in La Seyne-sur-Mer during his yacht-building days. How formal I think now. Our guide, Samara, spoke of close male friends who would offer a kiss to each cheek upon meeting up - and I was reminded that this was how my brother and I would greet each other in later years - hugs and back patting - unimaginable when we were children, young adults. Times change - fashions change - we travel and then measure ourselves against our various epochal younger selves. I love this journey back through my own selves - indeed that surprise to reach the age at which I am a major part of it. Thanks, GB!


Jim Kable | 24 March 2024  

But isn't it a relief that women are no longer expected to wear hats, gloves, petticoats, stockings, suspenders (not to mention corsets!), except perhaps on very formal occasions? I think the Ancient Greeks knew how to dress for comfort and ease of movement (to judge by surviving visual evidence) although their mode of dress would probably not be practical for out time and place.

Vestimentary markers, and changes in fashion, have always been with us, and still are, but it's the changes in technology, and its tyranny over our lives and minds (which is not to decry its benefits) that bothers me more. And then I also wonder how much our minds and intelligence have evolved in positive directions, which could bring fresh perspectives to the way we live and treat each other, that seems in many instances to lag behind what the times we live in are crying out for.


Jena Woodhouse | 25 March 2024  

As usual Gillian, some very thought provoking observations and the changes are radical.
Respect, truth and morality seem to have been sidelined as we understood the concepts.
Looking back (especially using a mirror) does not seem to be in vogue. I suspect the current confusions and changes in culture have resulted in a more general sloppiness, not just in speech. Perhaps the core self has to be nurtured and maybe wisdom comes with age and experience. Our parents were critical of the changes they saw when we were young but to quote Shakespeare:
“There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough -hew them how we will”.


Maggie | 28 March 2024  

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