Sue Black: ‘‘We might live 20 years longer, but what will be the quality of our life in that time?’’

Sue Black, a leading anthropologist, takes the <i>NS</i> Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

The World Wide Web. Its ability to bring good (and unfortunately) bad information to the masses and to allow us to communicate globally is revolutionary – but it needs to come with a health warning.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?

The discovery of penicillin. It is impossible to know how many millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics and by penicillin in particular.

And sporting event?

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. It took place in Germany at a time of rising tension and was used as a political platform by Hitler; the response from other nations was pivotal. An event that is supposed to be apolitical and about the best in sport became about elitism and supremacy.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

If I’m honest, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was a young girl from Inverness going to university and it was shown at freshers’ week. I was shocked to my core: there were men in women’s clothing, flexible morality, aliens, sex, murder . . . It shook me out of parochialism and into greater acceptance of diversity.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Winston Churchill. He came to embody such a spirit of bulldog British stubbornness – a determination not to be beaten, despite the odds – coupled with an extraordinary ability to instil loyalty and patriotism. He was a born leader.

And author or playwright?

I am a Tolkien fan. His books were some of the first “adult” books I read. On every reading, I have found them to bring something new, on so many different levels.

And artist?

I am more entranced by the Dutch masters but within impressionist painting, I find such vibrant life in the colours that Monet chose.

How about anyone in business?

Walt Disney. He embodied the determination to succeed, despite being knocked back so many times to the point of failure where others would have given up.

And sportsperson?

Back again to the 1936 Berlin Olympics – Jesse Owens. It is difficult to find a sportsperson who made a greater statement, not just for his sport but for equality and acceptance.

And philanthropist?

Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to education, reform and public and civil life continue to influence today.

What is your favourite quotation?

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because some day in your life, you will have been all of these.” That’s George Washington Carver.

What is your favourite speech?

I have to come back to Churchill and the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. For its raw determination, stamina, dogged steadfastness and power, it is awe-inspiring. So many of our politicians today can only wonder how that could ever be achieved and still be so influential more than 70 years later.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?

The most significant change may well be in health care. We will continue to find cures for diseases that have plagued humankind and eradicate many of those that end our lives prematurely.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

My greatest concern is linked to our most significant change – longevity, because although we might live 20 years longer, what will be the quality of our life in that time? We do not have the social infrastructure to ensure that a dependent, ageing population is cared for.

What will be the most dramatic development in your ownfield of work?

The intrusion into our identity: things that were personal and private will no longer be so. The ability to trace people, to cross-link them and to interact with them remotely will bring huge benefits but also an enormous loss of privacy.

What is the priority for the future well-being of both people and our planet?

It has to be conservation and an awareness of our negative impact on our planet. For as long as countries are cavalier about their global responsibilities, selfishnesswill continue to be our downfall.

Sue Black. Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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