I recently read that my generation – the 'millennials', those born between 1980 and 1994 – is the last generation to have experienced life before the internet. Our early lives occurred in private. We took photos on special occasions. The performance of the self was a live act, at parties, with friends. All this was unremarkable.
The description is not so simple, though. There's something else: a twinge of angst. A sense of time accelerating. An old dear world has become a memory, and one that we have to talk about, and pass on. How will the youngsters know, otherwise, that they are hamstrung and under siege? So we fret, we talk about phone addiction and lost privacy; all of us utterly powerless in the face of the current technological revolution. The younger generation exercise their right to roll their eyes at us. This is what we used to do back when television retained a faint aura of danger. TV would make us stupid, it would give us 'square eyes' – and we rolled our eyes at our elders, because we were not so uptight or afraid. And so progress rolls on.
When I was reading about my generation, it was around Christmas time, a season replete with feel-good Facebook and Instagram posts. I curled up in pyjamas and scrolled through all my social media sites, cossetted by central heating. For Hogmanay, my partner Dan and I made a plan to go camping by a beach in East Lothian. We would see in the New Year together, by the shore, in the dark. We chose Tyninghame beach, which, like so much of East Lothian, has been delivered from a fairy tale. After friendly, knotted woodland, we came upon a pretty pebbled shore and the sea, and threw down our bags in a spot with a view. I made a big show of putting my phone on airplane mode. Without heating or lights, comfort or distraction, I thought I might be able to discern what lay beneath our busy lives.
We had decided to cook on a camp fire, cut the wood from the forest to keep the fire going, and had carried rations of water with us. I suspected that what lay beneath was vulnerability. I wanted to find it and touch it – just its outline – and know that there was much more there that I would never have to experience. I wanted to know how much effort it would take to cook dinner if I couldn't just switch on the oven.
Of course, camping out for a night with equipment hardly matches the work that other people around the world have to expend just to stay in the same place each day. I did not think this trip would magically make me a better person (certainly, it would make me a much grumpier person in the short-term). I can't explain it entirely, except that life had been full all December – gilded, stuffed, giddy – and a new year seemed the time to make contact with the bare ground below. I had to be offline. I had to touch the cold.
The sun set at four in the afternoon. A raucous wind arrived and made mischief, ripping tent pegs out of the ground. The wind made the fire hungry; it was eating up wood faster than we could chop it. What I had imagined would be an evening spent toasting marshmallows had turned into an interminable struggle against the elements. Every so often, we would wheel torchlight across our camp and see our tent flattened by the wind. Then we would run across the dunes after bits of tent. When we returned to the fire, it would be almost out, and the frantic chopping of wood had to begin again.
I hadn't thought to pack a head torch so I kept tripping and cut my hands on the axe. Tent poles were irreparably bent. The beer Dan had left in a rock pool to keep cold began to float away when the tide came in. Perhaps the greatest insult of all: the beer, when it was recovered from the sea, turned out to be non-alcoholic. We held frantic crisis talks, weighing up options. Pack everything up in the dark or stay put? My arms were aching from chopping wood. My face was numb with cold. We stayed out of sheer weariness.
'I hate the cold, I hate the wind,' I roared. 'I love central heating.' Dan sat and drank his non-alcoholic beer.
The wind had chased away the clouds. It took us a while to notice. When I finally looked up and saw all the stars above our heads, I was startled. It was as if a giant had been watching us all along, and I'd only just realised. The stars made us so small. We lay on our backs, staring up. I finally felt warm (all that chopping and rescuing of tent pegs). In 'Moby Dick', Herman Melville captures this exquisite pleasure: 'The height of […] deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal'.
We crept into the tent and under blankets. Two sparks. We solemnly promised each other that we'd stay awake until 12, then fell asleep. It was five to midnight when Dan shook my shoulder and pointed out through the open tent door. A mysterious firework display was underway. We couldn't hear another soul but we saw rockets shooting up from the beach. They soared up and broke into showers of lights. Our private fireworks.
When we got home the next day, I posted some photos on Instagram. I smoothed out the edges and added an Amaro haze. I thought it would be nice to look back on the photos, in months to come. It all looked cheerful enough, but there was nothing in the pictures to transmit the stars and the ache, the incredible, bedrock exhaustion, and the fireworks.
Well, there was more: the night had been gigantic. The turmoil in the dark, the wind grabbing the tent – all this was far larger than my phone camera. I thought of youngsters more literate in social media than I am and wondered if they tap in to series of snapshots and take it for granted that there is a vast private terrain beyond each image they see. For them, this is unremarkable. Meanwhile we, the millennials, worry over our self-made monster, the Fear Of Missing Out.
I wanted to tell people the true story – the beer floating away, the stars. When I did, it was in the telling of it, the performance of each episode ('it was the best of times, the worst of times'), and I found that the reality of the night was intact. The old dear world is still with us. The stars remain, whether we see them on our screens or not. It is our prerogative to scold the youngsters and their duty to be immune to all our fretting. They're quite right too.