Who knows where these sayings come from? Anyway, Sarah and I are getting on with our now twenty years long and rising conversation about life and the living of it, when I come out with more or less the title of this piece.
“The trouble is, they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
‘Did you just make that up?’ asks Sarah, momentarily impressed. Fortunately my reply is that it’s just an old saying that I’ve remembered from somewhere in my childhood. Fortunate indeed, am I, in not taking the credit because without knowing it I’m quoting from Oscar Wilde. Who so valued what he’d said that he used it twice.
In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Then in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’
“Cecil Graham: What is a cynic?
Lord Darlington: A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”
So thank you Oscar, for the borrow of your words.
As to what he meant by them, you can of course easily find many a literary essay around the internet telling you what their writer’s think he meant, if you could be bothered reading them. I of course don’t care, because I’m mainly interested in what the words mean to me.
Well as we get closer to the tortuously awaited fixed-term British General Election and as we watch the people of Greece being the latest in trying to get a say in the running of their own country, much of the talk seems to be about money and much of the public judging of people’s abilities to run a country seems to be about how good they are with money. Shadowy characters from within things like the International Monetary Fund and the European Union occasionally step forward and reveal themselves to be in practical control of policies, things and places where democracy has not been permitted to go.
And it worries me. I’m not anti-Europe and certainly not anti-International co-operation, but I’m very definitely pro-Democracy. And coming up to any General Election a key question for me has always been ‘How do we want to live, here in these countries, for the next few years?’ And I’m sentimentally attached to voting for the political party that can offer ideas about this that seem to be for the best for all of us.
And running the economy is certainly part of this. It has to be. But it’s nowhere near the whole of it. I want to be talking and hearing about the desired qualities of our lives – the qualities of hope and mercy and compassion and love and tenderness. The things that make a country a pleasure to live in, a pleasure to be a citizen of. The things we don’t seem to be hearing much of at all.
As we keep being told various versions of ‘austerity is the only option’ and we stumble towards an election where the talk that isn’t about money is about being tough. On outsiders, on claimants and, as ever, on the poor.
So I’m getting very little feel of public engagement in what’s coming up in Britain in just over two month’s time. Bits of protest voting, lots of cynicism, chasms of disengagement. I understand there are a million young people missing form the Electoral Register and I suspect there will be millions more of all ages missing from the polling booths. As people say forgivably lazy things like ‘They’re all the same’ and ‘Doesn’t matter who you vote for the rich will just keep getting richer.’
Well I think it does matter who you vote for and it’s time we all started having better quality conversations about it. About how we want to live and the quality of our houses, our work, our nurseries, our schools, our libraries, our hospitals and our futures. About our lives not just our pockets.
So I suppose this is reading like a bit of a party political broadcast on behalf of the Democracy Party? And it is really. For myself I’m an unashamed socialist and I know that I don’t want the current government and their austerity and privatising policies to continue, but I don’t yet know where I’ll be putting my vote to help get them replaced. That’s the job of the democratic process from now to May. To engage us all, intelligently, so we take the chance to think good and hard about how we want to live and how we’re going to get there. We only get a proper go at this once every five years. So it matters.
But at the moment?
“The trouble is, they all seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Or maybe I’m just a sentimentalist? As Oscar Wilde’s ‘Cecil Graham’ would say:
“A man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”
Well it’s democracy I’m sentimental about. Because when we let go of democracy, when we’re not interested enough to exercise the rights people before us literally fought for, then there are the bean counters of austerity and the sinister forces behind them ready and waiting to come and take even more control of our countries than they already have. And I think it’s time we showed them the door, by voting for how we want to live.