Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

From a Distance

It is a controlled fall from the ship. I have practiced it many times before, wings tightly folded on either side of my spine. As never before, I feel my own fierce strength, the glory of interconnecting mesh of muscles make it possible for wings and body to work together. I am tense. I must wait. There is a right time for wings to open, and I will sense that time as well as being able to read it on my wrist. A moment too soon and…

My ancestors had a tale of a boy called Icarus, who made himself wings of wax and flew too near the sun; hard to imagine not having wings, having to make them. What did he fasten them with, I wonder. Straps of leather? Straps of cloth? I have read of such substances, just as I have read of Icarus. The inevitable happened, of course. In the end he flew too close to Sol, the category 2 yellow dwarf now scorching my back as I fall – so very small, after our own, and so very hot. And why should this be a surprise? I have read a mountain of textbooks in preparation for this overflight of my home planet, seen pictures, viewed endless animations. I knew what it would be like. And yet I knew nothing.

What could that story have meant, really? Was it merely a tale of a foolish boy, designed to amuse an audience with a rudimentary sense of humour? Or was it more? Terra stories are known for a quality of symbolism so it might be that this one has a deeper meaning. A caution against arrogance, perhaps, and over-reaching.

The black chronometer on my wrist is set to Terra time. I must fall like this for six point five of their minutes. It feels like a lifetime.

I cannot believe I am finally here. I am so fortunate, to have been selected for this reconnaissance mission to my ancestral planet. My Terran genetic heritage would have helped, of course, though in training they warned me that I would need to set aside any false sentimentality about ‘the old country’.

‘Assessor Aiden, bear in mind that this is the planet that blasted your genetic antecedents out into cold space, in suspended animation and in a relatively primitive craft, on a mission to colonise Mars. Mars, of all planets – that hell hole! It was suicidal: those on the ground must have known it and those in the spaceship, as they stepped into their cryo-chambers and pressed the ‘freeze’ button, must at least have suspected it. It was mere political one-upmanship, vanity, showing off.

‘If our ancestors had not rescued your ancestors, studied them, bred from them and then, when it was proven safe to do so, interbred with them, there would be no Assessor Aidan. How many second-rate and failing races have we conserved in this fashion over the millennia? We are a long way towards gathering into a single race all that is best in the universe, whilst eliminating all that is worst. What an uncontrolled mess the universe be by now, without our Programme…’

Falling to earth. Like Icarus, I find myself thinking.

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A sleek silver spaceship is in orbit around the planet known as Terra, a smallish satellite of star Sol. Ship’s Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are able to see everything Assessor Aidan is seeing, via his implant. In the ship’s control room they witness again what they have both witnessed so many times before – and what a succession of other Captains and First Officers have been forced to witness before that. They watch as Aidan glides over that drought-ridden continent known as Africa. Village after village of scattered dead bodies, starvation and thirst. Dead cattle. Dead everything. Men with guns in battered trucks, almost as starved and thirsty as the villagers they patrol.

With Aidan they sweep over what were once known as the Americas – two great lumps of land strung together by a delicate land-bridge. They see a stone statue with a stone crown, holding aloft a stone flame; very little else but scorched earth. Everything disintegrated. Shadows of bodies etched into half-demolished walls. Their instruments record increased blood pressure, stress levels through the roof.

‘Contain any emotional response, Assessor. Remember your training…’

How fortunate that Aidan does not know he is the five-hundred-and-first Assessor to have performed this sweep. Had he been aware that his vote and his alone will be the one to decide the fate of this cesspit of a failed planet, had he known that this very day he will effectively be Judge, Jury and Executioner for many millions of years of history…

They are never told, so that none of them has to shoulder the burden of guilt. All are equally guilty, or equally innocent depending how you choose to look at it. An Assessor performs but a single mission before moving on to other work. He might be the first, he might be the last, or any intermediate one of the five-hundred-and-one. Or there may be more than five hundred and one. Or there might be just one. Not knowing, he is able to maintain the necessary professional detachment.

Except that this particular Assessor does not seem to be doing so. His blood-pressure is still rising.

Through Assessor Aidan’s eyes Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are now viewing what was once known as Europa, and which the textbooks describe as a collection of individual nations, each with its own language and culture. They see War and, as the Assessor glides over a muddy, pockmarked battlefield on the eastern edge of that territory, they see a group of men in battered uniforms, gazing skyward, pointing, tracking the strange blue creature with their eyes. They exclaiming over its great muscular wings, its vast, exotic wing-span. And positioning what looks like an ancient piece of military equipment.

‘Abort. Pull him out of there.’

‘Aborting. Repeat, aborting. Maintain level flight whilst we position ourselves to tractor you out. Assessor Aidan, do you read us?’

From the ground arises a thud, a sudden explosion, an ominous hissing sound, a streak of fire.

‘What is that?’

Their displays are doing a wild dance, skimming through diagrams of Terran weapons at lightning speed.

‘Rocket-launcher.’

‘He’s hit. He’s falling. One wing…’

‘Assessor Aidan, give your report.

No reply.

‘Assessor Aidan, your decision, please, before you die. There is still time. Press Red or Green on your tunic panel.’

Still no answer.

‘Assessor Aidan, listen to me now. You have been hit. Give your report. Green for Save, Red for Cleanse.’

Green or Red, Assessor? It is your duty to report.

There is no sound in space as the half-human, blue-winged creature crashes to the ground. No sound as it lies on the ground with broken wings and neck. The ragged soldiers, though still a long way off, are running in its general direction.

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Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata exchange glances and know that they are thinking approximately the same few things.

That however accidental the death of Assessor Aidan may have been, the Captain and First Officer are likely to be held in some way responsible for it.

That there will be endless enquiries and inquests.

That there will be a forfeiture of bonuses and/or a docking of pay.

That this fiasco is bound to be noted on their service records.

And then there is the delay in completing this important mission. This particular planet is urgently required for Re-Seeding. The formalities have had to be observed, of course, due diligence carried out, but the Programme must go on. A Green verdict was never really on the cards. Terra has been degenerating year on year; noticeably worsening with each new sweep. No hope for the blighted lump of rock. Cleanse and Re-Seed is by far the better option: a new Eden.

Captain B’etal continues to hold First Officer Mata’s eye as, in slow-motion, he reaches towards the red button on his own console. He is asking her one final question, and silently, since all their conversations are recorded. Scarcely a nod and then she leans forward to place her hand over his. Together, they press the Red button.

DRAFT MINUTES: Final Meeting of the EMMA JANE EGLANTINE BROWN Clone Cohort

We, six of the nine clones of Emma Jane Eglantine Brown, are gathered together in the traditional meeting place, the ancient tavern of Saints Cosmas & Damian, Oxford, England on this the 28th of May 2656, our Prime, Emma Brown, having five days since died of extreme old age, complicated by viral pneumonia.

Minutes shall be taken by Emma’s Adminclone Gemma.

Also in attendance: Careclone Pippa; Lawclone Isabel; Friendclone Sophie; Enterclone Maria; Educlone Adeline.

Apologies for Absence: Psychlone Margaret; Buyclone Vivien; Cleanclone Sara. They will be reporting direct to the DCR, Oxford University on the appointed date and at the appointed time. This shall be our final meeting.

As is traditional at such meetings, each clone has the opportunity to speak for herself, to comment upon, the life of her Prime and her contribution to that life.

Friendclone Sophie: But I do not wish to be reabsorbed. Prime Emma was one hundred and seventeen years old, but I am only twenty-five.

Educlone Adeline: Technically, Sister, you are correct. Our biological ages are capped at twenty-five. We grow to that age and remain at that age in order to serve with maximum efficiently. You might say we remain forever in our prime… I do apologise, that little play on words may have been in bad taste…

Lawclone Isabel: Indeed it was, as your little plays on words have often been…

Educlone Adeline: The fact remains, Sister Sophie, that we have been on this earth for exactly as many years as our Prime. We have been privileged to experience the full human lifespan, Sister.

Friendclone Sophie: But I am as much alive as Prime Emma, as much flesh and blood as she was. How did anyone get the right to ‘allocate’ me an existence and snatch back again? This is manifestly unfair, and it is on this basis that I shall not be reporting for reabsorption.

Enterclone Maria: Sister, a clone has no existence in law once her Prime has died. We were created solely to serve her. This, in our various ways, we duly did and now it is natural that we should…expire.

Friendclone Sophie: Emma would not have wished me to be reabsorbed. I was her friend.

Lawclone Isabel: Prime Emma would have been unaware of the reabsorption process, as are all Primes. Our combined functions were all for one purpose – to make Prime Emma’s life as easy as possible – not to cause her distress. You may be right in that if she had known what was to happen to us she would have been upset. Nonetheless, the fact remains: clones are always reabsorbed upon the death of their Prime.

Friendclone Sophie: And what if I choose to go on the run?

Lawclone Isabel: Then you will bring shame on the whole cohort. And even if you do elect to do so you will very soon be found and captured. You are forgetting about the microchip.

Friendclone Sophie: Supposing I have found a way to disable or remove that microchip during my twenty-five years of existence?

Lawclone Isabel: And have you?

Friendclone Sophie: I might have.

Lawclone Isabel: Well, that would have been a clever plan – unfortunately not clever enough. The microchip, which you have no doubt been visualising in terms of the tiny metallic shards that were once injected into pet creatures, is in fact a genetic marker. Every strand of your DNA bears that marker, Sister; to destroy it you would have to destroy every cell in your body. So are you still going to run? I thought not. Reabsorption is a relatively pain-free process and, like the rest of us, you will be reporting for that process at the Department for Clone Reabsorption tomorrow, 29th May 2656 at 4 p.m.

Friendclone Sophie: I will run anyway. I will run and run, and if…

Lawclone Isabel: When…

Friendclone Sophie: Until I am caught, I will hide and fight. I will fight against them, somehow. I will fight to my last breath!

Lawclone Isabel: You must do as you wish, Sister Sophie. Whatever you do, the end result will be the same. All please note that any comments of a wild, inappropriate nature must, under the Clone Reabsorption Act 2601, be stricken from all Minutes of Last Meetings before they are submitted to the formal record. I shall attend to this.

And weave but nets to catch the wind

Two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously yesterday, about the internet. One thought is to be celebrated, two at the same time is a rare occurrence.

Firstly it occurred to me that this thing that we are feverishly blogging onto; this thing we confidently upload the 9,999th recipe for cheese-and-tomato-quiche onto or inform as to the 999 household uses for lemon juice; this thing we publish our ground-breaking scientific treatises onto; on which we proclaim our political and religious fervour; on which we write our life stories and record the least and most interesting details of daily lives – would be the major, if not the only historical ‘source’ in years to come.

I imagine them, our historians, a thousand years hence – maybe tiptoeing the scorched remains of some nuclear disaster; teeming half-blind in some low-lit underground city or maybe – just maybe – cavorting joyfully in some green paradise containing faithful genetic reproductions/fanciful re-imaginings of all the creatures our own generation is hunting to extinction, polluting or crowding out of existence.  Here a snow leopard. There a unicorn.

But how those future professors and  graduate students will enjoy studying us, and what an unprecedented amount of material they will have to work on! Not for them, fragments of a scroll found in a cave. Not for them the copperplate of workhouse records, faded to brown. Not for them the clue in the place name, crumbled walls beneath the soil, letters complete or redacted. They will have…this.

That is, if this still exists (second thought). Will there still be electricity a thousand years hence? Will people still know how to write code? Will the phrase “Error 502 Bad Gateway” mean any more to them than it does to me? Who knows what technologies we are capable of destroying, in our foolishness.

We have done it so many times before, that’s the trouble. In 48 BCE (troublesome E – what’s that for?) or thereabouts someone, possibly Julius Caesar, set fire to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most wonderful libraries in the ancient world. In those days knowledge was stored on papyrus scrolls. They burn nicely. What arcane material might have been recorded on those scrolls? We will never know.

Books have been burnt for as long as there have been books, and idiots who think that freedom of thought and the paper it is written down on are one and the same thing:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.”

And on a smaller scale – Jane Austen’s precious letters, redacted or destroyed by her well-meaning sister Cassandra. Interestingly, Jane herself may have helped Cassandra decide which passages to excise. In an age when letters would have been read aloud to the family, Jane would underline those passages which were for her sister’s eyes only, and Cassandra would skip over these when reading. There is even a mention of this system in Pride and Prejudice. What trust people must have had in one another.

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And yet information continues to be passed down, and presumably the way this happens is via human memory. Even if something is later destroyed, some or all of it will be in somebody’s head, and that person will tell others. Ideas, no matter how many times we burn or redact them, will move from person to person. As long as people can whisper to one another in corners an idea, once had, will never be destroyed. Or if it was destroyed someone, somewhere, eventually, would have it all over again. No matter many barrels of dynamite are employed in reducing it to rubble an ancient temple, once built, can never be destroyed. The reverence that built it survives: it has been, therefore it is. A poem, once written, exists, even if nobody ever, anywhere, reads it. It is part of the fabric of the universe.