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?

Winning Ways With a Scarf

Apparently, the above knitted monstrosity represents an Ewok, which is something to do with Star Wars. It certainly looks cosy. I just don’t think I could carry it off, particularly at the Gulbenkian Theatre.

I’ve been thinking about clothes again. This is because tomorrow – yes, tomorrow (silent, childlike handclapping) I am due for one of my thrice-yearly outings. NB: apparently it is now considered poor English to say ‘thrice’. You can say ‘once’, you can say ‘twice’ but when it comes to ‘thrice’ you are only now allowed to say ‘three times’. B******s to that – it’s my beloved language, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I am going to meet my friend N at the University of Kent for The Bletchley Girls. I have written about my friend N before. N used to be my boss but by some miracle we managed to stay in touch and become friends after I left the firm. I have written before about student productions N and I have attended at the Gulbenkian (a theatre on campus at the University of Kent) and also of the illicit amusement to be had from student productions, in Some Fairly Substantial Fairies. (It seems to be a day for links today; what a fiddle links are). This, however, looks like a nice change from that. It’s an evening with two ladies, Ruth Bourne and Pat Davies, both now in their nineties, who were part of the predominantly female work force at Bletchley Park during the last war, working night and day to intercept messages and break codes. Ruth Bourne was eighteen at the time, a naval rating selected to operate the Bombe – one of genius Alan Turing’s machines.

It sounds good – nothing to be sniggered at over coffee in the interval there (unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, my mind has turned to more mundane matters. What to wear for it.

I was never very good with clothes, even when I worked for N in a posh office. It was always something of a struggle to compose my ‘look’ for the day, and sometimes I got it wrong and had to cower around all day in the wrong dress or even – more than once – non-identical shoes. You have to just keep your feet under the desk when you do that. Another tip – if yoghurt spills down your office blouse just before a client comes in – on with the cardigan and clutch it casually around you. Yet another – if skirt hem starts to unravel and no handy sewing kit in desk, staple said skirt. Aim sharp side of staple outwards otherwise – if tights ladder, arrest that run with a blob of nail-varnish or – if really desperate, soap. Soap tends to let you down.

The only thing I did get complimented on was my scarves. Year upon year there used to be a class advertised in the prospectus for the Adult Education Centre – Winning Ways With a Scarf, by Mrs Minnie HaHa, or something similar. Every year I planned to sign up for it, but never did. It sounded so like the one in the Joyce Grenfell monologue – Useful and Acceptable Gifts. I just seem to have a natural gift for impressive scarf-flinging. My niece taught me a new one a few years back – the back-to-front one that makes you look like Lawrence of Arabia. The trouble is, you can’t exactly venture out in an impressively-flung scarf and ‘nowt else.

arab scarf

Gosh, that’s a monster of picture. I thought it was going to be teensy.

[My father, by the way, danced with Joyce Grenfell in India. During the war. She would have been 106 if she hadn’t died in 1979. And drove her back to the railway station afterwards. Thought you’d like to know that. He was so proud.]

But now of course, there’s the money situation. I always wondered why old ladies’ clothes looked as if they had come from charity shops. Now I understand. It’s because they haven’t been able to buy any new ones for many, many years and the clothes have become… limp and vaguely grey. Eventually, presumably, if you carried on wearing them for a century or so, they would actually be all the same colour. Grey is the new… everything. Garments are quite substantial nowadays. They don’t tend to wear out, whatever Marks & Spencer would have you believe. They just gently, sadly, wilt.

What one has to do in this situation, Gels, is aim for the least unacceptable and/or least noticeable look. This will probably involve faded black leggings and the sale-reduced black ‘going out’ dress again. It’s so old it just kind of dangles, miserably from the hanger – no perk left in it at all. Or maybe I could aim for trousers and a cardigan with… something or other, possibly a tee shirt, under the cardigan. With a scarf to disguise or at least distract from its tee-shirt-ness. And footwear – well, it’s probably going to have to be the boots, even though it’s May and the sun has inconveniently started to shine. It’ll be evening. Bound to be a bit chilly and boot-suitable by evening. Or the flat shoes that start to pinch after half an hour but can be taken off in the car. I can drive barefoot. Except there’s all those bits of glass lingering around from when the neighbours’ ridge-tile crashed through the windscreen in a gale. It’s a toss-up between cuts or blisters, really.

No doubt one will cease to worry once in there and safely ensconced in one of those midget, itchy theatre seats. Have to stack the legs sideways to avoid pins and needles… No doubt Joyce Grenfell would have had to do the same.

But then of course, Dad being 6 foot 4, height wouldn’t have been a problem…

grenfell.png

AND WHERE ARE THE CLOWNS? THERE OUGHT TO BE CLOWNS…

There’s this film out at the moment, called The Walk. It’s based on the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in August 1974. I must admit I haven’t seen it, and probably couldn’t bring myself to see it, since heights frighten me. Twice in my life I have dreamed I was perched on the ledge of a building so high you could barely see the ground. I wasn’t dreaming, or so I believed – I was right there, agonising whether to keep still, shut my eyes and hope for rescue, or jump and get it over with. Thanatos, the death impulse, the dark side of the life impulse, Eros – is present within all of us but normally suppressed.

As far as I was concerned that dream contained enough terror for one lifetime. Heights have always ‘done my head in’ as they used to say. (I wonder what they say now?) I even managed to get stuck at the top of the children’s slide on Penenden Heath and had to be rescued by my father. He was not sympathetic but then I suppose if you’ve been through conscription, forced to drive a truck with a red-hot steering wheel back and forth across India, through rivers and swamps and whatnot, having only previously driven once or twice round the works car-park, a gibbering female child at the top of a little low slide would be exasperating.

That’s the thing with sitting on a high ledge, isn’t it? We’re terrified when it’s us – but when somebody else is in that position, there’s a fascination. We are good, kind people and we don’t want them to fall but – what if they did, what if they actually did? Thanatos wants out, and he’s greedy; and when someone may be about to die he attaches himself, leech-like, to that sight. What better and safer way to experience ‘death’ and the fear of death than to watch someone else fall off a high wire? Through them we get to experience that great, final adrenaline rush. Through them we experience the sublime.

The sublime is a difficult thing to define. The Romantic poets thought of the sublime as the heightened feeling you might experience in viewing the majesty of the Alps, or a great waterfall – a fascinating beauty, intermingled with horror.

The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century in the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities. Wikipedia

This is the attraction of vampire movies, especially for young girls: the pale, exotic, beautiful, tormented hero with the bloodlust and the deadly fangs. What’s not to long for?

But this Thanatos/Eros thing extends, downwards, from the Alps and the high-wire walker to (in my case) playground equipment and (in all our cases) the world of popular entertainment. We watch Amy Winehouse destroying herself with drugs and alcohol – everyone sees the accident waiting to happen, nobody intervenes. We listen to her singing her heart out, like the mythical thorn bird, self-impaled to produce its final, sweetest song. We watch talent show contestants walking on stage, we hear the silence fall, we long for them to be bad. How much more satisfying a conceited, self-deluded, aggressive or foolish contestant than any old sweet boy band, or a nervous nineteen year-old in ripped jeans with a pretty good voice. How much more entertaining.

In Roman times, as we all know, the crowds filled the stone amphitheatres to witness gladiators fight other gladiators or condemned criminals to the death. Animals, even. The Romans staged “hunts” in their auditoria. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered in one day.

During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed. Wikipedia

Were the Ancient Romans a different species of human being to ourselves? How could they take such pleasure in the prospect of all that suffering? Or were they maybe more honest about their desires than the audience at The X-Factor, or watchers of Big Brother, waiting for one of the inhabitants of the House to crack under the strain? And how far we will go? Take Jade Goody, who behaved stupidly and unpleasantly towards a fellow housemate, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, and subsequently, presumably in an attempt to repair her ruined reputation, became a Housemate on the Indian version of Big Brother. I didn’t see the programme here in the UK, but according to the newspaper reports she was called into the Diary Room to speak to her specialist in London over the phone. He then informed her, on live TV, she that she was dying of cervical cancer. Twenty-seven and nowhere to hide.

Mocking the afflicted, as they say. How often are we actually doing this, telling ourselves we’re just having fun? I suppose it depends how you define ‘afflicted’. Is it someone with a physical disability? Is it someone like Jade Goody, poorly-educated, to all appearances not very bright, and unconsciously racist? Is it Amy Winehouse, gifted but desperate and kind of ‘cracked’? Is it a deluded teenage factory worker seizing his one chance, maybe his only chance, of fame on the X-Factor? Or is it the odd, plain, middle-aged woman in the cheap gold dress and the wrong-colour tights?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D5DgQi2oqA

Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent Audition: April 11, 2009

More questions than answers:

How can you not cringe at this classic television encounter? How can you not get to your feet and cheer for her? How can you not cry? Did they treat her well? If her voice had turned out to be all of a piece with her physical appearance on that day, would she have deserved the reaction she would most certainly have got – the sniggers from the audience, patronising comments from the panel? Would that treatment even have made a dent in her confident self-belief? She knew she had one of the best voices ever, but then all the contestants know they are the best ever, and most turn out to be deluded. Who could have denied her the recognition and the applause? She said she wanted to be as famous as musical star Elaine Paige and they laughed behind their hands. Of course – who wouldn’t? And then she sang, and blew Elaine Paige out of the water.

Given what we later witnessed in the way of erratic, inappropriate and stressed-out behaviour – would rejection have destroyed Susan Boyle? Or, without the careful management she later received, might success have destroyed her? Labelled “brain-damaged” as a child in her Scottish village, she has since been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Just listen to this with your eyes shut. Where is this coming from? How can someone who can barely express herself sensibly in words, nevertheless interpret these words and this music like this?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=Yb3XAP0c8WU

Susan Boyle: Wild Horses

A personal story to end on. Some Sundays I would go to Open Mic sessions a folk club in Rochester with my ex-husband. He had run a folk club himself, in Northampton, some years before we met. Although used to singing and playing in front of an audience, he never offered to perform on these occasions. We just used to watch. There was this one woman – oldish. She played the accordion dreadfully, missing notes all over the place, and sang even more dreadfully. People used to guffaw at her, literally; groans echoed round the room as she staggered up onto the stage. I asked my husband once, why she kept on doing it, and why the audience were so cruel. He shrugged: If you choose to put yourself up there, you take the consequences. There seemed no arguing with this. He had taken the same risk himself, many times. He had walked the walk. But I wonder now – about the damaged ego of the person who puts herself forward, and the damaged soul of the person who watches, and mocks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L6KGuTr9TI

Judy Collins: Send In The Clowns

MY FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND…

…was a different kettle of fish. My father, unlike my mother, did not throw novels away in disgust: he simply refused to read them. An intelligent man, he read the daily papers from front page to back, including the financial columns, and would often read aloud (rather too lengthy) passages that he thought would interest us all. He watched the News on TV every evening. He wrote editorials and articles for a cycling club magazine which he and my mother between them manufactured using an electric typewriter, my mother’s precise cut-and-paste/handwritten captioning, and the battered second-hand photocopier that took up most of the spare bedroom. Later he wrote his ‘memoirs’ which succeeded in telling me a lot, and almost nothing. For a working man he had an advanced vocabulary, apart from one time when he asked me what ‘priapic’ meant. Difficult to know which of us was the most embarrassed or amused by my stumbling, circuitous attempts to define this word, which he had read in the newspaper. What was priapic doing in a newspaper anyway?

Yet he abhorred fiction. In fact it went deeper than that – he abhorred history. More than that, I would say he was a History Denier. It never happened, any of it, he used to say. It’s all lies. Once or twice as a teenager I tried arguing it out with him, applying my own immature logic to the situation. With parents, particularly with fathers, it’s never a good idea.

But something must have happened in the past. It can’t just be a blank before we were born. How did we get here at all?

All lies!

When we visited Leeds Castle we mostly stuck to the gardens where there was more than enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours – places to sit down and look at swans on lakes, places to drink tea and eat sandwiches; but every once in a while Mum and I liked to go inside the castle, take another look at Henry VIII’s suit of armour, Lady Baille’s languorous and strangely elongated portrait, her magnificent 1930s shoe collection or – my favourite – the lonely little fountain in the central courtyard. Dad, meanwhile, would sit on the wall outside reading his newspaper. Inside did not exist.

I used to think something had happened to him during the War, aside from driving military trucks across India (steering-wheel so hot it would burn your hands if you weren’t careful) and getting a bad case 0f malaria in Burma (stand by your beds when the Top Brass come round, whether or not you are dying). He showed us a few sepia photographs of himself out there. It was difficult to tell him apart from various other young men in khaki shirts and shorts, hands shading their eyes, squinting into the lens.

The only other thing he ever said when the subject of non-existent history came up was this: when he was at school they had showed him the Atlas, and most of the Atlas was coloured pink. The pink areas, he was told, belonged to the Glorious British Empire. But then when he got to India it wasn’t true. The Atlas – or maybe his teachers – had lied.

Did he mean they lied because the Empire wasn’t glorious? Was no longer an Empire? Because the Indian people he met disliked rather than revered their British occupiers? Because the British were not behaving gloriously? I never got to understand why he told this half-a-story. I am not sure he knew why either but it was obviously connected in some way. Those ideas – it’s all lies… history never happened… at school they showed me the Atlas – always came up together. It was like a kind of short circuit, a closed loop. Was he pointing out that history is written by the victors? But we all know that, don’t we? We can still believe  that some sort of history happened.

My own instinct is that something, or maybe a series of somethings, happened to my father in India. There’s this feeling of betrayal, and rage. The Atlas story must be true – I’m sure schoolchildren were propagandised in this way – but it’s only one element. I get a ‘background’ of real encounters with real people – real situations – real humiliations – maybe real cruelty, his or someone else’s. Neither I nor my mother succeeded in fighting our way through that particular thorny thicket, and now my father has packed up his mysteries in his old kit bag and gone, gone, gone, leaving us none the wiser.

* http://www.leeds-castle.com/home