Sunday, March 18, 2018

‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Funny, then, how folk still try

I was at primary school in Britain, the Sacred Heart School, in Station Rd., Henley-on-Thames, which moved to Greys Hill, both in Henley-on-Thames, from September 1954 to June 1959. I can’t remember being taught any history there. In fact, I don’t think any primary school teaches history, except, of course, at the Dick and Dora level of ‘the Vikings were a ferocious, warlike people from the cold North who drank much mead and wore helmets with horns, even in bed’. After that it was a year at Steubenschule, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, just down the road from where we live in the Olympische Straße, then three years at Das Canisius Kolleg, in Berlin-Tiergarten.

If we were taught history at the Steubenschule, it must have passed me by, because I can’t remember any of it, and all I do remember of history at Das Canisius Kolleg was that it was Ancient Roman history (though don’t hold me to that).

At The Oratory School, the Roman Catholic branch of Reading gaol and run by Her Majesty’s Department of Justice and Punishment in Woodcote, Oxfordshire, I arrived at 13, one of only two lads of my year’s intake of 42 who had not been to prep school (and who was thus wholly unprepared for the unmitigated discomforts which awaited me – cold showers, I can tell you, do not build your character, they are merely concrete evidence that most public schools would prefer to spend their cash on sherry, fine wines and a log fire in his study for the head than fuel for the boilers to keep the boys warm).

Crucially, they had all, I assume, been taught British history for several years and will have covered topics such as the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, the invasions by the Vikings, William of Normandy’s grab for power, rule by his sons, Matilda and Terence (or was it Stephen? I can never remember) and the Plantagenets, because they weren’t half as baffled by lessons about Henry VII Star Court Chamber as I was. Baffled is putting it mildly, and this went on for a year, my first, in the fourth form. Then, when I began my second year, we all started the term by being asked whether we wanted to study ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’. ‘Arts’, Oratory School-style in the mid-1960s – it was not the paedagogic colossus it is now (at least according to its website and prospectus with its vague references, wholly unsubstantiated, that the Oratory is ‘the Catholic Eton’. Yeah, right) – consisted of Spanish, history and geography. ‘Sciences’ meant lessons in chemistry, physics and biology.

At 14, I equated chemistry with messing around with chemicals (and I was not entirely wrong on that matter), so I opted for ‘sciences’ without a word of advice or consultation from a parent, and that choice defined the course of the rest of my education. I have to say that studying chemistry, and in time coming across the concept of ‘entropy’, lead me to an interest in philosophy – I was rather taken with the possibility that you could discuss and debate ideas – but crucially there was no more history. There were a few brief history lectures in my first foundation year at Dundee University – there were, in fact, several history lectures a week for three terms, but I wisely very soon took to sleeping until noon, then idling away the afternoon in the students’ union coffee bar – so history played almost no part in my life until – well, there is no better way of putting it – I had grown up a little.

Our first year at Dundee was concluded with exams in all five foundation year subjects: methodology (a kind of philosophy for infants), pyschology, economics, political science and history, and as I had spent all year in bed, in the bar, in pubs, at parties and feeling sorry for myself, but had dedicated no time at all to my studies, I naturally failed all five. Those like me who failed were given a second chance at ‘resits’ and as far as I was concerned those resits were a lifeline. For one thing, and this frightened me more than anything else, dropping out of university would mean that I was to be obliged to forgo my grant cheque and ‘work for a living’, and I can’t stress just how much that put the fear of God in me. So I did something which to this day is for me a source of personal pride: as an achievement it might not rank up there with developing the Theory of Relativity or laying down your life for you country, but by Christ was I proud!

I didn’t go home that summer but stayed in Dundee and from scratch – and I mean from scratch - studiously learned the syllabus for each of the five subjects. And come the resit exams I passed four out of five. I missed out on psychology, but passed that at a second resit at the end of the Christmas term. My grant cheque was secured: three more years of ligging around at the state’s expense (or strictly the expense of Oxfordshire County Council). It was about this time that I discovered I was able to claim ‘travel expenses’. Why these, too, were being handed out I can’t even begin to guess, but claim them I did and very welcome, too, were the pounds which trickled into my bank account.

To sum up (a summing up which might please those who get rather fed up with my discursive style), until several years ago when I began to read up on history, all I knew was a few odd facts about Romulus and Remus - they were twins, brought up by a wolf and Romulus eventually murdered Remus - and that Henry VII (the father of Good King Hal/that murderous bastard Henry VIII) operated something called ‘the Star Court Chamber’ through whose offices he put the fear of God up pretty much everyone and then some, and kept the throne to which he was probably no even vaguely entitled.

By the way, I am no expert, but given what I know, I am far more inclined to the suggestion that Richard III wasn’t the nasty little bastard who stole the crown from his nephew, and that the story is most probably Tudor propaganda designed desperately to justify Henry VII own usurpation and the monarchies of his son and granddaughters. There is a related suggestion, which is quite plausible, that the princes in the Tower were not ordered by Richard but by Henry VII who knew that while they were alive, his position would always be insecure.

. . .

I can’t remember when I became far more interested in history, but I did. My subsequent autodidactic assault on the subject had nothing to do with ‘being ashamed’ of my lack of learning as my hang-ups lay elsewhere entirely. The fact was and is that I find history fascinating, though I am more one for reading of the actions and

behaviour of the men and women from history than the facts and figures. It is the psychology – I use the word in a more general sense – of historical figures and of their motives which interest me and how the affairs of state and not least the innocent deaths of tens of thousands might be a consequence of, for example, that so-and-so was a conceited, bone-headed fart who refused to take good advice ever.

Facts – the years when such-and-such took place – are important, yes, but broadly as far as I am concerned their purpose is to give context and to provide a framework with which the ever-growing body of historical knowledge you acquire can be ordered and kept comprehensible.

I am not too proud to admit that I am a minimalist when it comes to academic reading. My strategy is to get the bare bones in place and more and more of the flesh can come later as and when. So over the years I have read, taking a splatter-gun approach, slim volumes on the French Revolution, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Plantagenet, Treveleyans very, very, very useful and readable Shorter History of Something Or Other, the origins of the First World War – well, you get the picture.

A very honourable mention should go to the left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, which had a curiously profound impact on my thinking and which made me realise that intellectually I am a socialist. That I am not one in practice is down to the rather mundane, though serious, point that here in Britain the Left is as adept at fucking things up as the Right is at feathering its own various nests. (NB I suspect that were I German and living in Germany I would now be supporting the SPD, the country’s social democrats, though they, too, are, like Labour here in Britain, are going through a rough patch.)

. . .

I’ve just spent a few minutes trying to track down the exact quote, and finally found it. It is from the one-time reporter, playwright and scriptwriter (The Front Page is probably known to you) Ben Hecht who observed that ‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Well, I am not about to launch myself on another rant against the press, journalism and all

the rest. I tracked down that quote because it does neatly, though obliquely, sum up a modern dilemma – and by ‘modern’ I mean contemporary to whatever the age, from the dawn of time to now, 16.18 (4.18) on Sunday, March 18. We know what has happened in the past, but to be honest our understanding of what is happening now, whether that ‘now’ is today, this week, this month or this year, is patchy at best. We need perspective and information to understand what is going, events must be put into context and related to other events before we can truly claim to know our age. That is why Hecht’s observation is pertinent.

Today Vladimir Putin is standing for election in Russia and no one doubts the the whole shooting match is rigged and that Vlad will be re-elected as president. That is a fact, but what the consequences of his re-election will be are impossible to know, and it will be several years, or more probably decades before we – well, not me, but others – can know and evaluate.

Six days ago in China, The People’s National Congress abolished term limits on the presidency and vice-presidency which means that the country’s current president, Xi Jinping, can call the shots until he dies in office, decides to call it a day or is forcibly removed. As Xi will be 67 in two months time and as Chinese men and women seem to live remarkably long lives, he might well be calling the shots for another 15 to 20 years. Putin will be 68 later this year, and although the life expectancy of Russian males is just over 64, Putin is a teetotaller and so might expect might also expect to live – and lead Russia – for another 15 years.

As I say, we can’t at all know what the future will bring – although there is always any number of experts being lines up by the media to tell us – but I suggest that in or around the year 2033 there might well be a great deal of unwanted trouble in China or Russia or both as murderous gangs of rivals fight for control of their country now that their dear leader has popped his clogs. And I can suggest that because throughout history there have been wars, both national and civil, when an all-powerful ruler dies and has not, often merely for reasons of self-preservation, arranged of his power (it’s rarely her power, isn’t it) to be passed on. While he is alive, any possible rivals will be culled or otherwise neutralised, so there is usually a free-for-all once he breathes his last.

The same rather shambolic ‘knowledge’ of what will happen to the UK come the end of next March when it leaves the EU is also threadbare in the extreme. Both the Leave and Remain sides have made and continue to make prognostications, but as far as I am concerned, no one has a clue who Britain will fare economically and thus socially. Yes, we can guess and call those guesses ‘forecasts’, but at the end of the day, stripped of their fine clothes and the reputation of those who are guessing, they are still nothing but guesses.

There’s the very well-known quote by the Spanish philosopher George Santyana, one which is so well-known, in fact, that it is in great danger relegation to the status of cliché, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. I don’t doubt it is a very true observation, but I suggest it is also rather pointless, more the stuff of conversation at middle-brow dinner parties and first-year political science seminars than anything else. Why? Even those who do ‘remember the past’ still fondly imagine that they are the exception, that by repeating the actions of those who have gone before they will get away with achieving what others have failed to achieve.

Here’s a point in case: after World War II when the ‘British Empire’ was in its death throes, every one of its colonies demanded independence. And why not? But at the time there were many in Britain who counseled caution and patience. The colonies were not socially, economically or politically mature enough for independence, they said. I don’t doubt that many who spoke out along those lines did so merely from venal motives and wanted the white man’s good times to carry on rolling for a while yet. But there were others whose counsel was pure and impartial: they well remembered the past and did not want to condemn those colonies seeking independence to death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness. Their concerns went unheard and what did occur from the first years of independence for many subsequent decades? Why death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness for the vast majority of the people who weren’t in with the dictator and his cronies. The past was repeated anyway.

. . .

As I say, it is the human behaviour of past historical figures which I find most interesting: people are people are people. Kindness, hate, greed, love, altruism, self-sacrifice – everything we know about people is pretty much eternal. It matters not a whit whether they wore powdered wigs, covered themselves in woad, liked REM or Beyonce, eat with chopsticks. So if we try to understand the actions of people in modern terms, we are halfway there.

Yes, there were differences, for example, the stranglehold the Roman Catholic church had on Western Europe until the Reformation (though that stranglehold then merely shifted hands) was very much a factor in the political decisions, the what is possible and what is not. Then there is the gradual, the painfully gradual, emancipation of women, but at the end of the day, folk farted then, shagged then, got drunk then and laid down their lives for their fellow man then as now.

Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose: accepting that has helped me enormously in my splatter-gun reading in history. As for Henry Ford’s ‘history is bunk’, that is best understood in that I don’t think he meant it literally. I like to think he was urging us to look to the future rather than ever delving in the past if we want to achieve anything.


  1. Alternative quote: From The Leopard (Italian: Il Gattopardo) – a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 –1957) that chronicles the changes in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento [1815-1871]. Published posthumously in 1958, Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com'è bisogna che tutto cambi . If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." (spoken by Tancredi).

  2. Hi there, B, thought I might reply this way. I haven't read the novel (and have so many other novels ready to be read that I am resisting the tempation to fire up Amazon and buy it) but I did see the film a few years ago. And your are right, it's a great quote which is so, so true.

    I have long pondered on my politics, particularly the way most societies are structured. I have long been persuaded that the world is stacked in favour of 'the haves' and against the 'have nots' and, as I say in the piece above, intelectually I am firmly a socialist. Trouble is that it all turns to dust because of the intrinsic venality of a few, with the vast marjority acknowledging that 'it isn't working', throwing in the towel and the circle meeting itself again.

    Look at contemporary Russia and China: after a brief (and for very many completely disastrous period) of an attempt at some kind of 'socialism' it is back to the old ways. Russia had a tsar, China had an emperor, and although neither Putin nor Xi Jinping has either of those titles, that is what they are. Certainly, their position depends on patronage and both would be foolish not to keep those who count sweet, but in both countries it would seem that the old order, the old way of doing things, has been re-established. 'Everything must change for everything to stay the same'.

    Look at the French Revolution: within, what 20 years, it was all back to the same basic set-up. Keep the middle classes sweet and you are safe. Very sad, but very true.

  3. PS I've long thought I want to write an entry looking at 'perfection', how much we, or most of us, crave it in every aspect of our lives, and how utterly unobtainable it is. From my Dick and Dora knowledge of buddhism, that stupid craving is the cause of most of our miseries.

  4. Hi Patrick
    Another Quote:
    In August 2013, Daniel Kahneman was on BBC R4’s 'Desert Island Discs' and managed to paraphrase his Nobel prize-winning 'Prospect Theory' (essentially about change and progress for the better) into a single statement: Potential losers fight a great deal harder than potential winners do.

    Same Old, Same Old
    Back in the 1990’s, I tended to read reviews of ‘Management’ books. These tended to show up the 20-year cyclic nature of business – so essentially a generational thing that rarely learnt very much from the more experienced operators.

    I would have thought that for most people, a steady income is more important than aspiring to any kind of Perfection. A reliable income, at least, allows for competitive display in the ownership of assets (however defined) or in the enjoyment of holidays.