I think many of us read Coloniescross’ piece (Wilf Robson, Smithy, People and Places) and recognised the world that we grew up and which, as L.P.Hartley so pointedly remarked, is now a distant land. I was born four years before Coloniescross – in 1947 – into a household that had jumped in one generation from a Birmingham back-to-back to what was then a half-decent middle class tree-lined road in Hall Green. This leap was due, in most part, to my father who was only too aware of his lowly beginnings and was determined to ensure that his family prospered. There were no “benefits”, certainly nothing that my father would ever have dreamt of claiming anyway. The country had to be rebuilt after the war and unemployment levels were the lowest (below 2%) and remained that way for most of the 50’s. The sense of belonging to a country that had suffered badly but which had now arrived into the sunshine of a better day was not only intimately understood but also never in question. Holidays were taken in such places as Perranporth, Barmouth and Dunster and we kids could play in and around the concrete pill-boxes that littered the countryside and beaches. We knew what those pill-boxes represented and instinctively we knew our place in history – which brings me to the nub of this piece.
I am increasingly despairing of the lack of historical context in people’s understanding of who they are, the country in which they reside and the sacrifices of the generations of their very own families that have gone before. To some extent I expect it from those aged under 25 because the teaching of history has fallen down the curriculum to such an extent that few would ever have heard of Tacitus’ Agricola, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Bede’s History of the English Peoples or the anonymous The Pearl let alone place them accurately within the context of British history. Such things as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the relevance of the year 1848 in European history, all of these are passed by in favour of well, what exactly? Having no direct experience of history teaching since I left school in the mid 60’s – Anglo Saxon history and Charlemagne were our A level topics – I cannot comment on what subjects are covered these days but what I see from those who have left the education system in recent years and who stare blankly at you whenever a matter of historical consequence arises in conversation one can only surmise that none of these things are part of the curriculum these days. What we have lost in this downgrading of history is more than significant because with it we lose the definition of just who we are and where we sit in relation not only to the rest of the world but also more intimately with our own forefathers. Being a teenager in the 60’s I was, inevitably, an absolute arse to my father. We knew best didn’t we and he knew nothing was the mantra I pumped out at every moment when a row broke out. As I write these words I can feel the embarrassing sweat break out on my forehead and regret rides shotgun on my neck now that he is long gone and I can’t make any kind of recompense. With age and maturity I came to understand the sacrifice both he and his whole generation made for this country – and for me. Some of you may well remember the Anthony Gormley “installation” that used the fourth plinth on Trafalgar Square to allow anyone (in a balloted draw) to stand up on that plinth for one hour and do whatever you liked. I was lucky in gaining a slot and beforehand I was interviewed by a very pleasant young lady who asked me a number of questions – very much like a Mass Observation exercise which now sits in a file somewhere on the net. One of her questions was “Why are you doing this today?” And, without hesitation and much to my surprise, I blurted out “for my father as a thank you”. We had to stop the tape at this point for a little while so I could blow my nose.
And here is the point of this little essay. Not only must we be cognizant of the history of this wonderful country but we have to accept and recognize the sacrifices of the people – our own parents and grandparents – who stood foursquare against the undemocratic forces that threatened to destroy us. As I stood on that Trafalgar Square plinth and looked around at the history and culture embedded within that half square mile – Nelson’s column, the National Gallery, Canada House, South Africa House, St Martins-in-the-Fields, Whitehall, Admiralty Arch – I felt an immense pride in this country and the world that we inherited. A world that is not perfect by any means but is is our world and the politicians who run it are our politicians and we, and only we, should ever have the power to vote them out. Devolving sovereignty to Europe will, in effect, wipe clean the slate of British history and with it, most devastatingly, people’s sense of belonging.
Roger Ackroyd ©