February 01, 2010
As a boy I once climbed the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza in Egypt, sitting on its summit to watch the dawn break across the desert. That experience”and the visceral draw of climbing or walking into the past”has remained with me ever since. It has given me a respect for what has come before, a career in writing fictional accounts of it, a profound belief in its importance to our lives. For history is more than just a pile of mouldering books or some corduroy-clad and dandruff-dusted bore in full pontificating flow. It is our inheritance and hinterland, our collective consciousness and DNA, our identity and social glue. Ignore it, and a nation becomes as soulless and meaningless as an empty paper bag. Abandon it, and a nation is poorly placed for whatever lies ahead.
The modern Left hates history and its concomitant, tradition (unless, of course, they abase themselves before the twin totems of slavery and worker rights). To the Left, history is distasteful, reactionary, elitist and by its very nature conservative. Cut the ties, the liberal-left believes, and you can stamp your brand (while stamping out stubborn resistance) and remould a nation as your own utopian idyll. The here, the now, the year zero, are what counts to them. It is why Blair conjured the grotesque and forgettable notion of “Cool Britannia”, why New Labour squandered a billion pounds on the vacuous and unloved Millennium Dome, why the dreadful Lord Mandelson dismissed those serving in the Guards Divison of the armed forces as being nothing more than “chinless wonders”. Those same chinless wonders have shed their blood in Afghanistan and Iraq papering over the inadequacies of their political masters. But then, Mandelson is possibly less judgemental of types who lie on their mortgage application forms.
Had the Millennium Dome celebrated a thousand years of British history and tradition, had it embraced and embodied our contribution to arts, culture, exploration, and science (not to mention some pretty dramatic military campaigning) people would have flocked. The past gave us kings and queens, great cathedrals and beautiful gardens; the past gave us Shakespeare, Newton, Cook, Nelson, Wellington, Austen, Darwin, and Elgar. New Labour offered up a spirit zone, an oh-so-right-on hermaphrodite statue, and the grisly spectacle of Her Majesty transported by barge to spend a toe-curling 1999 New Year’s Eve holding hands with the Blairs and lip-synching Auld Lang Syne. History was thrown out and dignity and worth went with it.
It was Churchill who remarked that we need to look a long way back in order to see forward. How right he was and how lightly we discard his advice. We forgot that financial bubbles burst and greed catches up. We forgot that men fight and peace dividends are illusory. We forgot that peace is harder to prepare for and sustain than war. We forgot that Afghanistan will ever rise up to bite our Great Game backsides. We forgot that air power alone is no substitute for local knowledge and boots on the ground, and that technological supremacy is no guarantee of victory. We forgot there is no such thing as a risk-free conflict. We forgot too in Britain that Labour government profligacy and ineptitude will ever bring us to the point of ruin. And we forgot that in betraying our western heritage, we would end as little more than a sump tank for Third World grievances and atavistic practices (including hostile preaching, forced marriage, honor killing, vicious witch-doctoring and violent exorcism). Yes, we forgot. Historical illiteracy has done all this, and more.
Because we do not know our past, we are ill-at-ease with the present and ill-prepared for the future. The shopping mall is now the opiate of the masses. And meantime, book-lending from UK libraries has fallen by forty percent over the past decade alone. Small wonder that basic understanding has become the more limited, shallow and bite-sized; academic rigour is spent; reality has been moulded by Wikipedia, touch-screen and computer-generated imagery. Then we are surprised when our children identify Churchill as an animated dog on an insurance commercial rather than the wartime British leader. We lose the references and in doing so have lost ourselves.
My father was a true polymath, a brilliant linguist, classicist, scientist, and industrialist, a man who was present in New York for the “29 Wall Street Crash, a hunter who shot big game with Hemingway in Africa and chamois with Hermann Goering in Europe (while apparently stealing Nazi secrets), a bon viveur who lived in Claridges between the wars and who later survived a Luftwaffe bomb on his Mayfair home (and a stabbing by a diamond thief). Now, that is history. For sure, his generation made mistakes”monumental ones. And there was never a golden era. Yet however described, it was populated by those who could talk in sentences, who were educated and informed, who were real people.
History is rich in character, incident, and salutary lesson. Take, for example, the life and times of the legendary Elizabethan spymaster of England, Sir Francis Walsingham. As secret policeman and chief of both domestic and foreign espionage, he knew the value of human-intelligence. Not for him the sclerotic and bureaucratic behemoths that protect our national security today. Not for him a Department of Homeland Security that can employ over seventeen thousand souls and yet cannot stop a man with fireworks in his underwear. Plain old-fashioned groundwork, tradecraft, diligence and a sound reading of the enemy were his forte. He understood religious fanaticism, conspiracy and assassination plots, had witnessed the slaughter of thousands of Protestant innocents in Paris during St. Barholomew’s Day 1572. His wake-up call; his 9/11. It informed him of the coming threat.
In blackmailing a groom to the chamber of the pope, Walsingham gained access to a letter from King Philip II of Spain detailing the entire battle-plan of the gathering Spanish Armada. In placing an agent at the heart of the private household of the Marquis of Santa Cruz, he was probably instrumental in the mysterious death of the Grand Admiral three months before he was to lead that Armada out. In planting false prophecies and astrological predictions among the Armada crews, he spread dissent and mutiny and encouraged many to jump ship. In relentlessly pursuing the Spanish fleet, he deployed one of his “intelligencers” aboard the enemy galleon Floriana and, through expeditious use of gunpowder, sent her to the bottom. Some neat tricks. Walsingham was the spy-chief who introduced the concept of Extraordinary Rendition (he persuaded pirates in La Rochelle to attempt the kidnap of the papal legate to Paris). As for his sworn enemies, the Spanish Inquisition were experts in the notorious interrogation technique of waterboarding (referred to as toca). Perhaps the past is not so much a foreign country, after all.
In losing our history, we lose part of ourselves and impoverish what is left. So forget textspeak and philistinism. My advice to the young is simple”climb to the highest vantage. And then look back.