Tucked away at the end of a platform at Bristol Temple Meads railways station, there are some photographs taken by Mark Perham (for a project called ‘Reverberations' ) of people who work, or have worked, at the station. When I spotted them the other day, as I waited for a train, they moved me; they made me think how many people have given day after day, year after year of their working lives to that station. They made me think how precious are individual lives – lived only once. And they made me reflect, too, on the fact that when each person retires – or dies – that deep accretion of experience, built up over all those days and years, leaves with them.
I thought of this same point when reading coverage of the D-Day commemorations last week in Normandy. I was shocked to realise that, all too soon, the whole of the generation that served in World War II will have gone.
|These belonged to my grandfather|
These scenes, for me, underline the significance of the loss of first-hand memory and experience. The connection between financial crisis, economic austerity and the rise of nationalism and racism rings clear bells for anyone with some knowledge of the inter-war years of the 1920s and ’30s. (Is there any stronger argument than this for the importance of studying history?) Golden Dawn may be a very particular case – an organization that has grown out of the polarization of Greek politics since the civil war of 1946-9, and whose support-base has been boosted by the Greek government-debt crisis – but no one could deny that its rise is part of a wider trend. Right-wing xenophobic parties have scored successes over a wide area in the recent European elections. In Britain, the political party that has benefited from this trend is UKIP. While most UKIP supporters would no doubt be appalled to think of it as having anything whatsoever in common with an organization like Golden Dawn, still it is instructive to note that support for the far-right British National Party has collapsed as UKIP’s fortunes have risen; BNP support has transferred to UKIP.
Xenophobia, it’s safe to say, is on the rise. But what do people imagine that nationalism and xenophobia lead to? Even as we commemorate the D-Day landings in Normandy, are we at risk of forgetting the experiences of the World War II generation? Many in this country who hold xenophobic views might well say that they are admirers of Winston Churchill, yet few realize that Churchill was a strong supporter of the movement for a united Europe. Yes, it’s true that he saw Britain as a special case, having a unique role to play as the link between that united Europe and the USA, but nevertheless he was convinced of the vital need for closer ties and closer co-operation as the best bulwark against future outbreaks of bloody conflict. Whatever problems there are with the governance of Europe, nationalism and racism cannot be the road to improvement – as history clearly shows.
Among supporters of the far right, realistic thoughts of what these political trends might lead to in the long run – even among those extremists who would not be averse to starting a war – seem conspicuous by their absence. Instead, it is all about the expression of anger and distress. In interviews with Golden Dawn supporters quoted here in The Guardian, the projection of each individual’s own rage and fear onto dark forces ‘out there’ is plain to see. This is how scapegoating operates, and it requires the dehumanisation of the target.
Which brings me back to the importance of the personal connection. When any group or institution (or, indeed, historical event) can be seen in terms of the personal and the specific, fellow-feeling and empathy are much more likely to be evoked. Seeing the individual D-Day veterans and hearing their reminiscences prompts us to think what it might have been like to walk in their shoes. More than this: as long as those with first-hand experience are alive, they have (we hope) the chance to speak up. When, on the other hand, the World War II generation has gone, that part of the electorate that experienced the Great Depression and the rise of fascism will have vanished. (And the reasons why the NHS and the welfare state were established – the reality of what happened to the most vulnerable in society when there was no safety net – will be in danger, it seems, of being forgotten too.), Individual memories, individual human voices will still be heard by historians reading the records but not, I fear, by the population at large – or, at least, not in a way that makes people think, urgently, of their own future and that of their children.
I looked at those pictures in Temple Meads station and I thought how valuable, how precious, is personal history, the lived experience. With each individual’s death, a whole world of experiences is lost. And in cases of the worst, most traumatic experiences, is the determination never to let them happen again lost too? I hope not. But I am worried.
This is my final post as a History Girl, since I am passing the baton to Tanya Landman – and am very much looking forward to reading her posts! It’s been an honour and a pleasure to be included in such a wonderful group for the past three years, and I would like to thank all the HGs, past and present, for their fellowship and support. Huge thanks, also, to everyone who has read and commented on my posts. I shall continue to be involved as a keen reader of the blog!
I am also delighted to mention that my aunt, Ruth Hayward, has recently published a book based on her research into the life and letters of (Jonathan) Wathen Phipps, eye-surgeon to George III, and a close confidant not only of the King, but of three of his sons too. Phippy is published by Brewin Books.
Au revoir, Harriet! We've loved having you as a History Girl and wish you well for the future. Do stay in touch.