30 03 2008

Following the last entry questioning why we study history, I would like to use this one to explore the reasons we have for remembering.

This in itself is quite a broad thing, what are we remembering, or who? To me such a question opens up two avenues, it seems we are either remembering an event (VE Day, The Norman Conquest, Martin Luther King giving that speech) or we are remembering a person (King, Winston Churchill, a soldier in the First World War).

So is remembrance equatable to ‘celebration’? Are we celebrating the events when we remember them? I do not mean ‘celebrating’ as in party hats and cake, but instead ‘celebrating’ as in we are remembering the good things about each event rather than the bad. Do we only remember the things which resulted in something positive happening? Is there a tendancy to ignore failure or defeat? (At this point, I am going to unapologetically explain that the course of this will concern WW1, but the wider issues should be considered in relation to other historical events)

On the contrary I would argue. I would suggest that as the twentieth century progressed, remembrance necessarily took the form of ‘negative remembrance’ which could be termed as mourning. 11 November is the prime example of this. Remembrance day is a time to remember the futility of war, originating after WW1 to respect the troops who had laid down their lives. It now encompasses thinking of those who were killed in WW2, or the Falklands, or the Gulf Wars. Remembrance in this case is about mourning the dead. It was meant to be indicative of the point that WW1 was the ‘war to end all wars’. These men had laid down their lives to stop another conflict happening again.

We remember things such as July 1 1916. Such as Passchendaele. Such as the sinking of the Titanic. Such as Pearl Harbour. Such as the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Such as the Holocaust. We remember the disasters of mankind much more easily than we remember the successes for example I would suggest. This, it seems, is equatable to a more general humanistic instinct, that for ‘bad news’. There is more to say about bad news than there is about good news. A rather simplisitic analogy would be football. People are quick to criticise after a defeat, but are rather more stuck for words following a win. It is easier to comment upon what went wrong than what is going right. This, I believe, is part of human nature.

So should it be any surprise that we ‘remember’ the negative things? Should we be keen to put a positive slant on things? Or will we get chastised for saying such a thing? Should we remember the loss of 20,000 men on 1 July 1916? Or should we look at the bigger picture, of tactical improvements, of learnt lessons, of victory?

The answer is obviously both. We should never forget these men, but we shouldn’t let that cloud our memory of the eventual outcome either. In a recent article on Douglas Haig, Britain’s Commander-in-Chief for much of the war, the author, Geoffrey Norman, compared Haig to Napoleon, Hannibal and Robert Lee (a general in the American Civil war who suffered at Gettysburg). The title of the article was “The Worst General” in reference to Haig, who is widely percieved as the ‘butcher of the Somme’ by modern audiences, and the article played up to the modern stereotypes of Haig (bumbling, uncaring, single-minded, unable to plan without the cavalry). The trouble with the comparisons Norman makes (away from the other tripe written in the article), is that the men he compares Haig to, all eventually lost their respective battles. Haig didn’t.

Is this remembrance then? Remembering the wrong thing? Is it better to remember something wrong than not remember something at all? In my opinion certainly not. If you are going to remember, make sure you remember for the right reasons. By all means commemorate the fallen soldiers in the cemetaries around Belgium but do not forget that all these men were killers. Reluctantly, maybe, but killers nonetheless. This shouldn’t be forgotten. Remember then their bravery, their suffering and the things that they may have had to endure. But remember the whole picture. Remember not just the Mona Lisa’s smile, but the whole portrait.

To return to the question then. Why do we remember? Is it more complex than saying we remember to avoid making the same mistakes again? Is it remembering because society says so? Do people remember because that is the standard thing to do. They are expected to do it? I will quickly relate to you the story of one of my housemates a couple of years ago. Whilst a couple of us were sat in silence at 11am on November 11, he came blundering in and asked why we were in silence. As we ignored him and continued our silence, he took offence. When he asked us later as to why we were in silence, we explained. To which his response was that if we had said, he would have shut up. Almost as though if he had had it explained to him he would have conformed. Almost as if people need to be told to remember at this time on this day.

Remembrance, I would argue then, is as much to do with conforming to what society expects as it is actually thinking about those men and women who have died in conflict. I wonder how many people actually think about the war dead at times other than on this date? Not as many I would be willing to guess.

This is wrong. Remembrance shouldn’t be a chore, it shouldn’t be something we need to be reminded to do. It should be something we actively do, something we want to do, and something we have no qualms over doing. We should remember things because they mean something to us, not because we are told to do so by social norms.

I would suggest that we remember to preserve. To preserve memories of these men, or to qualify actions, wars, or battles; and to some extent to stop the same things happening again. This is a hugely unsatisfactory answer to give though. The truth is we remember for a multitude of different reasons, each individual, and unique. However, I would suggest that for nearly everyone, social dictation is one of the contributing reasons for actively remembering.

There is so much more to say on this subject, but, I will refrain for fear of getting boring.

For My Benefit…

29 03 2008

In just about a months time I will have what is affectionately termed a “historical reflections” paper to do. I have been sat here thinking about this essay and what it will mean. I have come to the decision (actually it was something I said a while ago) that this paper will be very similar to historical blogging (Can you see where this is going?). I therefore propose, over the course of the next few weeks to try and do some historical blogging, about general things relating to history. Feedback would be much appreciated.

So here’s the first one: Why study history at all?

This is one of these broad ranging general questions that means different things to different people. Someone might study the Second World War for example because they had a relation who was killed in it. This ‘personal’ experience is the driving force behind a study of history. This is obviously different to someone who studies the Norman Conquest. In this case such a ‘personal’ element to the study is, to my mind at least, missing. If then we cannot ascertain the reasons behind any given individuals study of history, would it be more worthwhile asking why study a certain period of history? Why for example, should we study the Norman Conquest? And, moving this question on a level, should we study the Norman Conquest ahead of the Second World War, for example? Then taking it another way, why do people feel more inclined to study ‘big’ events such as the wars or the Norman Conquest, and tend to ignore smaller, less ‘glamorous’ events such as the 1832 Reform Act? And what of ‘modern’ history? Studies into Thatcherism, or the First Iraq War would surely provide people with a greater understanding of why we are where we are today. And, more importantly, if this is the case, then why are such periods of history not taught in our schools or colleges? Why are they ignored in favour of ‘basic’ history which is spouted out by school teachers, and is, in most cases wrong or ill-informed?

And does this all relate to what the student of history wants to get out of their studies? If so, then this is, by its very definition, something completely subjective and impossible to talk about without making broad sweeping statements which may or may not be applicable to some people.

Thus far then, there are more questions than answers relating to why people would choose to study history. One of the standard responses to the question is the very cliched phrase “the past is the only place one can learn from”. In essence, this statement is true, everything is now in the past (with the exception of the future) and therefore we can only learn from history. The trouble is, that such a statement is reliant upon people actually learning. This doesn’t therefore just apply to history scholars. In reality everybody should be a historian of some description. Life, as is frequently stated, is one big learning curve, and if we run with the prior logic that the past is the only place you can learn from; and if a historian is one who studies the past, then, if we follow this logically, everyone should be a historian, studying and learning from the past. The trouble is, not everything is this clear cut. Logic very often doesn’t really apply.

So we return then to the initial question, why study history at all? As has been shown, there can be no clear cut reason for undertaking such studies. Often an amalgamation of factors contributes to one taking up the challenge. Studying history, as has been shown, raises more questions than it ever satisfactorily answers. Yet the indefatiguable want for knowledge is one which, to some extent, is fulfilled by history. There are few other subjects with such a wide range of fields. In fact, it could very plausibly and easily be argued that no other subject is as important as history. History is the metaphorical subject umbrella which houses every other subject under the sun. There is history of science, history of art, history of music, of religion, of politics, of individuals. History is everywhere.

Which is why everyone is touched by it. Which is why everyone relates to it in some form or other every day. Our towns and villages are littered with references, symbols, reminders of the past. Wander down ‘Coronation Road’ or ‘ Oak Tree Lane’ and try to appreciate why they were so called, look at the statue of someone standing in the town square and work out who they were and why they have been remembered. Memorials of those who died in the wars are common sights across smaller villages and the coverage that Remembrance Sunday gets every year is testament to the continuing importance of history to our society.

So perhaps the question should be not why study history at all, but instead why not study history? Why not consider the importance of various events which have helped shape the society in which we live today? Scientists often counter this with the simplistic “without science you wouldn’t have medicines, technology, electricity and the like”. I would suggest that without history, we would have even less…

The Power of Prayer…

27 03 2008

Now I know that this example is neither a new thing, nor is it all that uncommon. But everytime I see a story like it, I cringe.

I am stuck between wondering how stupid the parents were before their child died, and how much their faith has comforted them after she did.  Now, as I’m sure most of you are aware, I am very definately not into this whole religious thing. To me it doesn’t add up. However, I accept that people are religious, and even tolerate this belief. Until they go and do stupid things like this.

Religion is a nice idea for those who want to believe in it. I don’t. However, the thinking that some higher deity can, and more importantly will, interfere in peoples lives is, quite frankly, idiotic. If, and there’s a big if here, God does exist, surely he would interfere to help every sick or dying person, rather than just one in the middle of America.

And then there is the issue of what the parents do after their child died.  They have one of two options:

a) renounce their faith as their God will have let them down.

or b) attribute the death to not praying enough, feel completely remorseless for the death, and continue in the same naive fashion hoping that enough praying will resurrect the girl.

Newsflash. It won’t. The girl is now dead because two muppet parents thought the power of belief alone could save her. Rather than simply going to the doctors and getting the care that was needed to save the girls life.

Whilst I’m sorry that the girl died, I feel no sympathy for the parents, and just wish this would be a lesson to other such religious people. The age old battle between science and religion seems to rumble on. I just wish that for the fanatical religious people, there could be some recognition that the two could maybe co-exist. This case seems to show otherwise.

Stand up straight…

26 03 2008

Ever one for cutting news, I thought I would just have a quick think about the recent concerns about armies and schools.

At my school we had, every year, a careers ‘festival’ (I am still not quite sure why it was so called, but anyway…). At this event there were at least a hundred different professions or universities represented by someone. One of which was the armed forces. Now I attended three of these events during my school life, the first was when I was 15. I considered myself old enough to not be ‘brainwashed’ by any of the careers which were on show there. I readily accepted that all came with the intention of pulling students into this career or that career. Maybe this explains why I have not found anything I really enjoyed doing yet, or maybe it doesn’t.

Anyway, the point is, I didn’t know anyone who absolutely knew what they wanted to do at that age. Nor did they a year later. Nor a year after that. Not completely at any rate. People have ideas of what field they might want to go into by the time they are 17, but not the actual job.

One of my mates was, when he was 16, dead keen to be in the navy. This eagerness continued through his school life, but he didn’t leave after his GCSE’s, and instead completed his A Levels. Now when I say dead keen, I really mean it. The navy stand was the only one he would ever go to, and he would spend ages and ages talking to the people about life in the navy. He was more than interested. Yet he didn’t join up after his GCSE’s. Someone talked him out of it, somehow.

This friend is now studying business at uni, and, the last time I checked, has given up on a career in the armed forces in any capacity.

My point is that people change their minds. I mean, if I had stuck to my plan, I would be on my way to being an architect now. And, let me assure you, I’m not.

Because of this though, I agree that we should allow the army into schools to talk to people about future careers. To my mind it is the same as someone from a lawyers office, or a doctors practise, or a hairdressing salon coming and talking about their work. To me, the students need to know what is out there. The armed forces is a career that is out there. So it makes sense to let them talk about what they do.

Now I do disagree with the idea of people signing up at 16. That is too young for me. Let them sign up at 18 if they so wish, two years initial training, with the option to opt out at certain points is, to me, much better than the same thing began two years earlier. But I think that they should know about the options and reach a decision as they are growing up. Just like they know about what it is a hot- shot lawyer does, for example.

I do not buy into this whole ‘propaganda’ talk. I think it is part and parcel of society nowadays, and I’m sure desires to be a doctor for example are because of the ‘glamourous’ nature of the doctors that are on tv (the guy from Lost, for example). That is as bad, to me, as recruitment posters for the army which glamourise the work they do.

It is all propaganda I think (rather cynically). A glossy brochure showing why its great being a lawyer or doctor or hairdresser is part of the aim for each of these businesses, to attract more people in. The army should be allowed to do the same. But it shouldn’t want to start this recruitment drive at 16.

Just as way of an afterthought, but for anyone else who had, or went to similar events, was there ever anyone there from the workshop floor of a factory for example? Or who drove lorries? I know there wasn’t for me, but then again, I went to a private school…

More train thinking…

23 03 2008

Right, returning to the stream of conciousness that was yesterday, I want to elaborate on a topic which I’m sure everyone has some interest in.


It seems to have a knack of being hugely applicable to the situation you are in at any point. Take yesterday for example. As I was pulling out of New Street one very apt song launched itself into my ears. “Last Train Home” by the Lost Prophets began its familiar introduction, and all I could do was smile at how my ipod has a unique sense of timing, as I sat trying to blot out the crying baby.

As I had sat though with my earphones in for most of the preceeding thirty minutes, I reflected on how most of those songs reminded me of something before. Be it sharing a moment with someone, or just a song which happened to be playing in the background, or a song which reminds me of the band live; songs just have a peculiar way of bringing back memories. Some songs bring back one specific memory, others a certain period of time in your life.

And that’s before you start hearing the lyrics. Very often the best songs are the ones with the worst lyrics. Take my favourite song, “Mr Brightside”. The lyrics to it are simplistic and repetitive. Yet when added to good music they become meaningful. They become something to which I can relate.

And there are other songs. Ones which don’t necessarily have good music, but are lyrically superb. These are the songs which you don’t necessarily think of when picking your favourite songs. But they mean something. They evoke thoughts, and feelings, and very often can be related to. And this made me think. Songs can be like horoscopes.

Let me explain. Horoscopes are basically rubbish written by someone who enjoys star-gazing but dislikes the science behind it. They are broad sweeping statements relating to things which are common in everyones life: “you will meet someone…”– yes, almost certainly. Unless I box myself in a room for another week in order to prove the prediction wrong. The readers of horoscopes then take what has been said and manipulate it to fit their own life. “Ooh, I did meet someone this week…”, for example. To me, songs can do the same thing.

If the singer sings about experiences or thoughts, I have the tendancy to try and place such templates of emotion over my own life. If a singer sings about meeting someone somewhere, I place myself, and all the people in my life into this pre-made template. I  (and I’m guessing I’m not alone here) fit the song to my own life, making the song about the actors in the play of me. Making the thoughts my own. There’s a quality to music which draws some very base instinct out of oneself. It plays to emotion. Perhaps that is just to do with the music I listen to, but I like to think that everyones music tastes (no matter how much I dislike them) are created because the music, or the songs, mean something to them.

For me, I like music where I can feel emotion in the singer’s voice. It makes them real. It makes them human. It is much more preferable to the mono-syllabic monotonous noise that is rapping, or the thumping repetitive nature of dance music. But this is only my opinion. Obviously tastes vary.

So sat there as I was thinking about the music which was playing away into my ears, and still doing my best to blot out the screaming little brat on the other side of the carriage, another song sprung into life. “Fix You” by Coldplay. This too was apt. Fix You I thought.  Yeah, that baby needs fixing…

Train thinking…

22 03 2008

Whilst on the train home today, many thoughts flitted, briefly across my mind. Now, unlike some people, I love my train ride home. In no time at all, I go from being in the centre of one of the biggest cities in the UK, to going through sleepy villages. It isn’t just the contrasting scenery though. There are so many elements of the journey I enjoy.

My journey takes me through history. In a mere forty minutes from Birmingham, I can experience culture, heritage and colour. My journey through the Black Country, takes me past deserted old brick buildings which have had all their windows smashed in over the course of time. Yet they still have the names of their former owners plastered on the side, standing as part of reminder of a distant time just itching to re-establish itself. These buildings are a brilliant red brick colour still, and co-ordinate themselves marvellously with the rust of old metalworks which likewise occur along the side of the railway. The reminders of the industrial heritage of this region are constant as you stare out of the window, trying to escape the noisy baby in the seat opposite you.

It isn’t just the industrial side of things though either. There are swathes of greenery cut into this harsh landscape. There is also the contrast between old and new. There are new roads, new warehouses and new businesses which all struggle for space along the railway line. All of them appear to have a silver fetish, being, as everything seems to be nowadays, coloured a sterile silver. In comparison to the previous brickworks, this is just plain boring. But I find the contrast an amazing thing to see. Side by side are buildings, designed for a certain business seperated by at least one hundred years. And they co-exist marvellously. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the absence of windows and the rather hastily scrawled graffiti on the older buildings, you could see them still being operated in the same way they were in the 1800s. And this is brilliant. I can think of few places where industrial heritage is as important as it is for those in the Black Country. I can think of fewer still who are proud of what they are and where they came from in the manner than people from the Black Country are. Heritage isn’t just something that has happened, it is still very much an active part of everyday life.

And so I returned to my journey, fresh from thinking about heritage, to see one of the many metal horses dancing its way along the train line towards Birmingham. These horses are an amazing thing. Not individually you understand, on their own they are rusting, bent by the wind or vandals, and forlorn. Collectively, the ten or so horses which run alongside the track from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, through the Black Country, are something thought provoking and wonderful. They are there. I see them every time I go home. Yet I haven’t thought about them, until today. What are they there for? What do they symbolise? Why are they all facing Birmingham?

There are more questions than answers about these creatures from me I’m afraid. I don’t know what they symbolise. I think of progress, but then, if it’s progress, is it not hypocritical to use them in a place where machines and technology took off in Britain, if not the world?

Why are they running towards Birmingham? Is it just a chance co-incidence? Poor design on the creators part? Or something more meaningful? What is wrong with Wolverhampton that these creatures are all motioning towards Birmingham? What is the draw of Birmingham? Perhaps this is the point, do they symbolise the millions of people who migrated to the city to find work and live? Or is it something different?

Who put them there? And when? Were they built around the railway? Were they just meant to be a decoration, something to liven the journey? Is it just me looking for meaning in something in which none exists? Were there more than I can see now? If so, how many? If anyone can explain the horses I would be delighted to know.

There were other thoughts which radiated into my consciousness during the train journey, and I will blog about them at some other point I’m sure. But for now I am content with wondering how many other journeys across Britain provoke the same level of contemplation. Or how many have the screaming baby which you just want to escape? I’m guessing the latter has more takers than the former.

The Consequence of the Wrong Action…

21 03 2008

This will be brief, and to the point. I have mentioned on here and on the Strawberry why I think deporting Ama Sumani may have been the wrong call. I stand by that. At least though, the British officials’ mistake was short lived.

Ms Sumani died on Wednesday.

She died just hours after being told that people had found her doctors to treat her condition. She is survived by two children, aged 16 and 7.

I am hopeful that the case of Ama Sumani will highlight some things about our systems in what, if you believe things, is meant to be the ‘democratic west’.

Rest In Peace Ama.