A few years ago I went on a tour of the World War 1 battlefields travelling throughout France and Belgium. One evening I found myself in a restaurant on the town square in Ypres, Belgium. As I sat my attention was drawn to a group of English school children who were noisily passing the window. The gentleman on the adjoining table also watched and then spoke, with regret in his voice, saying: “ You tell your children about the Great War and all its horrors. We hide it so they may never know it happened”. He was German and a teacher.
Today I watched the news and listen to Russians being interviewed about the invasion of the Ukraine. Everyone declared it to be a necessary act to defend Russia from NATO aggression and Putin, he’s a hero!
Pogue, how many versions of history are there? Someone once said history belongs to the victor but conflict seldom renders up a clear victor and time does strange things with memories. Indeed today history and so much more lays within the purview of the editors.
In fact editing has risen to new levels with the recent purge on the works of Roald Dahl, stories beloved of many generations of children. I remember that you and I read the BFG together when you were a small Pogue. What levels has lunacy reached when children’s books have to have terms such as “fat” edited out of them? Indeed, has the editing of the information we receive reached a frightening new level as we seem to be being told what is and isn’t acceptable for our consumption?
This week Simon Hefner wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph, a British institution if ever there was one, where he reminded the reader of the following statement by George Orwell in 1984:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.
Did Orwell see a future few others envisioned? Certainly seeds of his vision are sprouting at all levels of society. The denial of the past, the rewriting of the present, the retraction of the freedom to read and decide for ourselves what is and isn’t acceptable. As I write I find myself wondering if Orwell himself will not soon be the focus of those who believe they have the right to determine what we do and do not know.
Yes, we are bound to keep our children safe and allow them access to only age appropriate material. But there surely comes an age, a maturity, and a necessity when each should know the world as it really is. There is a time when each should be allowed to decide for themselves what the events of the past mean for them in the now. There is a place for reading material that has gone before to enable us to understand how society and attitudes may have changed. There is a time to reveal, even to the sensitive, the horrors that lurk in history so each of us can declare independently, “never again”.
In my travels I have a list of places I intend to visit. As I said, I have visited the battlefields of World War 1. I visited the graveyards where thousands were laid to rest. I stood on a small hill and listen to the recounting of how 600 British soldiers charged down the hillside at 8am into the fields opposite. And how by 8.30am less than 100 were still alive. A very sobering moment and I wanted to say and believe “never again”.
One of the places yet to visit is Auchwitz in Poland, the notorious Nazi extermination camp. A very strange destination in a world where there are pyramids and palaces and wonders to be seen. But I want to get a sense of perspective, an understanding however limited. I need to know that not all in this world, in history, in men’s and women’s achievements is good and wholesome. I need to stand and utter those words, “never again” for the sake of my own humanity and any aspirations I may have towards a better day. I need to not allow history to be rewritten either by myself, for my own comfort, or by others who want to deny so much.
So, when we meet next we will break out the Roald Dahl books and act like responsible people exercising our judgement, imagination, and the right to enjoy free speech. But we are warned that Orwell’s “thought police” are abroad and in many disguises. The governmental forces of suppressive countries that are actually writing the historical narrative to suit. But also in those “know what’s good for us types” who want to determine how we live and what political correctness looks like. God bless them.
Remember, freedom of speech and thought is a basic human right that many have fought for. We don’t have to agree with each other but let’s exercise respect in sufficiency that we will allow each other the space to decide for ourselves and the good manners and tolerance to allow for differing opinions and views.
Yours, worrying Orwell was a prophet,