“History is just one fucking thing after another.”
So says Rudge in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’, upping the swear-factor of the original quote, “History is just one bloody thing after another” attributed to Herbert Butterfield, Professor of History at Cambridge in the 1940’s.
Details matter when it comes to history. Sources. Context. Facts. Butterfield may well have meant the red liquid ‘bloody’ of war and strife but for Rudge it’s become the repetitive pointlessness of it all.
48 hours in Berlin makes you feel both the ‘bloody’ and the ‘fucking’ about history.
The wall. The wars. The prevailing sense that this city is still recovering, still attempting to strike the balance between commemoration and regeneration.
Its rows of grey, samey buildings are broken up by the occasional historical building, all the more celebrated for having survived the flattening of WW2. The remaining sections of the wall feel like a movie set. Checkpoint Charlie has become a photo opportunity, a fake hut with sandbags and actors in army uniform. It’s Disneyland Berlin without the rides, or the joy.
Not that it is a joyless city. Multi-coloured courtyards hide in side streets and everywhere there are trees and wide expanses of parkland. The bars and shops suck you in for one more tankard of beer, one more mooch for a toy Trabant and a souvenir jumper.
For us, the joy was mostly found in the litres of Riesling served to us by a series of incredibly smiley Berliners. We were there to celebrate and they made sure we did.
The first night we ate in a local back-street restaurant, its facade like any other pavement bistro, but behind the heavy floor-length curtain (NB: not made of iron), a festival seemed to be happening. Every long table was rammed with happy Berliners, sharing the tables, talking loudly and not because the music was pumping like in so many English restaurants.
For his birthday I’d bought my Dad a slice of history. A book made of memories and photos and messages from old friends. We perused it over dinner. It was perfect to be somewhere so new, looking back at so much familiar. I meant for the book not to condense his life, but to chronicle it.
Merriam-Webster defines history as: a chronological record of significant events often including an explanation of their causes.
One thing leads to another. Death can make you come alive. Children can ram the past right up in your face and also give you a reason to crack on. It is just one thing after another, some wonderful, some bloody, all of it connected, all of it passed on in some way.
Towards the end of The History Boys, Hector says to his students:
“Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”
Yesterday, Katie Hopkins, a highly paid columnist in the UK’s mainstream media tweeted the comment: ‘Dear black people. If your lives matter why do you stab and shoot each other so much.’
One day, the world will read about the events of 2017, a time when racism was proclaimed to be the new realism, spouted by self-promoting journalists and politicians who were perceived to be ‘brave enough’ to ‘tell it like it really is’.
One day, there will be a museum where The Daily Mail once stood. It will tell the history of how a country went mad in the face of austerity and immigration. People will visit the museum and marvel at how an entire nation could be so duped by such racist, fascist policy.
We need to keep passing on the parcel of history, to play the game of reflection and self-analysis, to stop believing that Katie Hopkins et al are just the naughty outspoken, a loony irrelevant clique.
Let’s not wait until the walls are built and the camps are full. Let’s remember now. Pass on the past. Make the next thing not just a repeat of the last.