Friday, May 18, 2007

Just One ... Thing After Another

from Jacqueline

If you’ve not seen the film The History Boys yet, it’s well worth the cost of renting the DVD. I’ve seen it twice, once on the way back from England (gotta love Virgin Atlantic’s film selection, it’s the best), and again last week. My husband is usually the one who nips out to the video store to grab a movie – and if you wonder why we don’t use Netflix or some other online resource, it’s because we like to support local businesses – but he can get rather frustrated when he gets home with a new movie only to find that I’ve seen it on a ’plane. But I was up for watching The History Boys a second time.

The story is a simple one, really, based on the award-winning play by Alan Bennett. A group of English sixth-formers, having just completed their “A” levels (the really hard exams that university entrance is based upon), remain at school to take their Oxbridge entrance exams. Yes, those hallowed halls of learning are so elite, you have to take a special exam if you want to go there. So, this film is about the relationships between the boys and their teachers – and a lot more besides. However, there’s one scene that has been rattling around in my mind ever since that first screening, at about 35,000ft halfway across the pond. In a mock interview – the boys are preparing for their interviews at Oxford – one of the boys is asked to talk about history. He’s the one who can best be described as not the sharpest knife in the drawer, however, if he had just managed to get enough “A’s” at “A” level to even take the exam, he’s not too shabby, either. His reply is simple, he just shrugs and says that, to be honest, history is “just one f*****g thing after another.”

I look at the newspaper sometimes, and I think the same thing, in fact, what the hell is happening in this world? Trying to keep up with all the wars, all the street killings, all the death and destruction is like being one of those circus performers who balance plates on bamboo sticks, with the goal to keep all the plates spinning. This world has spun right out of control, and there is no one person, no group, political party or country who seems to have the guts, power, statesmanship, ability – or humility, even – to say, “Enough!” This is where the people have to do something, and I wonder, what on earth we are going to do? How can I, or you, or anyone, as a private individual, no matter how many organizations we subscribe to, apply enough braking power to this runaway machine that is humanity gone mad in the 21st century? We have a major crisis of biblical proportions and we cannot stop it.

Has it ever been this bad? And what happened afterwards? In times past, we’ve had wars, conflagrations that engulfed almost every country on earth, but the war on the streets had not reached the same level of destruction – or had it? My mind starts to spin with history, with that one f*****g thing after another.

Between the two world wars there was the depression, and prohibition, and there were the years of the big underworld crimes on both sides of the Atlantic – remember The Untouchables? During Vietnam, here in the US there were race riots, and the Klan, and heaven knows what else. One of the reasons why the aftermath of WW2 in Britain was so bad, was not only the dreadful lack of food, but the numbers of trained killers who were demobilized from the military and were running the gangs and black markets (read Tony Broadbent’s excellent mystery novels, The Smoke and Spectres in the Smoke and you’ll get a sense of it).

Then there were the declining years of empires, of colonization, and look what went on then – in India, Kenya, Malaya, for example – as insurgents stepped forward to take back the lands, and the death and destruction visited upon the people in guerrilla warfare that followed. Just one thing after another.

I love history, I especially love social history, looking at what extraordinary times do to ordinary people. But I am increasingly incensed by our inability to learn from it.

One of my current favorite television shows (and I might add, I rarely watch television, and can count shows I am willing to watch on the fingers of one hand), is the new Robin Hood from the BBC. It’s a rather wacky romp through the Middle Ages, probably inspired by the success of Heath Ledger’s breakout film, The Knight’s Tale, plus a bit of Star Wars, and perhaps even a bit of Deadwood. The characters all have great teeth, Maid Marion’s skin sparkles, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is one of the most likeable rotters on the screen. We all know that Robin gets a kick out of giving to the poor and likes being a popular outlaw, and Little John is more like Harry Potter’s Hagrid. However, it’s interesting the subjects they touch upon, and the little ah-ha’s here and there.

The last show opened with a Crusades (Holy Wars) veteran losing his marbles in a marketplace, besieged by the devils of his mind, the memories of war, and the killing. And in the end it was a Saracen – a Muslim - who helped him, a prince who had come to England to seek a solution to the wars, to lobby for a peace that would end the killing of both Christians and Muslims. The Crusades were fought between 1095–1291, with more fighting in the centuries that followed. And look where we are today, just one fighting thing after another.

I have heard the same phrase twice just recently, with reference to George Bush and Tony Blair: “History will judge them differently.” I suppose that means, “differently to the way in which people are judging them now.” Or words to that effect. I wondered about that, especially during another scene in that film, where the young history teacher, with his class at a World War One memorial, said that the reason we commemorate war, the reason we make much of the fallen, is to draw attention away from the mistakes, the huge errors of judgment that led to the slaughter.

The words suggested that the collective judgment of the people is deflected by the very leaders who made those decisions, who sent our youth to their deaths, and in providing a means and a place for us to come together, they have encouraged us to join in grief, in remembrance, while those who lobbied for the crusade are let off the hook, allowed to go on their lecture tours, take up their lucrative board-memberships, build their libraries and live in relative comfort without the weight of loss suffered by so many in their name, and as a result of such hubris. On the other hand, you could say that enough books have been written about the Great War, and Vietnam, for example, that we know a fair bit about what went wrong in the past. And you don’t see too many memorials to those lost through lack of access to affordable healthcare, or because a government is not adequately prepared for a natural disaster. Or because we have a drug problem ... scroll back to Cornelia’s post of two days ago, it’s Naked Authors Required Reading.

But at the end of the day, do they care at all, these decision makers – with their post-presidential or prime-ministerial cushy retirements – how history might judge them? After all, the world news seems to be one big bad thing after another. Has been for centuries. And we’re still here to look back at it all.

Thank heavens for posts like Jim’s yesterday, we need all the wonder we can get.

Interesting note: In the news today, Robert DiNiro and Al Pacino will be on the screen again in a movie called, “Righteous Kill.” Said co-producer, Al Lerner, “It’s an event in world history.” They're both great actors, but please do not kid yourself!


  1. "Righteous Kill?" That's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one.

    Like you, I despair the state of the world ... but I don't have the perspective to know if it only seems worse now because I didn't live through the other bits.

    Instead of "one f***ing thing after another," I'd title it "ignorance and arrogance run amok."

    But again like you, I take temporary respite in that fine BBC Robin Hood program. For just a moment, I can believe that the powers of generosity and kindness (I won't say Good) can outweigh the forces of greed and rapaciousness.

  2. I have a solution. Let women rule the world for a while and see what happens. Things certainly couldn't get any worse.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful post, Our J!

    I was reading up on the events of 1934 yesterday for a possible book proposal. So many mind-bending things happened in those twelve months that it must have seemed like the end of days at the time:

    Hitler becomes Fuhrer. Japan takes over Manchuria. Mao & co. begin the Long March. The Chicago Stockyards catch fire. Batista comes to power in Cuba. First Bonnie and Clyde, then John Dillinger are shot dead. The longshoremen’s strike closes every port on the west coast of the U.S. The biggest storm of the dust-bowl drops a foot of topsoil on Chicago before rolling eastward to blot out the afternoon sun over New York and Washington D.C. Bruno Richard Hauptman is tried for the Lindbergh kidnapping, Babe Ruth plays his last game, and Mrs. Dionne gives birth to quintuplets. The Morro Castle fire kills 137 people.

    It made me feel a bit better about the events of this year. But only slightly.

  4. As for history judging Bush & Blair differently...

    It's said the victors of war get to write its history. So, little chance of the Yanks and Brits coming out ahead in the history books.

    I'm also reminded of a quote from Tacitus's "Agricola." (No, Jim Born, Agricoloa is not a new soda).

    Referring to the Romans' sacking of Carthage and Corinth, Tacitus wrote: "Ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant." Where they create a desert, they call it peace.

  5. Wow, Paul. That is a truly stunning quote.... Seriously.

    Thank you.

  6. Wonderful post indeed, Jacqueline. But as both you and Cornelia have alluded to, there have many, many, many periods which seemed like the Last Days to the people living in them. Whenever anyone asks "has it ever been this bad" I think back to Barbara Tuchman's book about the 14th century "A Distant Mirror." The Great Famine. The Black Death. The Hundred Years' War. The Papal Schism. The Little Ice Age.

    But also: The beginning of the Renaissance. Dante. Chaucer. William of Ockham.

    Just as today, we have war, famine, disease...but we have more ways to make peace, comfort the wounded, feed the hungry. There was no U.N, no Live Aid, no Doctors Without Borders in the 14th century. If there was famine, you just starved. If you got wounded, you died screaming over a period of days.

    No, things aren't perfect. They're not even acceptable. But they're better than they were.

  7. from Jacqueline

    Thank you all for your comments. And yes, we have much to be thankful for these days, but it's also interesting how much "good" comes of war, of conflict, and on the other hand, what a shame that it takes a hard and nasty shove to make a leap. Plastic surgery, tinkered with in the First World War took a quantum leap with the work of Dr. Sir Archibald McIndoe in the Second World War. The First World War - again - gave doctors the chance to test the IV, and it was Marie Curie who set up the first ever mobile X-ray units, run entirely by women. The Royal Infirmary (think I got the name right) in Belfast pioneered so many emergency procedures used today to treat bomb victims ... and the war in Iraq has taken all that further than could ever be imagined - and we see the fruits of those lessons in treatment of civilian casualties all over the world. And all that before we even consider the creativity unleashed in troubled times.

    Paul - thanks for that quote, and your insights, as always.

    And things aren't perfect, but for many of us, they aren't all bad either - however, I for one can't forget those who suffer wherever they are in the world, only to become the stuff of history's statistics.

    Patty's probably bang on the money - let women run things and see what happens. Ah, then we'd eventually be drawn back to the universal truths inherent in the study of mythology ...

  8. The most famous Latin aphorism concerning war is "ultima ratio regum," the form preferred by le Roi du Soleil, or more frequently "ultima ratio regis," preferred by Frederick the Great, which were engraved upon the cannon of 17th century France and 18th century Prussia respectively: "The final argument of kings."

    But is it? Louis XIV and Frederick II were infamous egomaniacs.

    There have never been five consecutive years of world peace in human history. Warfare is, unfortunately, a permanent part of the human condition--one might, if one were highly optimistic, add, "so far," but personally I don't see how it will ever disappear.

    War brings out the most honorable, heroic, and selfless as well as the most base, venal, and mendacious in human behavior. With the exception of Gilgamesh, the earliest great works of human literature concern themselves with war and its effects, from the anger of Achilles to the self-doubt of Arjuna. This is not a coincidence.

    Maybe old men choose to start wars, but young men choose to fight them, frequently eagerly. Mothers of every nation and in every period have been known to admonish their sons to go forth into combat as a test of their manhood or as proof of their commitment to God, country, and family.

    War is perhaps the greatest evil in human experience, but as with all evil, how we face it is the true test of our conviction and humanity. My sister Mobi, who some of you may have encountered as one of Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's English translators, is a dedicated pacifist. My father is a retired military physician. I was a naval officer myself, and consider armed resistance to oppression a moral imperative. I admire my sister's integrity, but I do not concur as to her position that violence can never be justified.

    To look the devil in the face requires the strongest sense of courage and rectitude that anyone can muster--the thing you have to be careful of is that you're not looking in a mirror.

  9. Gilgamesh? Be honest, how many of you naked authors have ever read any of that ??? So glad that someone out there, besides me, took political philosophy and read a truly great book, Gilgamesh.The rest of you should add it to your TBR list.

    PS: Thanks James [LW] for your wise always add something good to the mix.

  10. OK, Jon, I never have to be told twice. Have just ordered The Epic of Gilgamesh, though I must confess, I had some exposure to it in my youth. The study of Classics was just about compulsory in the sixth form (age 16-17) of the school I attended and our teacher slid this one into his classes. Trouble was, I was still trying to get to grips with Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian War.

    And James, thank you for such a comprehensive and thought-proviking post. In London's Imperial War Museum, there's a large world map situated under a perspex cover so that you can look down upon it - I've spoken of it before on the blog. Red lights are illuminated and flashing across the map to indicate places where wars rage at any moment in time, and even in the most peaceful of times, that map has been lit up like a Christmas tree. Also, in the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, as you leave there's a display that indicates the number of wars waged since The Great War - "the war to end all wars." Last time I was there someone had struck out the number 106 and notched it up to 107 on the outset of war in Iraq. It's probably up another eight points by now.

  11. Great post.

    On a lighter note, thanks for the History Boys recommendation. The tubby chap in it (sorry, can't remember his name!) wrote and starred in 'Gavin and Stacey', currently showing on BBC3. I heartily recommend it when it makes it over the Pond.

  12. To the post and to the commenters:


    Tom, T.O.