Ends & Beginnings

It is a natural inclination to look at history for clues and answers to the current circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. Though I am not a subscriber to the notion behind the French idiom: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, neither do I believe that the past is another country. What I’d suggest our situation requires is a synthesis of the fundamentals that these two aphorisms represent. Over the last days, a couple of articles in The Times stood out for me not only as well-argued contributions to the raging debates, but also because their starting points derived from the above opposing poles. Daniel Finkelstein’s article has as its starting point the smallpox epidemic that played a part in Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, whereas Ben Macintyre’s is entirely future-focused. (See below for reprints)

I have now posted five times on The Pandemic

1. Coronavirus (5/3) suggested that an over-strong response could be counter-intuitive to longer term outcomes.

2. 31st December 2020 (15/3) hoped that the world would adopt positive post-Pandemic changes

3. Hearts & Minds (28/3) tried to pick a path between idealism & pragmatism

4. Post Pandemic Probabilities (8/4) looked at how the public mood would affect post-Pandemic government policies

5. A Grim Calculus (13/4) pointed to the potential existential choices facing many of us.

In all of these, I have segued between the clues afforded us by history and potential future paradigm shifts. In my first post I mentioned that I was reading The Plague (Camus), which still lies half-read on the coffee table next to me. I do intend to finish it, but I found the sense of being trapped within the cordon-sanitaire of the plague-stricken town too unbearable. I think I got the messages – the grim toll of death, the absurdity of administrative response, the powerlessness of the individual and so on – but by the point, at which I put the book aside, I had had enough.  I don’t know about you, but during this period I’m doing the same with the news; I am reading the headlines but avoiding the substance of much of it.

My current book club choice Magnus (John Mackay Brown) proved to be a more enjoyable, and possibly pertinent, read. I highly recommend it and – just in case you follow my suggestion – I won’t go too far into it, so as not to be a spoiler. However, I will reveal – assuming that you haven’t read it already – that the author wrote the novel at a time of his adoption of the Roman Catholic faith and that the story is framed by the times  (9th century) when Norway dominated much of the North of The British Isles. From this very brief description, if you surmise that the novel’s pulse beats to the universality of the human condition and the release afforded to it by spirituality, you wouldn’t be far wrong! I commend it to you as great Covid-reading for the calm beauty of its prose and the light it illuminates, despite the brutality of the times of which it is written.

Another book I have thoroughly enjoyed is May 1940: Five Days in London from John Lukacs. This academic, but eminently readable, study covers the discussions and considerations of Churchill’s War Cabinet from May 24 to May 28; the days surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation, which ultimately determined the course of WW2. The book was a recommendation made a few months ago by a member of a discussion group that I attend, (now remotely). Given my ongoing interest in International Relations, my university major, the book and its historical context appealed to me in itself. However, especially during the current crisis, it is a fascinating close account of how personalities, disposition & egos are as much a factor in top-level government decision-making takes place as are the ‘facts’ themselves. In fact, (sic!), in a previously unknown and developing situation, it is pertinent to question what are ‘facts; and when do they become such? The book suggests to me that facts are what individuals make them out to be and that facts become facts often by dint of individual positions held and persuasion. One of the critical factors in the decisions taken, in those fateful times, was Churchill’s refusal to countenance surrender on the back of his unbreakable conviction that the UK could not be conquered, due to his belief in the ‘fact’ of Britain’s superior air power. Fast forward to 2020 and the question of which convictions are being held by our currentpolitical leaders in their present decision-making on our behalf? We can only guess, but a future forensic study will be most interesting. (Inshallah, that we all have the opportunity to read it!). Another interesting element of May 1940 is its tracking of public opinion by dint of nuances contained not just within the newspapers of those time but from ongoing public opinion research exercise, started by 2 academics in 1937 called Mass Observation, who “recruited a nationwide panel of observers to participate in a study of everyday life”. In May 1940 they began sharing their findings with the Ministry of Information; such information as:

“Deeply concerned people are keeping up a good deal of optimism today, though all observers agree in finding that face and tone often belie the words…”

“People haven’t begun to consider that we might be actually beaten. It just hasn’t occurred to them that we can be beaten. The old complacency has been shaken but it persists, If suddenly shattered, there will be a morale explosion.”

Lukacs, also delves into the diaries of Churchill’s political colleagues & adversaries and comes to the conclusion that Churchill was widely regarded as a political opportunist:

Churchill was widely believed to be not really a gentleman at all. On the contrary, he was often described as a highly gifted, but undeniable ‘cad’ …For most of his career, there hung around him an unsavoury air of disreputability and unseemliness.”

So, at our Darkest Hour, it could be said that we were a country in a state of psychological self-denial, with a bluffing bounder at the political helm. Hmmm.

Recourse to the past will only get you so far and one has to factor in how much we have learnt and changed over time; or have not. Nevertheless, to take a beat from ‘The Bounder’ – who went on to become, for many, this country’s Greatest Statesman – I suggest that at this stage of the Pandemic-proceedings:

Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

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9 Responses to Ends & Beginnings

  1. Ericle says:

    [From: Lee] As always, a thought-provoking read. Thanks

  2. Ericle says:

    [From: Ian]
    Thank you, Eric. Finkelstein is particularly worth reading – his conclusion re ‘Struggle’ made me think. Curious sentence structure in the last sentence: “and Struggle it will be” Couldn’t help feeling a loss of an indefinite article. IMHO a simple dog whistle. In space, nobody hears you scream. In Lockdown everyone writes my ‘Struggle’. (In Mein Humble Opinion!)

  3. Ericle says:

    [From: Henry]
    Your email contains “the Dunkirk evacuation, which ultimately determined the course of WW2.” I find this sentence thought-provoking. Maybe if the evacuation had failed the UK would have made peace with Germany. However even in that case, the war might have ended in the same way that it really ended, for example, the German invasion of USSR, the USSR victory in the battle of Stalingrad and the likely conquest of Germany by USSR. Many things could have changed the course of the war. For example, I think that, if Germany had assigned more resources during the war to scientific military research and if Japan policy had been different so avoiding USA entry into the war, Germany might have won.

    • Ericle says:

      Ah, yes! Perhaps I should have said that the Dunkirk evacuation ultimately determined the course of the “UK’s WW2”. However, the point made by Lukacs in his book – and he goes to some lengths to reference this – is that Churchill’s mindset was “No Surrender” and this was extended by Churchill, as expressed in Cabinet, that this would have been the case even if the BEF had been lost in its entirety. As for the rest of your analyses, there are surely too many imponderables to be factored in? This notwithstanding, I would not have reached the same conclusion as yourself!

      • Ericle says:

        Since the exchange above, I have finished the John Lukacs book that I referred to in this article. In the last chapter, he asserts that Dunkirk, and Churchill’s ’no surrender’ stance, WAS the turning point of the war, not just the UK’s war as I have suggested. His argument is
        – Hitler’s Germany was never closer to his ultimate victory than he was in May 1940
        – though US entry into the war & Russia’s eventual victory in the East would have been significant, a Hitler who had prevailed over the UK “could have forced his enemies to something of a draw”.
        I can not agree with this assessment as I believe that the Russian front, having resisted at Stalingrad, would have rolled on through Germany regardless. I thus will stick with my own assertion that Dunkirk was the turning point of The UK’s War.

  4. Ericle says:

    [From: Victoria]
    You might be interested to know that Mass Observation was restarted in 1981 and is still going. Hosted, I believe at your Alma Mater Sussex:
    Also — you know The Plague is not about the plague? It’s an extended metaphor for Fascism — Camus was a Communist.

    • Ericle says:

      Thanks for the link. I didn’t know about the Sussex connection before I read the book but was gratified by UoS being referenced in the book.

  5. Ericle says:

    [From: Patrick]
    It’s great to see that you are applying your tireless efforts to the issue of the day. Some meanderings of my own – an idealist view of history rather than a psychologistic one, I suppose, shape my approach. History gives us one story of many possible stories of past events and we may ascribe psychological relevances, as we wish to see them, to some of the key players in those events. We are unable in principle to predict the behaviour of any of the players in our own day and age from the responses of any person in the past, or present, notwithstanding superficial perceived similarities of character. Character itself is subject to unpredictable expressions of will, and no expression of will is inevitable for any person, in history. That acceptance of unpredictability is the underpinning of our cultural strength to be able to face all possibilities and outcomes including failure to produce the outcomes that we would desire. This is not a position of quietism. But profound defeat I believe is not what is meted out by reality, but is a consequence of a failure to accept that reality. As for Churchill, he faced, and in time, had to accept the historical reality of seeing Britain’s predominant power ebb away, together with loss of Empire which was an outcome accelerated by the exhaustion of a long and, as it turned out, justifiable war. His pre-war resolve and duty was understandably to preserve that power as best he could. Characterisation of motives and reasons are often shaped by a later, fuller awareness of what was always at stake. But I could be wrong!
    ps: Talking about history I am currently awaiting delivery of Martyn Rady’s new book on The Habsburgs – plenty of interesting diversions there!

  6. Edgar Jacobsberg says:

    Frank Furedi has thought provoking opinions on our reactions to the current situation:

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