I sometimes wish that a few of our high-and-mighty pseudo-intellectuals would take a calm look at history, at the origins of our species and come to accept that, while our society could well be the epitome of all values, it had a very late start and that thanks only to all the wild, uncultivated, heathen foreigners – prior to their migration to our present-day lands – who did the hard work of discovering basic hunting weapons, tools and fire. There are some people I would love to take on a short one-way trip out into the wilds of beyond, such as the Australian outback, the Amazon jungle, the plains of Siberia and African lands, and just leave them there to fend for themselves. I’d wish to see how long before they manage to capture their own food, light their own fire, erect a camp to protect themselves from other predators. Many of them, I suspect, would either give up almost from the first moment, or simply not be capable of survival: and that despite all their learning and insufferable belief that we (they, more than anyone else) are superior to everyone else because we (they) have the technology, the riches and the moral high ground.
All I see, every single day, are people who are trying, hand over fist, to earn more and more whilst doing less and less; who stress their lives out for no good reason other than they must have the latest communications technology, a car bigger than their neighbours, flashy watches and pens, a wallet which has been made from the hide of the rarest protected animal; who do not know what happiness and contentment are because they are too busy trying to buy it through ever more material possessions which, as they come to realise soon after their purchase, are worthless and quickly outdated.
I find the history of our various nations both fascinating and enlightening: the manner in which the earliest members of our race were able to solve major problems through thought and experimentation, when their lives often relied on the right choice; the foolishness of later generations who believe themselves to be right because an ancient book tells them so, because a leader tells then so, without any form of personal experimentation or thought. Both the book and the leader may well be right, but it is good to understand why, to be able to follow a train of thought and see how someone else was able to reach a certain position, and to sensibly adapt what is, in the case of several highly revered ancient books, a nothing more than a list of recommendations to any given situation. And I must admit to being more impressed with the advancements of an ancient civilisation who began with nothing and worked with the most basic of materials, than I am with a modern society which merely shops.
If only we could get at the stories behind those old photographs. I’ve specialised in portraits from before 1920, mainly because of the photographers themselves, but often find other images when rummaging, or when I receive a box-load of unsorted photography from someone else and it is always saddening to see an entire life discarded. Not just the fact that someone has boxed a relative up and thrown their life out with the trash, but the fact that, back then, no one thought to put names, dates and descriptions on the images. I am convinced many more families would keep, and revere, their family history more if they had notes to consult, if they could put names to faces, dates to events. I have very few images where you can see who a person is – their religion, their status in life and so on – but, even so, it is possible to construct some stories from complete collections.
Many albums have been destroyed, especially in the years immediately following the Second World War. To be tarred with the brush of National Socialism after the end of hostilities was something akin to being temporarily excommunicated, although all family, friends and neighbours knew and took part themselves. Over the years many became very successful at hiding their true past, and later generations grew up in the belief their own families had nothing to do with the atrocities or worked, in one form or another, for the resistance which, of course, is mostly untrue. With time the memory of the Thirties and Forties will fade, as fewer people are left who remember, who lived through those times, and the events will be relegated to history, to books, to second-hand memories and hearsay. The only difference now is that our technology has / had advanced so far we have moving pictures as well as photographs of events, unlike so many other similar atrocities, so many other cultural, social and religious holocausts through the ages lesser in gravity, but equally destructive for their times. Which means the memories will be constantly refreshed, and also the divisiveness within certain parts of society, and perhaps lessons will be learned which last for more than one generation.
I wouldn’t be too upset about the family name being Hitler on your photographs, it doesn’t mean there is any connection, and the name was taken on by Adolf Hitler’s father Alois in 1877, and there are many Austrian and German versions of the name. The direct family itself was very compact, with many of the children – Hitler’s brothers and sisters – dying very early in life, and his last remaining sister, Paula, died in 1960.
You know, sometimes it is the boring old farts – be it Cicero or one of countless others – who suddenly spark our interest with a sage and worthy comment, even if we need to take that comment slightly out of context to make it fit with our thoughts, something I constantly do when writing letters. Most people who come here and get a glimpse of my small library would instantly turn away from more than half the titles – and I don’t mean just the ancient Greeks and Romans, but all the philosophers, the historians and biographers – and head towards the crime books where, I have no doubt, they would also be disappointed. If it is old – that is, if the title is more than a year old – it’s boring and no longer of interest. I’ve had that feeling too, once or twice, but tend to fight against it and take my chances. We see the cover of a book, and immediately know that this, as an example, is pulp fiction from the Fifties, or this is a crime novel from the Sixties, a biography from the Twenties, and our decision is made. Half of the best but lesser known authors fall through our grasp and disappear because we don’t recognise their names, and their writings are dated by our preconceptions. I had great pleasure recently in reading The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir in the paperback, 1968 version from Fontana Books which, I do not doubt, most would have left on the shelf just because of the (now) dated cover art. And it is de Beauvoir who wrote:
She was so beautiful that normally she ought to have been stupid, but at the same time her beauty gave her an air of mystery.
Which just about sums up our ideals when it comes to deifying or condemning a book, a work of art and so many other things, as well as people.
One of the most common questions I get, when I am sitting in a café or a comfortable chair elsewhere and have turned my attention to a good book, is for the title of the work I have in my hands. The question comes, as I am sure you can well imagine, while I am reading, after I have settled myself down, during a thrilling passage of text which, normally, holds my rapt attention and has already transported me out of my immediate environment and into another world elsewhere. Depending on my answer, and the size of the book, I can receive several different answers, should I be inclined to divert my attention from the interesting back to this mundane world at all. I have just finished Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems, which is very accessible work on quantum gravity but, as soon as I mention ‘quantum’ in any shape or form, causes the eyes of the questioner to glaze over. Now I am approaching the end of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life which, from the subject matter, interests more people, but from the size scares them off. All a matter of perception, and a question of whether someone is prepared to take a chance and expand their own boundaries, step into the unknown, volunteer their valuable time to explore new territories, or whether they’re going to struggle to finish a short article in the local scandal sheet masquerading as a source of news and entertainment. Judging the book by the cover.
In fact, Rovelli sums up the level of acceptance and chance-taking very well when he writes:
Someone once claimed that a theory isn’t credible if its equations cannot be summarized on a T-shirt. Here is that equation for loop quantum gravity.
Illustrated, of course, on a t-shirt which, in theory, should make it accessible to all, even if they do not understand the relationship of the sections of the equation, let alone the meaning of the individual letters, figures and mathematical symbols. A boring – or overwhelming, depending on your standpoint – subject for most, but still with a few interesting titbits which can be pulled out of the boring and fine-tuned before being recycled. On the outside, that is, because I found the work absolutely fascinating and, as an absolute null at math, easy to follow and comprehend.
Two years ago I attended a book reading, and an evening of book title recommendations in preparation for the Christmas season. Not that I was looking for anything to give away, or even for any recommendations, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I had been attending quite a few of these events at the time, although mainly where an author was giving a reading and not a librarian. The only point from the whole evening which remains in my mind, aside from the fact that it was pouring with rain and the organisers insisted on opening the main doors right on time, so that we all got soaking wet waiting outside, is a series of questions posed by one of the women in the audience. I have no doubt a man would have been equally up to the task of asking these questions, but he must have been home sorting out his stamp collection at the time. Three or four times, until someone laughed, she asked how many pages the recommended book had, and then justified her question by saying she wasn’t sure any of her friends would really be capable of reading a long work. At least she was considerate of her friends feelings and capabilities, even if, I suspect, one or two of them might not have been quite so happy to be lumped together with those who buy a book which doesn’t stretch their imagination or expand their knowledge.
Or, taking a hot potato by the eyes from the news reports yesterday and today, make a few people feel uncomfortable. Did you catch the story about the Biloxi School Board, in Mississippi, removing To Kill A Mockingbird from eighth graders’ English reading list because someone people complained that the language used made them feel uncomfortable? I don’t recall any form of swearing in this work, nor can I remember anything which might cause religious problems for those who cannot think outside of their own special book, so it has to be that someone, or several people if the board is to be believed, find talk of racial prejudice uncomfortable. And we would never want our children to be confronted with something like that, not in Mississippi. Justification hasn’t been issued by anyone on the school board, and the school principal delicately hedged around the issue so that he didn’t need to answer a very specific question, but it appears someone was upset that a certain word beginning with N – I have many friends in the United States, and wish to spare their blushes by not writing this sad word out in full – which, while taken as an insult when spoken aloud by some people, is still in common use by others, and is still a very major part of American history and culture. I wonder whether that means the publishers are going to have to bring out a sanitized edition, as they have done with Mark Twain’s works. That would be amusing: perhaps people will have to hide their politically incorrect version in small cupboards under the stairs, for fear that the fire brigade will storm their house, snatch all their books, and burn them publicly, carting the owner off to prison for the crime of owning works of literature.
It makes little difference to me whether the person or people calling for this wonderful piece of literature to be pulled from the curriculum are liberals or conservatives – both sides are, of course, accusing the other of being responsible – it comes down to those self-same pseudo-intellectuals who cannot shape their own stone axe, feed their families without using Walmart, or string two or three thoughts together into an idea worthy of the name, but can influence other people to fellow their narrow-minded train of social, cultural and educational beliefs.