The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
It is the opening line of The Go-Between, a novel by L. P. Hartley, published in 1953. As the Americans are wont to say, “We do things differently than here.” Why does Leslie Hartley’s arresting opening line remind me of that of another book, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913?
Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?
“The past is a foreign country” has slipped into common usage. We reminisce about how things were in our childhood and youth, as opposed to how things are now, and we are wont to say, “It’s a different world”. If you woke up one morning and found you had been transported by a time machine back into the past, you would be a cultural anomaly. And the further back you were transported, the more anomalous you would become. Indeed, if you had the misfortune to wake up in the medieval world, you would be so anomalous in the eyes of the inhabitants of that world that you might be burned at the stake before lunch.
That notion fits with the thesis of the psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the world is becoming progressively less violent. Hold that thought.
Cultural change seems to be accelerating, so that even the world that existed barely more than a single generation ago seems unrecognisable. How would today’s young people cope in a world without mobile phones, the internet, and social media? Could they prime the coin box in a red telephone kiosk, dial a number, and press Button A? Could they enter the British Linen Bank between the hours of 11am and 3 pm to lodge a cheque? Could they read a book, written on paper, between hard covers?
Yet I would not identify the switch from analogue to digital as the biggest cultural change of my lifetime. I’m not at all sure that this trend to live a life of virtual reality will last. I think – to be honest I rather hope – that the whole thing might evaporate. In the same way that young people have taken the lead in issues relating to climate change, environmental protection, and preservation of species diversity, that same generation might suddenly decide that the whole digital thing is a bubble, and log off, permanently, to embrace a real life of flesh and blood, in a tangible elemental environment of earth, air, fire, and water. They might quote, as their mantra, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, as it appears on the frontispiece of Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, Egdon Heath:
A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!
So, if technology per se has not been the biggest cultural change in the last fifty years, what else would you choose?
The widespread availability of efficacious methods of contraception – that has to be a contender. Sexual mores – at least outside those of the upper classes – have changed. The pill became available in 1960. There is that famous stanza from Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
But, like digital technology, that too might be a blip. See Margaret Atwood’s blistering short piece A Slave State? (2018) in her collection Burning Questions.
No, I would opt for two interrelated changes that have occurred in this country during my lifetime, and which indicate real cultural change: the abolition of capital punishment, shortly followed by the abolition of corporal punishment.
They are related. Their abolition is a signal of the realisation that violence solves nothing. The wielding of the tawse in Scottish schools was a normalisation of brutality, necessary if you were going to train young men to skewer straw effigies, and then disembowel living people, with bayonets. One of the things Winston pointed out during his wilderness years in the 1930s, was that the frequency and the severity of corporal punishment was increasing in German schools. The abolition of the tawse was the abolition of the dictum that might is right. That has been the greatest cultural change of my lifetime.
At least I thought so, until February 24th.
But then I discovered that L. P. Hartley was wrong all along. The past turns out not to be a foreign country at all. It turns out to be all too familiar. We can go back eighty, ninety years, and feel right at home. The 2020s are turning out to be remarkably like the 1930s. As for Steven Pinker’s assertion that violence is on the decrease, well, the jury remains out on that. Another cliché closely linked to the past qua foreign country is one that started doing the rounds with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989: “History is at an end”. We had thought that chilling names like Lidice, Babi Yar, Auschwitz, and Srebrenica, had all receded into the past, and that indeed we would need a concerted educational effort to keep these names alive, lest we forget. But now we have Bucha, we have Mariupol. They have brought the past back to life, vividly.
I’ve been listening again to Winston’s wartime speeches. They are completely contemporary. He used to deliver them in the House of Commons and then cross the road and record them for the benefit of the BBC and the general public. I have a notion that en route to the studio to record his most famous peroration, “We will fight on the beaches…” he may have stopped off for a cordial or two. “That ish th’resolve of‘s Majsty’s Guv’men, every man of ‘em…” We had thought of it as a jolly inspiring “ra ra” call to arms, but in reality it spells out, graphically, how to go on to the end, “subjugated and starving” – beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, hills… you alter tactics as you move from disciplined defence to scattered insurgency. But Winston did his utmost to prevent an “unnecessary” war. He wrote a piece on April 3rd, 1936, contained in his collection Step by Step, entitled Stop It Now! With a few alterations of nomenclature, it might have been written last week:
Practically the whole of the German nation has been taught to regard the incorporation in the Reich of the Germanic population of neighbouring states as a natural, rightful and inevitable aim of German policy… The financial and economic pressures in Germany are rising to such a pitch that Herr Hitler’s government will in a comparatively short time have only to choose between an internal and an external explosion… It is an issue between Germany and the League of Nations… It therefore concerns all nations, including the German people themselves: but it concerns them in different degrees. The countries which lie upon or near the borders of Germany are in the front line. They see the wonderful roads along which four columns of troops or motor vehicles can move abreast, brought to their own frontier terminals. They dwell under the flickering shadow of the most fearful sword ever wrought by human agency, now uplifted in flashing menace, now held anew to the grindstone. Those that are more remote from the German arsenals and training centres have naturally a greater sense of detachment. But none, even though protected by the oceans can, as experience of the last war proved, afford to view with indifference the processes which are already in motion.
The desire of all the peoples, not perhaps excluding a substantial portion of the German people themselves, is to avoid another horrible war in which their lives and homes will be destroyed or ruined and such civilisation as we have been able to achieve reduced to primordial pulp and squalor…
Stop it! Stop it!! Stop it now!!! NOW is the appointed time.