Me and my anorak

14 October, 2013 (15:41) | All articles | By: Stuart Fraser

Understandably, lots of people don’t get the history thing I do. Why am I such an anorak about it? Haven’t we got enough trouble with the present?

Yes, true. But there is some rogue gene within me – it must, for the purposes of irony, be inherited – that is fascinated with the way we lived. This is because I believe it informs the way we live.

For example, the utterly brilliant BBC4 – may the Coconut Eating Crab smile upon it – screened an outstanding documentary last week, about the experience of childbirth in medieval times (Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death). Now, that knowledge of what women had to endure must inform how we behave in the present, surely?

It had an eerie echo for me the following day, in researching a family history case. I discovered the death, in 1914, of a woman in childbirth. I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say that one of the causes of death was “exhaustion” after two days… The poor woman. That sort of painful discovery makes me catch my breath, and doesn’t that shock inform how we feel about the advances we have made in protecting people?

And images can haunt, too; I often look at my two boys and think of my great grandfather, on the deck of a rusty old passenger ship in 1906, sailing up the Clyde and away for ever from his two lads of similar age, my grandad and his brother. The difference in how we behave – and we only learn that difference from history – has to be important, and learning about that difference must inform what we – I – do.

I also think the past can give pleasure: I love to read old documents, old letters, and revel in the English used; to discover bits of poetry here and there. On a gravestone the other day I found “We all do fade as a leaf”, and thought it rather beautiful.

I think digging into the past breeds a very healthy regard for evidence over myth and cliché. Lots of us have myths in our family. I find that there’s almost always something in these old stories, but rarely precisely what has come down the years. The difference between myth and reality, as you know, is a favourite subject of mine…

And finally, I love the discipline of history. You have to sift everything with care, test every fact, challenge every conclusion, and only put down in black and white what you are confident to be true. That’s something I wish was true in all aspects of our life today.

Talking of which: did you clock the latest series of lies being put about to justify this country’s relentless bullying of the poor and needy?

Benefit tourism. The right-wing press obediently did as it was told by the Government and ran a story about the 600,000 people living in this country fraudulently claiming benefits or treatment – except the real figure turned out to be just 60,000. Still, the scare of the big figure will have done its job for the racists and liars in Whitehall.

Talking of liars, it was a helpful reminder of how Iain Duncan Smith famously had to correct his own figure (‘figure’ in this context means ‘lie’) by 92% when he claimed benefit tourism would cost £2bn (the actual figure was £155m).

The same report, by Steve Rose in The Guardian, added further evidence: only 32% of all migrants to this country come here looking for a job; of those, 20% already have one lined up. And of course, once migrants have completed a job, they move on to other countries.

But your masters would not like you to reflect upon these truths; myth is so much more helpful.

For example, last week we heard regular repeats of the argument that because our energy bills are among the lowest in Europe, we should jolly well stop moaning, tell that Red Ed Miliband to stop bullying the poor energy companies, and be very grateful for the opportunity we have been granted to line the pockets of the shareholders of the utilities.

Only… it was a fatuous, contextless argument. And inaccurate.

We’re somewhere in the middle of the league table of European energy bills, not at the bottom rejoicing in the bounty we are granted by the generous utilities.

And we cannot know whether the citizens above or below us in that table have a greater or lesser burden without knowing about the other aspects of the burden upon them, can we? For example, did countries that pay less than us refuse to allow a criminal like Thatcher to sell our national assets to the highest foreign bidder? Or for example, do countries that pay more, such as Germany, pollute less?

We are also asked to blame the few measly per cent of our energy bill that goes on green taxes, introduced by that evil red Labour government of Gordon Brown.

In fact, all those hundreds of millions of pounds made in profit by the utilities since privatisation are virtually a mirage, aren’t they?

Don’t forget that history teaches us two more enormous lessons. One. Governments like to ration the truth, or run it through a rose-tinted filter, or use mutations of it as a weapon (as in divide and rule, presently the weapon of choice of the Conservative government) before letting the likes of you and me at it. That has been true for all time. Two. People, sooner or later, always find out the truth. And then look out.

Give thanks to The Crab

We have had cause to give thanks to The Crab once already this week, and now we must again.

As many of you know, I follow the way of The Crab: the guru Captain Kay explained to me many years ago how our lives are governed by this malevolent deity, a manifestation of an earthly creature damned to spend its life seeking the virtually unattainable, who sees in we weak humans the perfect vehicles for its awful revenge. Thomas Hardy, I’m sure, was a follower.

It is The Crab who gives us wind at inopportune moments, The Crab who looks for the chink of weakness in the plumbing. My late business partner, Roy Lipscombe, was wise in the way of The Crab – he always taught that we must never celebrate good fortune too much because it just brings the next pincer in the groin that little bit closer.

There are those among this brotherhood who seek not only the paths of enlightenment, but also a cheap drink in the winter. Some of us have had a wonderful crop of apples this year.

We must thank The Crab, then, that Brother Bertie has returned from his recent banger rally pilgrimage to St Peter’s Square with supernatural powers to rustle up an apple press where others (i.e. yours truly) have failed. Shortly, much cider will be brewing.

But though on this occasion, so far, The Crab has been merciful, I can assure you we shall all be keeping a careful watch for the worm in the apple.

And finally…

I must record my thanks to The Brother Who Must Not Be Named, who drew to my attention Nic Jones’s wonderful performance of Randy Newman’s great song Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father, which I downloaded last week. Spare, moving and magnificent. I urge you to seek it out.

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