A Lesson in History

History is what happened to people a long time ago, isn’t it?  People who’ve been and gone before I arrived; I’ve seen them in pictures in books and on the walls in stately homes in elaborate clothes with extraordinary hairstyles and uncomfortable looking shoes.

I’m exaggerating of course, but I’ve never really thought that anything that has happened in my lifetime, something that is a vivid memory for me, might be the stuff of dusty long ago to someone else.  Until recently, that is.

The term I’ve been doing a course in the depiction of terrorism in contemporary literature, which has been fascinating on a number of fronts.  The discussions in class, inevitably, have been both about the literary characteristics of each work, but also of the contemporary politics, polarised opinions and prejudices which swirl around the topic.  It’s been instructive to consider the question of whether writers of fiction are capable of dealing with the enormity of such a difficult topic, but that’s a topic for another day…..

The class is small, but diverse.  I think it would be fair to say that half the members are ‘about my age’, and the others are ‘a bit’ younger, which might account for my current fascination with what constitutes ‘history’.

Burnt Shadows’ by Kamila Shamsie is a novel with a wide historic sweep, beginning with the bombing of Nagasaki and running onto a post 9/11 imprisonment in Guantanamo, covering a period which, to me, is in part ‘historic’, and in part contemporary.  In one discussion of the novel, I used the phrase ‘The Cold War’, and was rather nonplussed to be interrupted by the teacher asking me, ‘for the benefit of those who might not know’ to explain what the phrase meant.  How to explain 45 years of world history in 2 sentences?  But surely there wasn’t anyone in the class who didn’t know what it meant?

‘I think I’ve sort of heard of it before,’ said one of the ‘bit younger’ students.  I’ve subsequently worked out she was probably born in the year after the Berlin Wall came down, so for her, that time is as remote as the Second World War is to me.

This week in our discussion of ‘Falling Man’ by Don DeLillo, the ‘about my age’ people were debating whether the novel added anything to our insight into the aftermath of 9/1, and broadly thinking it hadn’t, bearing in mind that the images of it were seared into our minds’ eyes.  Our ‘bit younger’ colleague told us in no uncertain terms that she didn’t know what we were talking about.  She’d not seen it; she’d been too young, so the verbal descriptions in the novel, which to us sounded like a simple retelling of the news footage we will never forget watching, to her had an energy and a surprising shock value.  A useful reminder that one person’s dull hack is another person’s great writer.

The generation a little older than mine recalls where they were on VE day, or when they heard about the assassination of JFK; for mine that defining shocking event that places us in a fixed location forever in our memory, is the witnessing of the planes going into the towers of the World Trade Centre, for others it might be the news of the death of Diana, or that of Elvis or John Lennon.

What is it for you?

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