Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Make history history

We had a secretary of State for – of all things – Education, who believed that there was no need for history. (He was a science grad.) So of course he was promoted – to Home Secretary, where his mission is to remove as many civil liberties as he can in the shortest possible time. Please, can we make Charles Clarke history?

When blogging on about irony the other day, my thoughts turned to other abstract terms that are more significant when ignored than when used – a veritable blog mine.
One day when my kids were very small, I heard my son say to my daughter, ‘You’d better get inside, quick – Dad’s steaming’. I was worried by this, and wondered if he was trying to scare his sister unnecessarily, and whom he could be talking about. Surely not me, I thought – I? ‘Steam’? It has worried me for 30 years, and the only solution that I’ve found that I can live with is: understatement. Their mother used to say ‘I asked you to tell C off about such-and-such and you haven’t’. ‘Yes I did.’ ‘Well yes, you did – but you only told him once.’ And I would try to explain that I thought that repetitive admonishments were counter-productive, devalued the words, were boring to the recipient etc. etc. I can only assume that in the above account I must have asked where she was – hence ‘steaming’.
I once worked in an office in the US where everyone shouted everything. If someone shouted at me I would look at them in bewilderment, and they would say ‘Oh, don’t take any notice of me – you have to shout around here or people won’t listen’. I decided, since I was shy and didn’t know any other way, to stay with my usual sotto voce – and in almost no time, people got used to it – and would just listen harder. Then people started to see that I got people to do things by not shouting at them. And most – not all, but most – stopped shouting.
Although quite young at the time, I remember a radio report – there wasn’t TV yet - from the battlefield at Arnhem. It’s a small town in Holland where in World War II British paratroopers were dropped behind the German lines to try to make it easier for the ground troops to move in. The operation was a disaster. The Germans knew about it and were ready, and the paras were mown down as they hit the ground. I can still hear the report of the BBC war correspondent (who miraculously survived), heard against a background of machine gun fire: ‘This is Wynford Vaughan Thomas speaking to you from Arnhem. It’s Sunday afternoon – teatime. But there’s no tea…’ I’ve never been able to talk about the effect that report had on me, a schoolboy listening at home. Men were dying all around him - there were few survivors - but there were no heroics, just ‘there’s no tea’.

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