The rest is history
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History comes round to bite us; it always does. As human nature doesn’t change much over the years, the same situations and dilemmas keep repeating themselves. the criticisms made of a Prime Minister who, before the election, relied solely on a small clique of favoured confidants, to the exclusion of older, wiser counsels, would have been perfectly comprehensible at the court of richard ii. As Dame Hilary Mantel has been reminding us in her reith Lectures, the people of past times were not so different from those of today. Conditions were probably less squalid than we commonly imagine. they had a lingua franca in Latin. there was less to contend with in their lives— no aircraft noise, pneumatic drills or Glastonbury levels of amplification; the loudest noise was thunder.
However, not everything was so idyllic. it’s easy to forget that slavery was prevalent in many places other than the ancient world and Africa. the Vikings who overran russia were so brutal in this respect that the subject people became known by the name of slave—the slavs. in the Caucasus, defeated armies were routinely enslaved and, well into the 19th century, traded. We recoil from the barbarity of some modern conflicts, transmitted via the television and computer screen, but alas, the only new thing in this—beyond technology—is our reaction. When the Fourth Crusade sacked the Christian city of Constantinople in 1204, men, women and children were slaughtered—until the Crusaders turned their attention to plundering the churches and carrying away treasures such as the horses now in st Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
As Britain prepares to remember the end of the First World War, it’s worth reflecting that 1918 didn’t bring an end to conflict for many participating nations and bloodshed continued on an appalling scale, for example, in the Armenian Genocide and across russia.
it may be that the West has developed in sophistication since then, however pro- gress brings its own dangers. We live unnatural lives, reliant on scientific theory rather than the slow, deliberate tread of tradition. No one would advocate a return to the conditions of samuel Pepys’s London. Nevertheless, the Great Fire, which he witnessed, did not cause great loss of life. More people have died falling from the Monument that commemorates it than were recorded as fatalities in the fire.
in those days, many buildings had roofs of thatch—a highly combustible material, but people knew how it behaved. the same cannot be said of the high-tech materials of today. our lives are in the hands of experts, who are far from infallible.
And yet, for all these stresses, the great truth remains. Europe has lived through a blessed half century. Although Britain has been at war from time to time, the civilian population has barely noticed it (sometimes to its shame). We behave to each other with a degree of civility that would have been unimaginable in most periods of the past.
Will future historians regard us as the lucky generation? or the one that did not take sufficient care to cherish and protect the good fortune that was, temporarily, its lot?
‘Will future historians regard us as the lucky generation?