We should hold on to the shock value of his­tory

Bel­gium’s end­less rows of white crosses con­nect us to the or­di­nary peo­ple who made that great sac­ri­fice

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - JULIET SA­MUEL FOL­LOW Juliet Sa­muel on Twit­ter @Ci­tysamuel; READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/opin­ion

It’s funny what sticks in the mem­ory. I first vis­ited Bel­gium at the age of 14. It’s a ter­ri­ble age at an all-girls school and I well re­mem­ber the catty fights between cliques. I also re­mem­ber be­ing dis­ap­pointed by Bel­gium’s choco­lates. And I re­mem­ber my shock when I first saw the war ceme­ter­ies and their count­less, tidy rows of white crosses, every­where, as far as the eye could see.

We had stud­ied the First World War and cer­tain facts had made an im­pres­sion. In par­tic­u­lar, a num­ber: on one day dur­ing the war, I’d read, there were 57,000 ca­su­al­ties. Fifty­seven thou­sand! It had jumped out of my text­book like a ghost whose mean­ing I couldn’t un­der­stand, but which trans­fixed me.

Over three or four days in Bel­gium, we must have vis­ited nearly a dozen ceme­ter­ies, or that’s how it felt. As their num­bers mounted, their shock-value di­min­ished. We dragged our­selves off the coaches yawn­ing and whin­ing. We grew bored and frac­tious. We grum­bled. Why we vis­ited so many, I’ll never know.

The lim­ited mo­ments of va­ri­ety stand out. There were a hand­ful of head­stones shaped like Stars of David in­stead of crosses, for known Jewish oc­cu­pants. One or two of my class­mates care­fully placed peb­bles on them. There was the som­bre, lit­tle­vis­ited grave­yard for Ger­man sol­diers, its black, rec­tan­gu­lar stones ly­ing flat on the mossy grass. There was a vast, mar­ble mon­u­ment at the top of a hill, with flags fly­ing.

I do not know which ceme­tery we vis­ited first or which bat­tle it marked. I do know, wher­ever it is, that it was the place that left me with the most pow­er­ful mem­ory of all: that feel­ing of shock. It was the only in­stant when his­tory be­came real, filled with the bod­ies of real peo­ple. Fifty-seven thou­sand! Here’s what that sort of bat­tle looks like, I thought.

It’s 100 years since the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele. There have been solemn re­mem­brance ser­vices and crass state­ments telling us to “cher­ish” the EU. What is im­por­tant to keep alive, though, isn’t a moral­ity tale or por­ten­tous mood.

It is that abil­ity to feel shock: the vis­ceral mo­ment that con­nects us to events a whole cen­tury ago, the re­al­i­sa­tion that it was hu­mans much like us that ex­pe­ri­enced them, rather than some re­mote, long-ex­tinct breed of his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters. This doesn’t pro­vide a sim­ple les­son or nar­ra­tive. It is not a kind of knowl­edge that can be learnt by rote or tested in ex­ams. It comes in flashes of rev­e­la­tion, then fades. But with the Great War’s veter­ans gone, and many of their chil­dren too, it is now all that is left.

I had not in­tended to have my palm read. But hav­ing just in­ter­viewed the oblig­ing fortune teller for a doc­u­men­tary, I couldn’t re­ally say no. I was on Black­pool Pier, where “The Orig­i­nal Maria Pe­tu­len­gro” has been ply­ing her mys­ti­cal trade for 65 years. If you want to know about Black­pool’s for­tunes, she’s a good per­son to ask.

I placed my hands, palm up, on my knees and she looked at them care­fully. Then came a string of ques­tions about my life. How old are you? Do you have a man? Has he made an offer of mar­riage to you? Has there been a child? I found my­self oddly ner­vous and em­bar­rassed. In re­sponse to my mono­syl­labic an­swers came the ad­vice: don’t be too soft on him; don’t wait too long for a child; don’t trust all your friends, some are be­ing false.

The ad­vice was gen­eral, one could al­most say generic. But there was noth­ing generic about Ms Pe­tu­len­gro. She had a com­pelling qual­ity, kindly but tough, like a much-ad­mired granny. What I con­cluded, as I wan­dered out into the breeze, was that Ms Pe­tu­len­gro’s many long-term clients don’t go there ex­pect­ing to be told im­pos­si­ble facts about their fu­ture. They are vis­it­ing, I think, for the same rea­son that mil­lions of trou­bled peo­ple book them­selves into ther­apy, hire ca­reer coaches or go to see priests. They need space to con­tem­plate and dis­cuss their prob­lems, and they want the un­di­vided at­ten­tion of an ad­viser with sub­stance and ex­pe­ri­ence.

If ther­apy is now a boom­ing pro­fes­sion, we need not won­der why. Mod­ern cul­ture doesn’t leave space for med­i­ta­tion on one’s prob­lems and ruth­lessly knocks down sources of author­ity. All that’s left is highly med­i­calised lan­guage about “men­tal health is­sues”. But be­fore there were ther­a­pists and life coaches, there were fortune tell­ers.

New York is the cap­i­tal of ther­apy,

of course, but if New York­ers can’t get sat­is­fac­tion from a shrink, they’ll do the next best thing: hire a lawyer. That might ex­plain why Pret A Manger, in the mid­dle of a suc­cess­ful US ex­pan­sion, is fac­ing a class-action law­suit. The com­plaint? The pack­ag­ing of its wraps con­ceals that they are, in fact, sig­nif­i­cantly shorter than they ap­pear. The cus­tomer bring­ing the suit, Yee Ting Lau, was en­raged when, af­ter pay­ing $7.49 for a “Chakalaka” wrap, she found some of the pack­ag­ing was “not oc­cu­pied by the sand­wich”. Per­haps she should try a palm reader. Or bet­ter still, don’t buy an­other wrap.

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