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
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.