We’re supposed to learn from history, aren’t we? That’s what most historians tell us (maybe not all – David Irving, for instance, is not the kind of historian you should spend a lot of time paying attention to) – that we should reflect on history and learn from the success and failure of those that trod before us. If we hadn’t watched the first boat sink then how on earth could we have made one that didn’t? In this sense history is useful, but this is not necessarily a universal truth because if we paid attention to every lesson from history we’d be a hell of a lot better off now than we truly are. History might be willing to teach, but the trick is to get us to listen; needless to say we are abysmal listeners.
What happened for instance, to the lesson taught us by Robert The Bruce? Silly old Robert just didn’t have a clue what to do with himself. If he were around today the experts would say he had reached a tricky spot in his career and was lacking the necessary growth mindset to establish some momentum, moving forward, through self motivation, perhaps driven by some cognitive behavioural therapy. These days Robert The Bruce would have appeared on Loose Women to discuss the difficulties in his life and maybe with his connections would have bagged a slot on Meghan and Harry’s new documentary series: ‘Show Me The Money’. But he had no such luck and so instead, faced with defeat, he slunk himself through the Scottish dank and eventually found himself sulking in a cave, as you do. Fate then dealt him a better card by way of a spider that we are told simply did not give up. I wonder if that spider is still there, in that imaginary cave.
That story was the way we were taught about resilience when I was a kid, and it was doubtless rolled out for many generations prior, but ask children about it these days and they haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about, and if you then started rattling on about King Alfred letting the cakes burn they’d think you were insane. Not that the King Alfred story really taught us anything very useful, unless it was some kind of macho lesson about keeping clear of the kitchen, so in fairness to Robert The Bruce that spider at least gave him some kind of direction that could then be spun (pun intended) through history to encourage children to never give up. But that’s the problem – most children today do give up, and often well before the drop of a hat. In fact there doesn’t even need to be a hat, they just give in and moan that it can’t be done and can you do it for them instead. They can’t even be bothered to say please anymore.
In reality giving up is nothing to be particularly ashamed of. People have been giving up for millenia. Most people give up most of the time, to the extent that often we only really take note and celebrate when someone has been bothered enough not to give up and has done quite well when we least expected it. But when you weigh things up and listen to the breathless athlete explain that if you want something bad enough and work really hard at it you too can achieve your dream it just makes it abundantly clear that the world would be even more of a disaster zone if everyone kept going and achieved their dream; we can’t all be astronauts (incidentally, I have no idea why being an astronaut is anybody’s idea of a great job – I imagine it is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense terror as you consider your own mind boggling frailty and insignificance in the face of infinite space). What most people want today is a quick fix – a way to fill the hole in their knowledge or time with the minimum effort possible, and when you look at it with cold eyes history just doesn’t do it for us anymore: look at Russia and North Korea playing silly buggers all the time and you start to appreciate just how little they have learnt from two world wars. They’re not the only ones.
And yet still we study, always declining to learn. We study the Romans and Greeks to learn about empire building and buggery. We study the Egyptians to quench our desire to understand more about eyebrow sculpting and, er, papyrus. We study 1066 so we might remember never to look up during an archery display and that the English aren’t quite so English as they’d like to think. We study the Tudors even more than the Tudors studied themselves, and I still don’t quite get the obsession for a period when we were still essentially shitting in the street on a daily basis. We study skirmishes, battles, wars and revolutions, plagues, murders and massacres and still we have not changed the way we behave as a result. We’re so stupid that we now think it is better to remove the bits of history that we find offensive or awkward and instead peer back to find a self invented Shangri-La that never existed in the first place. We look back at the slave trade and wonder how on earth our ancestors could ever sanction such an inhumane practice and yet we effectively turn a blind eye to the fact that human slavery is still out there in abundance, but it’s OK because at least we don’t do it anymore, at least not officially.
I would suggest that since we’re evidently useless when it comes to looking back that we should instead look forward and think about how our successors will think of us in turn. Just take the internet as an example. Surely a thousand years from now (and in the unlikely event that we still even exist) we’ll look back at the sheer power of what we created in the internet and then gasp with disbelief at how we actually used it. We’ll stare, gobsmacked, at how it had the potential to unite and break down all the barriers that divided us and instead it’s usually just used for shopping, trolling, grooming, streaming, wanking, baiting, hacking, conning, slagging, bitching, ranting, cheating, gambling, shit sharing, endless nothing and, of course, writing. It’s no better than Sodom and Gomorrah squeezed into a laptop. And only we could invent the internet and then feel the need to then create an auxillary ‘dark web’, you know, just in case. The internet may be useful for a few bits and bobs but in real terms we don’t use it for good but rather we exploit it to do things we would never have bothered thinking about if it hadn’t been invented to begin with. I’m old enough now to have lived half a life without the internet and other half with it and most days I wonder if it’s genuinely done any good for me or anyone else.
But let’s not be too harsh on the internet because it’s only just another epic failure in our history to come. We’re very good at telling ourselves we’re so lucky but the world doesn’t seem too clever a place to be at all. If this virus doesn’t get us it will be a different one instead. And if that doesn’t do it then it will be that World War III we’re convinced won’t happen, or financial anarchy, or climate change, or a meteorite, or even those damn dirty apes. The only thing that history has absolutely, emphatically, one hundred percent taught us is that we are idiots at best and nasty little cunts at worst and almost all the misery that has been brought upon our species has been of our own doing. It is the price we pay for our intellect, our tools and our evolution – we’ll pay with our lives in the long run and all the history books in the world won’t save us. Suddenly being in that cave with Robert The Bruce sounds quite nice. Or even better, next to the fire with Alfred The Great and those cakes; better to just turn a blind eye and let it all burn. Sorry, I hope I haven’t darkened your day too much.
G B Hewitt. 20.03.2021