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Thursday, February 22, 2024
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Enjoy the past, it’ll soon be all we have

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IT’S A familiar story: the present loses its lustre, the future its sheen, so we turn to – and often burnish – the past. Age plays its part: when you’ve seen more sunsets than you’re going to see, yesteryear’s lambent light burns brighter. Realists bristle: banish that backwards glance, shroud those sepia memories; with the culture wars raging, now’s not the time or place.

They’re probably right: sentimentalism won’t do. Yet hemmed in by this here and now, a little escapism is forgivable; we owe it to ourselves and those we flee to. The path back to equanimity is elusive, nostalgia a steadfast guide. Let’s wallow when we can; images of yore fade soon enough in the ferment of the day.

Dates vie to bookend our halcyon years: 1960–1990, 1979–1997, anytime pre-March 2020. Mark Steyn says he’s a Victorian trapped in the wrong century. It doesn’t much matter which era you choose. What does is that life was simpler, freer, and this time – surely – not just in our imagination. The body politic had its ailments, but not the tumour of medico-tyranny or metastasising ‘isms’. For most of us in post-war Britain, peace and growing prosperity conferred quiet assurance, perhaps also complacency.          

Recollection is dynamic; the past changes. The best books on the First World War remain unwritten; its enormity demands an even longer-term perspective. Nor is the past’s value frozen, but contingent on what follows. In the present febrile climate, attempts to belittle Britain’s legacy only enhance it; while in the private sphere, we feel the loss of loved ones yet more keenly, remembering, even envying, their carefree smiles.

Our opponents lay claim to the future with messianic fervour. But their chief delight is regressive: gorging on our country’s carcase, dancing on the graves of its heroes. (Remember the parties when Mrs Thatcher died?) It’s a visceral yet barren impulse: statue-toppling brings a brief paroxysm of righteousness, but what then? Small wonder leftists loathe Remembrance Sunday, detested the Queen’s funeral: the backward masses communing in national reflection.

Our side has its weaknesses: we’re too reactive, too civil. French-style demonstration alienates those who need it most. But we have one priceless advantage: we know whence we came. For all its faults, the old left sincerely commemorates its champions (that monochrome cast of trade unionists and post-war nationalisers). But the dominant far left has a dysfunctional relationship with Britain’s past. All of it.

Progressivism despises our history ostensibly on specific grounds, such as colonialism or slavery. But more fundamentally, it resents any kind of heritage or inheritance, things which directly challenge its clean-slate foundations. ‘Make it new’ was Ezra Pound’s commandment to the modernist faithful. The tabula rasa presumption of today’s elites is just as vain, and more dangerous.

To these New World Order types, the past is intrinsically political. They’re right. It declares: ‘We were here before you, and society survived, even prospered’. Following the English Civil Wars, defeated and exiled royalists wrote works of history with this in mind, taking aim at the usurping republican regime. Hence we’re witnessing a Taliban-like erasure of indigenous culture long before Islam gains control. With our history forced into a Procrustean bed made of woke, artefacts are picked off first; the buildings will follow, cheered on by the National Trust.

What price the British Library pulping ancient books and manuscripts now deemed the product of ‘white privilege’? Or the British Museum, flush with pride at returning the Elgin Marbles, repatriating countless other ‘stolen goods’ before closing itself down? Or our churches and cathedrals hiding images of the cross, to nurture ‘inter-faith’ relations? Or the great works of Brunel, and other titans of the Industrial Revolution, being ceremonially destroyed, in revenge for their makers’ earth-threatening carbon footprint?

Now more than ever we need to preserve and cherish the past, as both balm and weapon. This applies in the private realm as well as the public: poring over the family photo albums, re-reading a classic book, or watching an old film on DVD. Like a secret army of museum curators, we may even need to store these once-innocuous items safely for when the knock on the door comes. To our history-hating overlords, mundane personal reminiscence will one day be seen – correctly – as a small act of resistance.

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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