GOING to my GP’s practice in the Cumbria market town of Brampton a few days ago, I passed the statue of the Emperor Hadrian and I was ‘triggered’. Am I due reparations for my ancestors who suffered under him and all the other Roman tyrants? In the ‘safe space’ of the waiting room I thought, Shall I contact my MP and request he submit a claim to Italy’s Ms Giorgia Meloni? Though I am unsure who my ancestors were at that time, I have spent some 83 years living close to Hadrian’s Wall (except for four years in London in the ‘swinging 60s’). I must be due something. As a fan of Ms Meloni I feel she would ensure a swift payment. Should I establish a website, perhaps? Check first if there is one already called, say, britsforreparations.com.
Perhaps I should consider approaching His Majesty the King to see if the suffering of my more recent ancestors, of whom I do have some knowledge, would entitle me to reparations? In the early 1800s some of my mother’s family walked from Sutherland in north-west Scotland to settle in the Scottish border counties and in Northumberland. In the 1830s some of her other ancestors walked from Frome in Somerset to County Durham to work in the coal mines.
They did not always have a fun time. One of my grandmother’s aunts gave birth underground in the mine she worked in. Her brother who had been in the British Army serving in India, South Africa and France during World War I, refused to serve in Ireland (he had ‘served alongside Irishmen for too many years to start killing them’), and started working in the mines. He was decapitated when he fell down a mine shaft, the result of a mistake by the lift operator.
My late mother’s earliest recollection was from 1912 when she was four years old. It was of four men attacking her uncle, who was a full-time union employee. She ran to get her father’s help; being a very strong miner he rescued her uncle. The attackers were not treated with sympathy. The assumption was they had been paid by the mine owners to intimidate her uncle. This took place near a village called Chopwell in the Derwent Valley. Even in the late 1960s it was still known to older people as ‘Little Moscow’.
According to my family, the late Queen Mother’s family received more money per ton of coal that crossed their land by rail than the miners did for hewing it out of the ground. We descendants must be due something.
I assume most readers will not have taken my demands too seriously. We can all learn from history but to blame descendants for the past sins of their ancestors is of little use for today or the future. We all should try to learn from the mistakes of the past, individually and collectively. I can recall German air attacks in the North East from my early childhood, conversations of family who fought in the Second World War. I served an apprenticeship in a large factory in Gateshead and worked with very many men who had been in similar situations as my family. Some had worked on the Arctic Convoys. But while many cursed the war and much of what had happened, none expressed hatred of the Germans. They would however be less than complimentary about the leaders on both sides.
During my apprenticeship I sometimes worked alongside Germans. If there was any hostility towards them I can recall none of it. I learned to speak German in my late teens and visited the country a good few times; I even worked there in my thirties installing machinery for a UK company. I found hostility on only one occasion from a man who said he did not like the English, yet his wife and teenage son were always very pleasant. One German was delighted when he found that I lived near the village where he had been a PoW. It was the first I’d heard of a PoW camp there.
An uncle of my wife was a PoW who worked on the Burma Railway. He came back ‘a changed man’, his family said. I can believe it. I read a book my neighbour lent me which her late husband had written about his experience of the same fate; it was horrific. Should we hold the Japanese people to account for their grandparents? We have a Japanese friend married to an Englishman. Their wedding was excellent: they ensured all tables were a mixture of Japanese and British guests. As were the alcoholic drinks. It was amazing how well we were all able to communicate and get on with each other.
In various parts of the world it is customary to hate, hold grudges against other families for sins of many generations ago; I see little benefit from this. I was once asked by some Germans when I was working there if my English colleagues were Socialists or Conservatives. I replied that I had no idea. They then asked if they were Catholic or Protestant. I replied again I had no idea and added where I came from we were not bothered by people’s politics or religion, only that they pay their turn in the pub. They thought this very amusing.
There are currently many serious problems both nationally and internationally. Sadly, worldwide very few countries have leaders who inspire me with confidence and I suspect many of those reading this will agree. Jerome Booth in his recent book Have we all Gone Mad? suggests this is all due to groupthink. Olivier Sibony in his book You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake! makes similar comments, illustrating how challenging discussion makes for better decisions both in governments and in commercial organisations. I think anyone who has read them will agree and wish those involved in the Covid-19 disaster had considered alternative views and been questioned more rigorously earlier. Certainly none of those involved in the decision-making inspires any confidence in me of their intellectual abilities.
I understand people in former colonies looking for reparations even if I don’t agree with them. In truth I seek no reparations for what was done to my ancestors. I would however be happy if the Treasury paid the balance of what the Ombudsman recommended Equitable Life victims such as me and about a million others should receive. Or perhaps we should leave it to our descendants to make a reparation claim in a couple of hundred years from the descendants of those responsible.