Sixty and 40 ... looking back


By Bill Kirkman

VICTORY PARADE: Soviet soldiers marching at the Red Square in Moscow, June 24, 1945. PHOTO: AFP

VICTORY PARADE: Soviet soldiers marching at the Red Square in Moscow, June 24, 1945. PHOTO: AFP  

ANNIVERSARIES have been much on my mind during recent weeks. This year is the 60th anniversary of the end of the second World War, and that gave particular relevance to a holiday visit to Eden Camp, in North Yorkshire, a hutted former prisoner of war camp which serves as a museum of the war.

It is a well-conceived and well-presented set of reconstructions of different aspects of the war and the circumstances that led to it. The rise of Hitler, civil defence, the Home Guard ("Dad's Army"), the wartime role of women, the devastation of the blitz, the evacuation of children to safer areas, food rationing, all are displayed in graphic and realistic detail. As two who lived through it, my wife and I naturally found it all nostalgic. The pleasure of nostalgia included getting most answers right in a press-button questionnaire about the amount of various foods in the weekly ration. (That pleasure was diluted somewhat when a fellow visitor congratulated us, but when we said, "We can remember it" remarked "I'm sure you can" — but there is little you can do to conceal your age, and so we took it as a compliment.)

This year also happens to be the 40th anniversary of the foundation of Wolfson College, of which I have been a member for all except three years of its existence. I attended a dinner to celebrate that anniversary, and once again there were plenty of opportunities for nostalgia. I had a conversation, for example, with a man who was a graduate student when I arrived as a Fellow of the college. A civil engineer, he was urgently co-opted on to the building committee, when we needed to ensure that the foundations were safeguarded from flooding. (The water table is high in this part of Cambridge.) He is now a professor in London, and has been involved in many major civil engineering projects, but he still recalls with pride the fact that, as a student, he played a crucial practical part in helping the new college in its early days.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia. Most of us indulge in it from time to time. But it can easily go too far, and we need to guard against the temptation to look back to a mythical golden age when things were so much better than they are now.

I am glad to report that the emphasis in the college celebration was forward rather than backward looking. We recalled our role, as a new institution in an ancient university, at a time of enormous change. We remembered how innovative we had been, for instance in building bridges between the academic and non-academic worlds, at a time when that was thought dangerously radical. We recognised how important it was to continue to embrace change, not resist it. (Ancient universities do tend to be resistant to change, and Cambridge is no exception; nevertheless it is a very different place from what it was 40 years ago, and our young college has played a significant part in that transformation.)

Visiting the Eden Camp provided another reminder of the need to learn from the past, not wallow in it. The war brought out the best in many people, as was demonstrated by many of the museum displays. That does not alter the fact that it was a terrible event, which occurred because of a series of terrible developments.

Positive things came out of it, of course. One was the recognition that relations between states and their citizens can, and should, be conducted in a more civilised way than by war. Another was the recognition that human beings have rights that must be protected, not trampled under foot.

One does not need to be a cynic to be aware that those positive outcomes have not been properly implemented. Military power is still too often preferred to diplomacy, as recent international events have reminded us. Many human beings, in many parts of the world, are still living in conditions which make a mockery of their human rights.

If we take an optimistic view, we must hope that the G 8 summit meeting will make real progress in not simply recognising poverty in many parts of the world, but in resolving to do something about it.

Anniversaries are good reminders of history. If that is all they are, they are sterile. If they encourage us to learn the lessons of history, they serve an important purpose.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K.

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