Secondary lives

Title caption for Upstairs, Downstairs

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I’ve recently fallen into the habit of watching a TV show which is very un-H. I tend to avoid TV series as I don’t want to get sucked into them. I figure with my lifestyle I can’t really commit to them, besides, most do little for me. One of the consequences of that is that I look on oblivious when conversation turns to the aforementioned programs. I can bluff my way through Masterchef conversations, but the rest leave me bewildered. Until now.

Downton Abbey is a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs for the new millennium. I heard good things about it and on strange impulse checked it out, and then somehow got hooked. Basically it’s a high brow soap, though very well made. The locations are splendid, the cast great, the writing has some wit to it. Set just on the verge of WW1 it’s a fascinating time in history, and that makes it interesting too. What compels me though is the whole idea of it. Basically it’s all about the well to do and the servants who serve them.

This is a very foreign concept to one who lives in the colonies in 2011. I suspect it’s reasonably foreign in England now also, though not as much. That this sort of master/servant dichotomy was so entrenched once is fascinating to me, and that people where happy to live that way doubly so. It could never happen here, nor indeed any part of the new world I think. We’re just not built that way.

I nearly wrote that we’re not built to be subservient, but then considered I was making a value judgement too many. What’s the difference after all between the servant who helps his master dress for dinner and the employee working at the factory helping make his boss rich? Chances are that the servant has a more comfortable life too, and in the end is simply trading on something different from the factory worker. It’s undeniable also that to work in ‘service’ had a proud tradition: it was a career that fathers passed onto sons without compunction.

Still, it is different. Upstairs, Downstairs made it explicit in their title – the ‘upstairs’ hob-nobbed together dressing for dinner and taking tea while ‘downstairs’ slaved to provide for their masters, hidden away in a corner out of sight when not doing their duties. It may be slight, but there is a difference in serving someone in a commercial sense, as the factory worker does, and serving a master in his every whim and personal indulgence. I don’t want to put to fine a point on it because every man chooses his calling, and all power to him, but the sense I instinctively feel is that a servant is chattel. His life is lived consciously secondary to his master. And in the end the factory worker may become the factory owner. If he works well and cleverly then that is reasonable aspiration; few servants, I think, ever became the master, and few ever contemplated it.

I watched the Remains of the Day a couple of months ago, a very good, and very poignant movie. Ultimately it’s about missed opportunities, repression, and the failure to act. It’s about a man who locks away his deepest impulses within the prism of doing service to a much admired master, and neglects his own life in doing so. It’s about a form of ignorance to, a blindness that led the character played by Anthony Hopkins to unthinkingly believe that his master was a man of infallible judgement, naturally, even as he sought to appease the Nazis. When asked about this he blinks his eyes in confusion and asserts that it’s not for him to wonder at or question. He is dumb in his devotion to duty over self.

It’s a movie, and I’m not about to suggest to be in service was the same for all, yet I must believe given the different sources painting a similar picture that there is a general truth in the self-abnegation the job demands. Trust in the master is complete. They bask in the reflected glory of the him, taking pleasure in his achievements while not once considering their own. It is an honoured kind of subservience that sits poorly with me because I am of another time and place and culture. I am part of another history.

It is distinctly odd to watch from this distance a world of nearly hundred years ago where the privileged lived a life of ease, doing little more than dressing in beautiful frocks and fine suits and occasionally bestowing their good graces on villagers grateful for the attention. The family in Downton Abbey is benign, yet there is an undeniable sense of entitlement which is never questioned. This is the way of the world. We rule, they serve, and merit has nothing to do with it. It was the gravity of the times.

That gravity never took in places like Australia or the states. We are each naturally democratic. Our countries have been built on the back of individuality and enterprise. It is the nature of our beginnings that the old ways had to be discarded, and new ways encouraged. And it’s true I think – certainly in Oz – that our development has in some way come as a reaction to where we originally came from. Close as the ties have been throughout our history, Australians I think have always sought to chart their own course. Built on the back of convict labour and free settlers the class system was always something to be left behind. What counted here was making something from nothing, of carving out of this new world a society that reflected the enterprise and ambition of its people – and proving to the old country that it could be done.

‘Service’ as such is now an anachronism all over the world, barring a few pockets here and there. For an an Australian watching a program like this it is more than an anachronism. It is the befuddling proof of how distant in spirit we were even then (which the coming war was to emphasise), and how much the world has changed since.

Things that might have been

Cover of "The Pity of War: Explaining Wor...

Cover via Amazon

Have been reading a book on the First World War, Niall Ferguson‘s The Pity of War. It’s a fascinating and exhaustively researched book which casts a new light on long held opinions. Particularly fascinating to me was the diplomatic machinations and manoeuvring between governments in the days leading up to the outbreak of war. There is an almost ESPN-like immediacy to the cut and thrust as governments look to shore up support and cut deals, with rumours and ‘breaking news’ changing the political scenery from one moment to the next. You can imagine that if this was was today the 24 hour news cycle pounding the news out, experts pontificating and correspondents ‘on the spot’ in Berlin and Belgrade, Vienna and London, Paris and Moscow, reporting on latest developments and local sentiment. The man on the street would have been given a voice as almost inevitably and despite all the train ran off the tracks and into the void.

Reading the book though you wonder if it was so inevitable. The circumstances that led to the war are ridiculously unlikely – a reforming Duke sympathetic to the Serbian people is nonetheless marked for assassination by a Serbian nationalist group. On a tour he is seemingly spared from death by the bungling of said Serbian nationalists. Much like a game of good news and bad news, this is the good news that sees the world avoid the conflagration seemingly destined to come. But then the bad news strikes, and destiny is righted. It beggars comprehension, but somehow the car with the Duke in it takes a wrong turn (imagine the reverse, if Kennedy’s car had missed the turn and never entered Dealey Plaza), and lo and behold runs into the now infamous Gavrilo Princip who just happens standing there with a gun in his hand. Bang he goes, and the price of poor navigation is WW1.

Now it’s easy to argue that while the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the trigger that led to to the first war, it’s inarguable that the powder was already smouldering. If it was not this then at some point it would be something else: but then, that would have been another destiny altogether.

I suspect a war of some description was inevitable at some point; what is of more interest to me what might have happened if England never got involved.

Looking back from our times it’s hard to imagine the war without England being a leading player in it – yet it could so easily have been the case. England had an ambiguous and non-binding alliance with France and Russia. Germany believed for a long time that England would stay out of the war. Within England and the government in particular there was considerable resistance in getting involved. Ultimately what really tipped the balance was the prospect of Germany transgressing upon Belgium’s neutrality, which Germany had flagged early. Germany simply wanted to cross over Belgian territory to get at the French, without conflict; ironically England would not have any greater respecter of Belgian neutrality. Yet it was this, with Hawks whispering in the governments ear (Churchill among them) which turned the tide.

What if England had stayed out though? How would the world be different today? Without England their are none of the English allies in the war, including Australia (so instrumental in winning the war in the last months). On top of that America is unlikely to have entered the war – and it was the influx of their troops in 1917 which helped turn the tide.

Another irony of the times is that Russia was greatly feared as an emerging and unscrupulous power. This is one of the reasons Germany went to war – to cut down Russia before it became a threat they couldn’t resist. In the words of our day, it was to be a preemptive war to deal with now what couldn’t be dealt with later. Germany was certainly not flavour of the month in England. It was seen as an emerging rival to British power, but Russia was similarly seen as a dangerous threat to European unity. Their alliance with them was more of convenience, roped in by their relationship with France. Who was the bigger threat in 1914? Many in the English government would have been hard put to decide between the two (strangely echoed 25 years later).

As it happened Germany annihilated Russia, against all expectation I think. This was a leading cause of the Russian Revolution to come, but with England out of it even that changes. I think there would have been a revolution still – the time was ripe, the massive losses had fatally weakened the Tsar, etc – but it may not have been a Bolshevik government, and the Communist Russia may never have happened – at least not then. The critical factor in real history is the the injection of Lenin into Russia by the Germans on the famous ‘sealed train’. It was a masterstroke by them, effectively bringing Russian resistance to an end. But what if Germany had so thoroughly defeated Russia on the field that there was no need to use Lenin. What then?

So, with England out of the war and Russia effectively defeated Germany and her allies would have had to contend with France and her allies alone. We’re dealing in hypotheticals here, and much of it contentious, yet there is good reason to believe that Germany would have defeated France just as they did in 1870. In 1914 is was the English at Mons who stemmed the German advance – without them, where would they have stopped? Germany had the best army in Europe, and were led well against what turned out to be a bit of a rabble early days. Would Germany have reached Paris? I think so. Had the war been localised to the continent I think Germany would have won within a relatively short period and it all would have ended.

Is that the end though? I don’t think so. I think England would have have entered the war finally, even if late. They wouldn’t have expected Russia to be so easily defeated. With France too on the cusp there greatest fear would be that their greatest rival would have European hegemony. They would not have stood for that, but would they have been too late? Good chance.

The other question worth asking is if by some chance war had been averted in 1914 would it have come later? I think likely. There was too much in the stew that made a confrontation – and not necessarily a world war – inevitable. You have to remember it was a very different time to ours. Germany was a growing power, late to feeling its strength. It was like an adolescent wanting to test it, though not nearly as militaristic as history has painted it. England was the established power not yet aware that its might was on the wane and looking to affirm it still against the upstart Germans. France had ancient enmities against both powers and Russia had ambitions of its own, hard to resist given the huge scale of the country.

It’s a volatile mix, fed in part by a press and public not fully capable of understanding of what it might mean. They were jingoistic times (echoed these days by tabloid press everywhere), with a less cynical and more nationalist culture. They had not experienced the horror of the wars they would create, and still saw war in the old fashioned way, as a legitimate means of achieving national aims. If we are different now then a large reason for it is the wars we have learned from.

These counter-factuals are always fascinating, and moistly pointless – history didn’t happen that way no matter how it might have. Still, it’s interesting to think how the world might be so different today but for a few crucial decisions here and there. Goes to show how everything pretty much hangs by a thread.

Why I read history

I know a lot of people who have little regard for ‘history’ as such, and outside of the big, unavoidable events have little real knowledge of it. I’m different, and always have been.

I remember very well my grandfather’s library in the back room of my grandparent’s home in Strathmore. The ‘library’ in fact was a wall of tightly packed bookshelves that contained everything from Ian Fleming to Brendan Behan, history and sport and literature. I can recall as a kid being with my grandpa on occasion as he would enter a bookshop and browse, before leaving with some book or another in a taped up brown paper bag. Many years later some of those books are now mine.

My grandfather was a great and passionate reader. He was a quiet and gentle man by nature, but when he spoke his words carried some weight. He worked as an accountant at PMG – which is now Australia Post – for 50 years, and got a gold watch out of it. His two passions were gardening and books.  Though he had a great variety of books most where history.

From a very young age I was encouraged to read, and taught to love books. As I grew older I would spend hours standing before his book shelves. There I would pluck from the shelves an interesting looking title, which I would peruse standing up, and return with to a nearby chair to examine more closely if it took my fancy. I repeated that process time after time, year after year, selecting books and putting them back, before selecting another. We – my sister and I – spent a part of our school holidays with our grandparents each year at their home. Each year, imagine, the young H developing, each year a little taller than the year before, ripening as boy and then the adolescent I became, before entering into the world as a burgeoning adult.

Those books were part of that. In many ways those history books represented the adult word, of time passed, the broad sweep and trial of lives come and gone, of the epochs they lived through and the grand events I could read of and only imagine. Revealed in even the most innocuous of these books was the cycle of time that even I was part of. I did not think that way then of course, but I think there was some unconscious understanding of that. And so I was drawn back to these shelves of books time and again.

History still fascinates me. I’m an avid viewer of the History channel. I’m a regular reader of history of different types. As a child I read a lot of military history, taking my lead from my grandfather’s collection. I loved reading of monumental battles, the maelstrom as civilisations clashed and history as we know it diverted its course, or accelerated forward. This was always most evident and dramatic in the stories of war. Different forces ran headlong into each other, and like atoms colliding something always came of it. In the confrontation there were tales to thrill every red blooded boy.

As an adult I still read military history, and for many of the same reasons. I read with more depth these days, and look beyond the simple and obvious tales of conflict. And I read much more than that, but the consistent thread is that I am drawn to histories that reveal in some way what people thought or felt, how they lived, and why.  Even in the stories of discovery and triumph it is the personal element that rouses me.

There are many different reasons why history is important, and why it should be read. The most clichéd may be the old chestnut that those who don’t read it are doomed to repeat it. I take that to mean that a close reading of history reveals the interconnectedness of things. It is not the literal history we need know, but how it works, how it unfolds and the reasons why. Human history is the story of human nature and all its foibles. This fascinates me, and is something I seek to understand.

That’s why I read history. I read history for much the same reasons I travel. I seek to understand how people live and what they feel. To travel is to move from one place to another, from one geography, culture, society, to the next. To read history is to be similarly transported, but not from place to place, but from this time to another. And all we have now is the product of all that has come before. That’s why history matters, and why it should be understood.