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“We should not hold current states accountable for what happened in the distant past”

But consigning events to history should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs: they can help heal rifts. 

Image: Laura Carlin
Image: Laura Carlin

Spring is a time to start again, and that may involve deliberately putting out of one’s mind what has gone before. The discomfort and dark of winter should be forgotten. Many years ago a friend of mine lent somebody his tent. This was in Scotland, where tents – and everything else – will inevitably get wet. The borrower used the tent and then stored it in a damp state before giving it back. The owner was a tolerant man but was nonetheless outraged by the mould he discovered, and we all got to hear a great deal of the incident. This all took place more than 30 years ago, but I am not sure whether he has yet forgiven the borrower.

I had occasion to think about the mouldy tent on a recent book tour of Australia. I was reminded of the issue by the custom of prefacing public occasions – such as talks at literary festivals – with a reference to the original inhabitants of the place where the meeting is being held.

Not everybody likes it, and some regard it as irritating tokenism, particularly where the original inhabitants have long since dispersed. The main argument in its defence is that it reminds us of a past that has not entirely lost its capacity to determine who has or gets what today. In the case of Australia, it underlines the fact the continent was not terra nullius when Europeans first settled in it, but was already inhabited by people who had been there for a very long time. What happened to those people is something that today’s Australians are prepared to face up to, even if there are some who would prefer that the matter be ignored. So even if it is a form of tokenism, it is symptomatic of a healthy assumption of responsibility for what our ancestors did.

But the problem with this is deciding the limits of historical responsibility. When should history be deprived of its impact on how we see ourselves and how we conduct our lives? This year it would be impossible to ignore the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. That war was an appalling disaster, but is it still “potent” history, in the sense that it affects the modern world? The answer to that must be yes: many of the contours of the modern world are the discernible result of that conflict. Going back into the 19th century, one will find plenty of historical events that still cast their shadow today, but the further one reaches into the past the safer it is to relegate matters to “inactive” history. This distancing of ourselves from the past is necessary if we are to face the world without the clutter of too much historical baggage.

Of course the idea of insulating oneself from the past suits those who are unwilling to redress injustice. Slavery is an interesting example. In this country we like to think that history remembers us as the abolitionists. Actually we were a major part of the problem in the first place, and amnesia cannot let us off the hook quite so easily. If one travels to some of the poorer parts of the Caribbean, one can still see the scars of slavery. This is what fuels the current calls for reparation. We may feel that it is just too long ago – ancient history. It is, perhaps, for us – but it is not, quite understandably, for them.

Should we have some sort of 100-year rule, akin to the rule that allows official papers to be opened to historians after a certain period? That would relieve Britain of current blame for the concentration camps of the Boer war but not for the treatment of prisoners during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

This is not to say, though, that we should forget entirely; rather it is to suggest that we should not hold any current states or groups accountable for what happened in the distant past. As a Scot, I rather doubt that the Highland Clearances can be laid at the door of anybody who is around today, although I know that there are those who would put the spotlight on those descendants of landowners who still enjoy ill-gotten gains. Nor do I think that we should invest too much emotion in Bannockburn, another anniversary coming up this year. We have a referendum in September at which we do not really need to think too much of William Wallace.

Consigning events to the past should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs. It may be absurd to expect today’s Scandinavians to issue an apology for the behaviour of the Vikings, but the Queen’s bowing of her head in Ireland was a helpful gesture, even if it did not amount to an explicit apology. National apologies can heal rifts, just as failures to apologise in sufficiently unambiguous terms may prolong friction. Japan has discovered that in the reaction to its various official, often rather half-hearted statements of remorse over atrocities committed during the Second World War.

Back to the referendum. I have a friend who is, quite astonishingly, still sore about the Stuarts and the failure of attempts at their restoration. Whatever one’s views on
Scottish independence, perhaps we should move on from whatever ancient baggage we lug around with us – a resounding cliché, and yet a good one, as is the proposition that wherever the future lies, it is not in the past.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel is “The Forever Girl” (Polygon, £16.99)