A sense of history

A new poll reminds us that without knowing what we were, we'll never know who we are.

Britain thinks of itself as an old country, in which history and tradition matter.

That is a sensibility shared across very different political perspectives,
ranging from Eurosceptic invocations of a thousand years of history to
Occupy celebrating the 365th anniversary of the Putney debates and British
traditions of democratic equality stretching back to the Levellers.

David Cameron's recent call to ensure "an enduring cultural and educational
legacy" by making young people central to the commemoration of the Great
War will strike a chord with most people.

Fully 85 per cent of people say that school children today do not know enough
British history, and that the centenary should be seized as an important
opportunity for them to learn more in a new YouGov poll for British Future,
which explores how much people know about the history of the Great War.

What the poll also shows is that expressions of pride in British history
can often be combined with a pretty shaky grasp of the details.  Thinking
that history is very important does certainly not seem to entail knowing
all that much of it.

The findings are not, by any means, all bad news. The new poll shows that
most people can at least identify 1914 and 1918 as the years that the war
began and ended, with 65 per cent able to identify 1914, falling to 56 per cent who can get the year the war ended.

That does leave a third of people who don't know when the war began, making
guesses ranging from 1800 to 1950, with 1960 being the latest date given
for the year of the Armistice. Only a minority of those under 24 could give
either the 1914 or 1918 dates, while over 60s did better.

At least most people know that there was a Great War, and when it was, but
go beyond that and everything else about that war seems to get quite a bit
sketchier for a majority of the population.

Forty-four per cent of people could identify Passchendaele as a world war one battle, which seems a fairly reasonable score when the battle in the mud of Flanders does
not, though over half a million were killed on the British and German sides
combined, have quite the same level of infamy as the Somme. Almost a third
of those under 24 did choose Waterloo, Bannockburn or Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, as first world war battles.

Communities minister Sayeeda Warsi wrote recently in the Sun that "our
boys on the front line weren't just Tommies; they were Tariqs and
Tajinders as well - one million Indian soldiers fighting for our country". But
most people don't know about the Commonwealth troops fought in the war: 44 per cent are aware that Indian soldiers fought for Britain, with a similar
proportion knowing that Canadian soldiers took part. There is not much more
awareness of the role of Australian troops either, as 47 per cent of Britons know
that Australian soliders took part in the war, though that history
continues to have a powerful influence on Australian national identity,
with the increased prominence of Anzac Day down under forming a crucial
part of modern Australian citizenship and nation-building. Only half as many again (22 per cent) knew about the role of African troops from
Kenya.

Interestingly, breaking the pattern of other questions on dates or battles,
16 and 17-year olds and those under 24 were just as likely to know about
soldiers from Australia and Canada, India and Kenya as those over 60,
suggesting that this is an aspect of the war that has perhaps become more
prominent in the last couple of decades.

Two-thirds of people don't feel able to hazard a guess about the scale of
British and Commonwealth military casualties. Six per cent of people, and one in ten
of those under 24, suspect under 10,000 British and Commonwealth soliders
were killed, with under a quarter confident enough to make any sort of
sensible estimate in the hundreds of thousands or over a million. The
combined number of British and Commonwealth military deaths is just over
1.1 million, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

If people have a shaky grasp of what happened, there is also an appetite to
know more about it. Family history might be one starting point for many.
14 per cent of people say that their relatives fought in world war one and that
they know what they did. Another 33 per cent of people think that they did have
relatives who fought in world war one, but that they don't know the details
of what they did, while 37 per cent aren't sure whether their relatives were
involved or not. (Seventeen per cent say that they know their relatives did not fight in
the war). There is a big opportunity here, perhaps for the BBC and the
government to collaborate, to open up the "who do you think you are"
opportunities to make it easier for people to fill in the gaps in their own
family histories, and also to share that information with others.

Michael Merrick, who teaches at a Catholic school in Cumbria, told me that
schools should also seek to seize the opportunity of the centenary to
improve historical knowledge and understanding of how the events of the
last century have shaped the society we became, but warned that there are
"significant obstacles to overcome" to make this happen. "During the first years at secondary school, too many students will receive
just one hour a week of History, one hour in which to deliver an island story spanning thousands of years. One could hardly be
surprised if a teacher is thereby reluctant to devote time to exploring
local histories at what seems like the expense, on such a limited
timetable, of a wider overview. Neither, it should be added, is there
always the guarantee that the teacher will be a subject specialist, whilst
the current fashion for emphasising the forensic analysis of sources over
narrative comprehension further weakens the civic-oriented impulse, turning
History into a skill to be learned rather than a story to be told."

British Future and the Citizenship Foundation plan to work together during
the next year, looking at how schools think the centenary can best be used
to improve historical understanding in a way that engages the next
generation.

But these are not just questions for schools to address. They are also
about public understanding of the formative moments which have made us the
society that we have become. The centenary of the war should offer an
opportunity for every argument about it to be aired and contested, to thrash
out the legacies which it has had for Britain today. Why did the war happen
and how could the slaughter have been averted? How did it change Britain's
relationships with Europe, Empire and Commonwealth? What were the most
profound domestic social changes wrought by a war which finally ended the
argument about restricting the franchise, and changed the social role of
women dramatically?

It is hard to see how we can try to answer those questions, or have those
arguments if we have only the shakiest grasp on what happened. In 2014,
people will want to commemorate the war, and remember those who lost their
lives in it. We have two years to think about how we are going to learn
what we want to remember.

Sunder Katwala is director British Future
Douglas Haig visits a poppy factory in 1926 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty
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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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