10 October, 2006

A Sense of History

On 17th October 2006, one week from today, the Brits are going to do something eccentric. So what’s new? Well, they’ll be doing it as a nation, rather than as 60 million individuals, and it will involve blogging.

The National Trust and English Heritage have organised an event in which they hope to get hundreds of thousands of Brits to participate by each of them writing a blog on 17th October, describing their day and how they have been influenced by history. The hope is to raise the nation’s awareness of its history (even more) and at the same time to create a huge corpus of writings by ordinary people all over the UK that will be an unique historical document for the benefit of future historians.

As an ex-pat Brit myself, I’m filled with a peculiar yearning to participate. Unfortunately, it’s just for people living there (and, anyway, I’ll be on holiday on that day and unable to blog about anything). I can’t help thinking that the organisers have missed a trick though. Being British doesn’t stop just because you’ve moved overseas, nor does the effect of having been raised among people so much aware of their national identity and history. Surely, the hyper-blog they create next Tuesday would be enhanced by the voices of the millions of us who have gone off to live elsewhere but still carry that heritage with us. The document would then be a global testament to the thoughts and feelings of Britons everywhere.

So, what would I have written?

October 17th 2006: On holiday today in Lennox Head NSW, Australia. Drove here from Brisbane on Sunday and it’s great to be here at the beach again. My wife, Christine, and daughter, Becky, are with me and, since Becky is now 20 and itching to travel and explore, I can’t help but wonder if this might be our last family holiday. It is hard to know how best to make the most of it. Laugh a lot, do something memorable, have long and deep conversations, try to act normal. Who knows?

There is no history here – or very little. Brisbane itself is barely 150 years old and Lennox Head perhaps half of that. There may have been Aboriginal habitation here going back 40,000 years for all I know but their history is as alien to me as it is to all the other settlers here. The broad Pacific Ocean with its promise of migrating whales and frolicking dolphins is visible from my hotel. There is more of my own history there than here on land, but even that stretches back only to bold European explorers of the 17th Century.

I have stood in cathedrals in England that were begun in the 6th Century. I have walked along Hadrian’s Wall. I have stood in henges and touched carved stones from three thousand years before the Roman invasion. My surname is from the Viking settlers who came to Northern England in the 9th Century. In the complexion and colouring of my many relatives, I see my Celtic ancestry. Even the stories about the two World Wars, told by the people who had lived through them, that filled my childhood, anchored me in an idea of being British that has held me fast all my life.

It is strange to be in a place with so little history. The history of Australia is all ahead of it. Under this glorious sunshine, beside this blue ocean, on these white sands, we are writing that history now. Shaping it and causing it. Are we building something that will last five thousand years? Even five hundred seems optimistic.

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