The Black Hole of History

The Breaking of Eggs deals with events in Europe between 1939 and 1989. With the fate of Poland during World War II. With the realities of the communist bloc after the war. With the Iron Curtain that divided Europe for nearly half a century. These events are not, or not mainly, what the novel is about, but they are its context.  

When people aged under 35 have read the novel, they have often said things like: ‘It’s fascinating to read all this history. I never knew about it.’ My first reaction is to say (to myself): ‘That’s not history. It’s current affairs.’ My second reaction is to say (also to myself): ‘Why don’t you know about it?’

But these readers are right. The story of the novel is history. Even the collapse of communism in 1989, which feels like yesterday to me, is now history. So why do I still instinctively think of it as current affairs – albeit current affairs that happened rather a long time ago?

Because most of the events in the novel happened within my lifetime. And for me, and for most of us, the division between history and current affairs lies at the time that we first become aware of the world around us, and it stays at that point for ever.

I was born in 1949. For me, World War II is history (just). But many other things are not. The erection of the Berlin Wall, JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the collapse of communism and dozens of other earth-shattering events have all happened in my lifetime. They are not history to me.

Does the distinction matter? Yes. When events transmute from current affairs to history, they change. Colour and emotion and humanity drain away and we are left with rational discussions of cause and effect. It is the difference between being taught about the experiences of others and experiencing those things directly for oneself (another theme of the novel).

The same dividing line accounts for what we learn, and do not learn, in school and college. Those who set the syllabuses and courses are at least one generation – sometimes more – older than the generation being taught. What is history to the pupil is current affairs to the teacher. It does not feature on the syllabus. History was my main subject at school and university and I was taught it well. Yet none of the history I was taught went beyond 1914. And my experience of current affairs could not have started until I was roughly ten, in 1959.

So there was a black hole of nearly 50 years in my knowledge: the gap between what I was taught and what I have experienced for myself. A black hole that happened to contain both world wars and rather a lot else. A black hole that I have needed to spend much of my life filling.

I believe that a similar black hole, and of roughly the same length, exists for each generation. It exists now. It means that no one under the age of 35 or so will have any direct memory or experience of the time when east and west were divided into two armed ideological camps, and where any event anywhere in the world needed to be viewed through the prism of that conflict. And almost no one in those generations will have learnt about it in school or university either.

Most people believe that the past can teach us about the present and the future. Perhaps the recent past can teach us the most, because it provides the immediate context and explanation for the present. Yet the probability is that most of the leaders of today and tomorrow – in all countries and in all walks of life – will carry around the same black hole of knowledge for the rest of their lives. Unless they trouble to fill it for themselves. Tony Blair apparently told Roy Jenkins that he wished he’d studied history at university. As Matthew Oxenhay remarks in Trading Futures: ‘I think we all wish that, don’t we?’

There is no resolution to the eternal question of youth versus experience. When I was young, I thought that energy and vitality were all that mattered and that experience was vastly overrated. Now, of course, I think the opposite. Or, as Matthew Oxenhay again puts it in Trading Futures: ‘We can fight battles only with the weapons we have. When we are young, we take up arms on the side of science, because art – in this context – requires experience, and we do not have experience. When we are older, we take up arms on the side of art, because experience is our advantage, and because we can no longer be bothered to keep pace with the science.’

But at either extreme of age, and at all points in between, there is usually a heavy price to pay for ignorance. The human casualties of past events are eventually forgotten. Yet we are all prospective pawns of future events, so each of us is a potential future casualty.