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1942 And All That

Another bloody birthday.

They come round now with ever-increasing frequency these days.  They do no such thing, of course, but that’s how it seems.

And 1942, the year of my birth, seems to have receded into the dim haze of history.  I sometimes look at it when I fill in forms and wonder what the recipient will think.  “Must be a misprint,” I wouldn’t mind betting.

The year is beyond haze for teenagers.  For them it’s a big black hole, as vast and unfathomable as that other one out in space.

As if to illustrate the point, yesterday I responded to birthday greetings from a teenaged schoolboy by mentioning that the year I was born, midway through the war, was a very significant one for the Allies; two battles that year marked the turning of the tide against the Hitler regime: Stalingrad and El Alamein.

My expanded response elicited a blank look.

“What’s the matter,” I asked.

“Well,” came the reply, “I don’t mean to be thick or anything but what war are we talking about?”

“The Second World War,” I said.  “The one your grandfather fought in, and perhaps your grandmother, as well.  We just celebrated VE Day.”

“VE  Day?  What’s that?”

“Victory in Europe.  Your grandparents may remember.”

“They’re still alive,” he said.  “Who was the war between?”

I was proud of my forbearance.

“The combatants were, on the one side, the Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – and on the other the Allies – America, the Soviet Union and Britain, as well as various Commonwealth countries and a few others.”

The look remained unmarked by any visible sign of recognition.

“Who won?”

“Well, the Allies, of course.  Don’t they teach any of this at school?”

I should mention that he attends a local private school of some renown, with fees to reflect it.

“Nah, we don’t do history.”

“What do you ‘do’, then?”

“All kinds of stuff, mostly maths and science.  We do English, too, but that’s pretty boring.  Our teacher thinks history is a bit of a waste.  It’s all in the past, he says, not much good to us now.  What were those battles you mentioned?”

I told him, spelling them out.  Into his mobile they went.

“I’ll look them up,” he said, “And then I’ll mention them to my granddad, see if he’s heard of them.”

“Oh, I can assure you that he has,” I said, adding in a kindly tone that masked irritation.  “And I bet he’s heard of Hastings, Waterloo and Trafalgar.”

Another vacant frown appeared.  His phone didn’t appear to be getting a signal.  He explained the possible reason why in intimate and impressive detail which I couldn’t repeat if my life depended on it.

Oh, what the hell.  Maybe his teacher is right: the past is a foreign country and form of English that doesn’t aid navigation through the internet is pointless.

More media studies candidates on the way, I suppose.

Come on, you expected a curmudgeonly piece, and that’s what you’ve got.

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