Birthdays, I find, always inspire
a brief period of reflection, and my latest is no exception.
And I mean reflection rather than
introspection. I’m not the introspective
type, at least I don’t think I am, but I am given to contemplating how the
world has changed in the course of this lifetime (which I trust still has considerable
time to run).
Consider if you will the year in
which I was born: 1942 was memorable by any measure and, like so many of my
early years of my span, can often prove difficult to reconcile with the
present. The events of that year seem to
belong to an altogether different era, a passage of time now consigned to
history books. It was, of course, an altogether
different era, and it is now history.
In 1942 Britain was at war with Germany, Italy
– countries that we now call friends.
The Battle of El Alamein, which arguably turned the tide of the war,
would be fought when I was four months old, while farther west the Allies
prepared to invade Morocco
to squeeze Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a pincer movement. Operation Torch, as it
was called, would mark America’s
first military venture in the European theatre.
And by the end of the year the Red Army of the Soviet Union would be
completing the destruction of Germany’s
Sixth army at Stalingrad, in every way a far
more significant victory. Nobody until
then had heard of either El Alamein or Stalingrad,
and I venture to guess today that a majority of the present generation hasn’t
heard of them either.
Nor would they know of Bataan and
Corregidor, in the Philippines,
which country was that year overrun by Japan’s all-conquering Imperial
Closer to home my parents, as a
result of German bombing, were homeless, my father training to be a driver with
the Royal Artillery, after serving in London with the ARP (Air Raid
Precautions) during the Blitz.. He would
survive the war, with just a few physical scars to show for it, but also a few
mental ones – or so my mother used to insist.
Survival was not on the cards for
a young Jewish girl hiding from the Gestapo in an Amsterdam attic, and writing a diary of the
experience. Even as poor little Anne
Frank was putting her thoughts to paper, so was the Propaganda Minister of the
government that was bent on mindlessly destroying her and her entire race.
Here is one of the diary entries
that same year of Joseph Goebbels, one of the principal sponsors of her
misfortune. “The Jewish question is again giving us a headache; this time,
however, not because we have gone too far, but because we have not gone far
enough …. The Jewish race is the most dangerous one that inhabits the world ….
This riff-raff must be eliminated and destroyed. Otherwise, it won’t be possible to bring
peace to the world.”
Technology, as we know the term,
was in its infancy in 1942. In Bletchley Park,
Hertfordshire, in a secret establishment north of London, Alan Turing was inventing a machine we
would now call a computer, the Enigma device that broke the German naval
codes. Turing was, and remains, an
unsung British hero. He was also,
incidentally, homosexual, and for this he was driven to suicide not just by
society’s condemnation of his lifestyle, but the threat of criminal
prosecution, physical expressions of love between people of the same sex then
being illegal. Across the Atlantic, General Leslie Groves was being appointed to
supervise a secret operation called the Manhattan Project, with the singular aim
of developing an atomic bomb. Following
the successful completion of that project, and a couple of ‘live’
demonstrations of the product, the world would live in fear of a nuclear
holocaust for most of my lifetime.
Who, besides me, was born that
year and whose names you might recognise?
A short list, picked at random, includes Stephen Hawking, still
astounding us with the output from that impeccable brain set in a ravaged body;
Paul McCartney, still convincing some of us that he is a music phenomenon long
after the days of the Beatles; Myra Hindley, the female half of that misbegotten
Yorkshire pair, the so-called Moors murderers; and Billy Connolly, who used to
make me laugh all the time and still does occasionally.
The reflection, in a brief,
necessarily superficial summary, is that while much has changed, some things
The good news is that no world
war seems imminent. The Soviet Union has disintegrated, and converted to the
supposed benefits, and deficiencies, of capitalism. Germany is now a modern democracy,
and an economic power rather than a military one, which some people find even
The sad news is that anti-Semitism
still raises its ugly head from time to time, even in the ostensibly tolerant western
democracies, and may yet (arguably) lead to a conflagration in the Middle East. The
nuclear threat seems to have receded, though certain renegade countries now
have the destructive technology to start what the Great Powers for half a
century managed to avoid.
As for the peaceful technologies
of communication, even Mr. Turing might be astonished at the various emanations
from his work at Bletchley
Park. Astonished, but perhaps also a little alarmed. The House of Commons, debating this very day
the issue of same-sex marriage, is apparently divided on whether his kind
should be allowed to marry a male partner, but at least he would not end up in
prison for it; progress of sorts, one has to say.
Overall, in terms redolent of a
school report, I would conclude, “Definite signs of improvement this term, but
much more work needed to maintain the momentum”.
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