Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Events, dear boy, events

A post that resonates from Norm Geras in which he argues, I crudely paraphrase, that if you owe the circumstances of your birth to malign events (an example of someone whose parents met in a Nazi concentration camp is quoted) that that is no reason to regret your own existence.

He's right about that, I think (he gets quite a few things right), but the reason it resonates is that I owe my own existence to Britain's rather tangled history in Malaysia. My parents, you see, met in a British military hospital sometime in the Sixties. (It seems there was a jammed window which none of the nurses could open, my father attempted to fix it and managed to break it. Endearing uselessness, it's one way to get chicks I suppose).

Anyway, anecdotage aside, they were both there in their capacity as British army medics. The history of the time is somewhat complex - I'm not really best placed to give a proper overview of what the Brits were doing post Malaysian independence – but there were various conflicts with the Indonesians, with communist agitators and sundry other bits of unpleasantness.

I mention all this because, in the context of Norm's question (it's not his initially, but you know what I mean), I would struggle to even answer the basic premise on which it is based: was the British presence (to which I owe my existence) in Malaysia a good or a bad thing?

The full question of Britain's own colonial legacy is probably too recent, too contentious to give assess objectively. Let's just say, at least, that there were some pretty unpleasant aspects to the Empire that we would not want to see repeated, including this interesting claim from Kenya. (If you really want to over-complicate matters, I might add my parents' own presence in the British forces is not without its historic paradoxes: both were of Irish stock - one Ulster Proddy, one Southern Catholic, but that's enough of that). Then there were the specific acts of violence and conflict in south-east Asia in which the British were entangled.

So far, so bleak. But then there are many who will argue that the British empire brought benefits and virtues to the world too. It might also be argued that the British in helping to suppress communism in a more benign and effective way than the Americans did in Vietnam and helping to support the newly independent states and to stabilise the region deserve some credit, a paying off of the colonial debt if you like.

Plus, of course, it has given me one fine anecdote about the mess boy in my mother's hospital who doubled up as the local communist agitator. He was never sacked because he was too good and his job and always tipped the Brits off whenever he was planning an anti-British riot in the town.

Anyway, the point is: what is the point?

To say that most things in history are morally ambiguous to some degree is stating the bleeding obvious, a bit. (So too would the observation that I am not especially well-informed about Malaysian history).

And yet, combine the two factors together. Does it really matter that I can't even say whether or not the circumstances to which I owe my existence are a good thing or not? Should we not all attempt to discover more about the historic cross currents, the events and ambiguities that contribute to our making? Besides that question, there's a certain pleasure to be had from random events such as my parents' meeting and learning more about somewhat obscure events is not a bad thing (I think I might read up on Malaysia a bit). And at least asking the question about whether or not the context behind our personal and family histories is benign or malign is, I think, a good starting point to understanding the world in which we now inhabit and, possibly, what things from the past we should seek to avoid and learn from. (For one thing, if ever I learn of a group of nurses having trouble with their windows, I'll know what to do).

But I think also its worth remembering that if random events can bring about our existence, they can also shape the course of history in more profound ways. I like the line from Flashman: "In my experience the course of history is as often settled by someone having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or a sailor getting drunk or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside."

So all that questioning and story-telling and you end up with a why history matters post. Sorry about that. Still, one thing I can say for certain. I do wish I had been born in Singapore rather than in Sheffield. It would add, unfairly no doubt, a certain air of exoticism.

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