I was moved today by the front page of the Spectator that showed the NHS as soldiers in trenches fighting a war. I was incredibly moved by one of my friends who is a radiographer who shaved off his beard so that his PPE would work and I was moved to tears by my own sense of worthlessness in this current crisis.
I am a historian with an interest in literature and philosophy. Quite useless at the best of times but in a hospital even worse that useless, a potential menace. What use is a knowledge of Paelolithic fauna or Bronze Age language in a resuscitation? None. Its like that poster of the little girl asking her father what he did in the Great War for civilisation. I know that it is shameless emotional blackmail but what am I doing for civilisation during this six months of lockdown?
I am reminded of a lecture delivered by CS Lewis during the Second World War to humanity students who were wondering if there were any point learning about Anglo-Saxons during wartime. Lewis argued that wartime and peace time were in fact the same. The only difference is that in wartime it is impossible to forget the truth that everyone dies in the end. In peace time you can forget that, you can forget that our society and culture is finite and you can forget the sheer unfairness of the universe. During wartime these truths bear down on us to the exclusion of all else.
My knowledge therefore is equally redundant during a Corona lockdown or during freedom. It is equally valid as well. Peace and war are the same and so should be my attitude to my discipline. Which leads back to my last post, what is the point of history? The point of history is to inform, entertain, educate and see the world through different eyes. To liberate the individual from the pressure of the now and take a wider perspective. My house built in the 1930s was bombed in the war, stands on a deer park owned by the Black Prince and is in striking distance of a Roman Fort built after the Boudican revolt. The purpose of history is to show a bigger and wider world and get in some of the sap that human life is built on.
When my friend shaved his beard I did the same. I now go shopping for my elderly neighbours and enjoy my daily walk around the Quint. Now I feel a bit less useless in that I can see a role for my discipline in the current darkness and I will leave you with a quote from one of my favourite Anglo-Saxon poets (credited with Beowulf by Tolkien, maybe with a smile) “..this too will pass.”