The 20th century: one to forget

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Welcome to what is perhaps the most enormous undertaking ever initiated by a single newspaper column.

Because beginning today in this space is a 4,546-part survey of the 20th century.

This century, whose end we are now approaching, has been called the century of the common man, even though the common man has never been allowed to take charge anywhere, with the possible exception of John Major.

It has been called the century of the motor car, even though motor cars are killing our planet, as well as a good many common men.

It has been called the century of progress, even though it started up with people thirsty for education and ended up with people flocking to buy scratchcards.

It has been called the century of enlightenment, even though it started with Einstein telling us about relativity and ended up with everyone believing what a bog-standard Irish priest from Dungarvan had to tell us about sex.

It has been called the century of instant communication, even though the person at the other end always seems to be engaged, or on the other line, or in a meeting.

But here is Vassily Borzov, who was born in 1891 and who thus remembers the last century well.

"Yes. I remember the 1890s very well. It was the only decade we had when I was a boy. I had no idea what the new century would bring. But my great- grandmother, who was born in 1795, and therefore could remember the 18th century, she said to me, `Mark my words, when you are very old people will come asking you what life was like 100 years ago, so make sure you remember.'

"And I said, `What was life like 100 years ago, great-grandmama?', and she said, `Bloody awful, just like it is now. And according to my great- uncle, who was born in 1692, it always was.' "

Vassily Borzov. We'll be hearing more from him later.

Now Professor Lionel Tweed, lecturer in 20th-century studies at Taunton Deane University.

"Thank you. Of course, Taunton Deane is not a real university, it's just a jumped up polytechnic. Actually, it's not even that, it's just a jumped up motorway service area. But in many ways, this is what the 20th century has been about. Education. Teaching. More and more people have been taught in more and more places of learning. Result? Greater ignorance than ever before and the rise of Rupert Murdoch. We are a more literate nation than we ever have been, and the Sun is the best-selling newspaper in Britain. What does this tell us? That you don't make someone clever by educating him. Sorry, what was the question again?"

The question was this. Since we have started a massive 4,546-part series on the progress of the 20th century, we are going to need all the material we can find, so can you say something on the subject starting now, without deviation, hesitation, repetition or using lots of long words that our readers wouldn't understand?

"Certainly. Well, I think the thing that strikes you most about the 20th century is the way that although everything was supposedly recorded for posterity, the opposite is possibly true. The Archduke's nephew was shot in Sarajevo, thus starting the Great War. Where is the film of it happening? The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour, Hitler invades Poland. Have we got this on film? I think not. When you look back through our supposedly wonderfully documented century, all you can find on film is a blurry picture of Emily Davison throwing herself at the King's horse and Kennedy's wobbly assassination. It's not much to show. No wonder they have to resort to very old people who remember 1900 and not much else."

Here's Vassily Borzov again.

"Hello. I was born in 1891, or have I said that already? Actually, all I can remember about those days was my great-grandmother telling me how much worse it was in her day. `I tell you something, Vassily,' she told me often, `until you have been invaded by the French you have no idea how terrible life can be. I remember in 1812 Napoleon's army coming by on their way to Moscow.'

" `Did they rape and pillage?', I asked her. `I don't remember about that,' she said, `but I do remember that they were incredibly arrogant, and would only speak French to you. Not one of them had made the effort to learn Russian.' "

Part 2 of our 4,546-part series entitled `The Century Now Ending' will appear on Monday and will feature a startling interview with the 103-year- old Starr sisters, who double-dated the Wright Brothers nearly 100 years ago, but said it wasn't much of an evening out as all they talked about was sparking plugs and oil filters.