What did Churchill do in the war, daddy?

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I HAVE spent the last two weeks revelling in one of life's rarest pleasures. Better even than sailing the turquoise waters of the Aegean; or visiting ancient classical sites whose marble pavements and fluted columns dazzled the imagination; or mooring for a night in a secluded bay with utter stillness on all sides.

No, the chief pleasure of my holiday was that of good conversation. Every evening a dozen of us sat round a table on the rear deck under the stars, enjoying wonderful Turkish food, rather less wonderful Turkish wine, but above all, hours and hours of stimulating, provocative talk.

I do not underrate the pleasure of gossip. Unless it is malicious, gossip is largely a matter of telling stories about other people's lives: which is the fundamental purpose of communication. But most of us were unknown to each other (at least initially), so we could not indulge in gossip, not having enough acquaintances in common.

This meant that we talked about ideas; and talking became argument, and argument turned into disputation, and eventually one of our number even got up in a fury and left the table, so passionately did he disagree - and was reconciled next day, and able to make a joke of it.

By the end of the holiday all our minds had been stretched and spring-cleaned, old prejudices aired and found to have become shabby and outdated; new opinions tried out and adopted. There can be few greater luxuries than finding oneself with enough time and the right company to achieve this.

We also read aloud for about half an hour before dinner every evening. Many people will reel from such pretentiousness; and reel again when I say that what we read was Homer's Odyssey. (In English, however.) I can only say that sailing on the Aegean where Odysseus sailed, with small waves slapping against the sides of the boat and the shapes of the same coastline and islands that he visited darkening after sunset, the Odyssey was perfect.

Our nightly readings and the vivid images conjured up of a Bronze Age world, prompted one of our group (a teacher) to comment that the memories of today's young extend backwards for less than a generation: a decade would be more like it.

Nonsense] I said, indignantly. They have grandparents, older relatives or teachers; they must know about the two world wars, and the Holocaust, and, well, Kennedy and . . . No, he said, they do not. According to a recent survey only 8 per cent of teenagers have even heard of Winston Churchill, let alone know who he was or what he did. We all gasped in disbelief; and then began to ponder the implications of a generation with a 10-year memory span.

They must be unfamiliar with the Bible, and thus cannot understand the ethical foundations of Christianity, nor criticise the various cheapskate, pick 'n' mix religions that beckon them. If they don't know their own nation's history, however dimly, they cannot understand Shakespeare or any other writer not strictly contemporary. Right, he said, grimly: they can't.

What do they know? They know about film and video and computers, especially computer games. They know about big news stories, especially bloody spectaculars such as the OJ Simpson case, and will argue as passionately as all of us were arguing: for example, about whether, if he is found guilty of murder, OJ should get the death penalty.

They are not without opinions or a moral code. They have strongly held views on rape, on family life and parental break-ups, on single mothers, feminism, political correctness, animal rights or vegetarianism. They are by no means unthinking or uncaring. But all the things they care about are directly related to their immediate experience. They cannot adduce the past, or think in the abstract, or ahead. They don't, for example, care about euthanasia (another topic that raged around our dinner table one evening) or surrogate motherhood, presumably because they still believe they are immortal and in perfect working order. They cannot conceive of physical failure, let alone death.

Does this me-centred view of reality matter? Yes] I protested; it must] It means they do not know who they are, where they come from, what have been the gains and losses of this century, how their forefathers lived. They do not know that they are lucky (in terms of health and hygiene, the absence of war, the wealth of leisure), but also unlucky (junk food, tawdriness, lack of skills, lack of work, loss of respect for work and countryside; and for most, the lack of challenges and consequent boredom).

The discussion lasted half the night. We went to bed with minds racing. Of all our conversations, this is the one that stays with me. Is it possible, can it be true, that most young people - I exclude, of course, the thoughtful and the diligent: which means, those who are either clever or solitary - have no notion of the world they were born into just two decades ago? Apparently, yes.