Christina Patterson: We can try to live without the past but we'll always fail

The Saturday Column

Saturday 31 July 2010 01:20 BST
(Getty Images)

So, was it worth it? Was it worth the $100m it cost, and the 10 years of preparation, and the agony of the relatives who had to listen to accounts of how their fathers and uncles and mothers and aunts were tortured and beaten and mutilated and poisoned or bludgeoned to death or buried alive?

Was it worth it, for the man who did this stuff, one of the many men who did this stuff, but the only senior figure to be prosecuted, to get a jail sentence of less than 19 years?

This is a question that only Cambodians can answer, and a question that not even Cambodians can answer. How much money is worth it? How much pain is worth it? How many years will be enough? Given that 1,000 years wouldn't be enough? For some Cambodians, still struggling with the legacy of those terrible years when 1.7 million people were slaughtered and countless others lost their homes and their families, it's something, and something is better than nothing, though nothing can ever take the pain away.

For others, also struggling with the legacy of those years (because everyone in Cambodia is struggling with the legacy of those years and will be, for generations), it's worse than nothing, insult added to unimaginable injury, that the man who ran the prison in which thousands of people were tortured and sent to their deaths, a man who admitted that he was "solely and individually responsible for the loss of at least 12,380 lives", might, in a mere 13 years, be free to roam the streets of Phnom Penh.

There is, however, one outcome of this agonising process of collective memory which can only be a good thing. For the first time ever, history books are being printed and distributed which actually include accounts of the revolution that wrecked a nation, a revolution that turned great swathes of this beautiful, heart-breaking country into killing fields. Without some public recognition of the history that shattered it, some breaking of the silence that has muffled, and almost buried it, no process of healing can begin.

We can't live without history. We can try, but we'll always fail. It was Marx, of course, who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, and who arranged for some mass-scale demonstrations of his theory throughout the 20th century. Tragedy and farce make for a great night out at the National Theatre, but when they involve entire generations being wiped out, and babies being dashed to death on trees (as happened in Cambodia), and children being blown up at weddings (as is currently happening in Afghanistan), the entertainment value, unless you're Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or any of the thousands of their followers who were turned overnight into psychopaths, is somewhat reduced.

We need to know a bit more than that Hitler was a monster, and Henry VIII had a penchant for roast peacock and brunettes. We need to know, for example, that three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and the incineration of two Japanese cities, a Jewish nation was created in a former British colony in the Middle East, which provided a much-needed refuge for those who had escaped the gas chambers, but also left the slightly tricky problem of the people who had lived there before.

We need to know, if we think that Iranians are sometimes a little bit unfriendly, that it was Britain, working in conjunction with the US, that financed the coup that overthrew Iran's democratically elected prime minister, because he had had the temerity to think that Iran's oil might possibly be owned by Iran, and not by a company called Anglo-Iranian Oil (which was, by the way, later called BP), and unleashed 25 years of dictatorship, which led to the revolution that gave us the nutter in the anorak, the public stonings and the rants.

And we need to know that no one has ever, except fleetingly, won a war against Afghanistan. And that even Rory Stewart, who has got to know the country about as well as any Westerner can, has said that the more time he spends there, the less he understands it, which doesn't bode fantastically well for those members of our armed forces who have been there for five minutes and been too busy during those five minutes to do much except try (often unsuccessfully) to avoid being blown up.

In our schools, however, children can emerge, even after doing a history A-level, having learnt about not much more than the Tudors and the Second World War. And at Eton, it seems from comments by our Prime Minister, you don't even get to learn that! My history lessons consisted largely of projects on the pyramids, but even I knew that Britain was not "the junior partner" in the Second World War. But Cameron seems terribly keen on the phrase "junior partner". He clearly thinks it has a nice, self-deprecating ring.

Cameron's let's-cut-the-crap whistlestop tour of Countries We're Trying to Butter Up (scripted, one assumes, by a Foreign Secretary who also happens to be a Yorkshireman) has been hugely entertaining, vacillating wildly between humility, bossiness and pure we-need-your-money-baby greed.

He might, however, remember, that the key to diplomacy is in the word "diplomacy". The thing is, Dave, it's not about stating your demands. It starts with understanding. For which it helps to know a few facts.

Why I can't shower with Libby on digital radio

Technology bores me so much that, having started this sentence with the word, I can hardly even bear to finish it. But I still have to say something about digital radio. Never mind the 35-times-the-national-average salary of the BBC boss, or the millions to funny-looking showbizzy types I've barely heard of, or even the fact that I hardly ever switch on the telly, except for Newsnight (which, it has to be said, is fantastically boring). I'd pay every penny of my £145.50 BBC licence fee, and indeed do, to listen to Radio 4.

I start the daily wrestle with the duvet with Evan Davis and Sarah Montague. I brush my teeth and have my shower with Andrew Marr or, God help us, Libby Purves. I wash up, cook, clean, bathe and remove my make-up while being bossed around by an entire orchestra of voices, all speaking perfect RP. And in order to conduct this 24/7 elocution lesson, I have radios in every room. They are all, apart from the one in the bedroom, analogue, and all, apart from the one in the bedroom, fine. That one – sleek, wooden, classily retro – is more temperamental than John Humphrys. A couple of weeks ago, it suddenly started emitting a weird buzzing, as if Today was being jammed by the Taliban. Now, I've had to move it from the table to the floor. I have to creep around it, prop it up at strange angles, practically sing it lullabies.

I have absolutely no idea why digital radio should behave in this way, but I was relieved to hear Ed Vaizey say that 2015 was now a "target" for the switchover from analogue to digital. Which, as any journalist can tell him, is not at all the same as a cut-off.

No room for honour in clash of cultures

On yesterday's Today programme the now internationally famous "bookseller of Kabul" got into quite a tizz over the purchase, or non-purchase, of his wives. It was, he said, "impolite" of Asne Seierstad to say that he had paid a particular sum for his wife. Well, yes, said an impeccably polite John Humphrys, but was it true? The bookseller became extremely flustered. Truth, it became clear, was a rather elastic concept when there were issues of "honour" at stake.

Seierstad has already lost one lawsuit in relation to the case, and been forced to pay damages, and faces more. But this was never going to be a story with a happy outcome. Extensive hospitality of the what's-mine-is-yours Muslim variety and the warts-and-all Western memoir were never a combination likely to leave "honour" intact. The bookseller probably wasn't overly familiar with the genre. Seierstad should have known better.

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