Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Living History

At the recent Brenchley First World War Centenary Weekend, the SSF shared the marquee (left over from the authentic Flower Show which had taken place on the previous day) with a "living history" group - the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Living History Group, to be precise. That there are people willing to give their time to the recreation of history, purely for the love of it, is remarkable, and their knowledge of the period is second to none (if you exclude those who actually participated in that horrible war).
This paid off in terms of the number of visitors who wanted to view and handle the artefacts on display - including those of us who were supposed to be minding the SSF stall, which sadly attracted relatively few visitors. However, kudos to the village archive team, who put on a lovely display of material about the history of Brenchley and about Sassoon hmself in a room just off Gray's community cafe.
I don't remember Gray's being there last time I visited Brenchley village hall, and it's a fabulous facility for the village. They sold me one of the best cheese scones in living memory (and I consider myself something of an expert on that subject). Neither Brenchley nor Matfield has a great deal to offer in the way of shops or eating places nowadays. Matfield Cricket Club's favourite haunt, the Cricketer's Arms, has been closed for a year and there is no sign of it re-opening. Matfield's Cherry Tree Tea Rooms closed some years ago, and Matfield's community shop has also closed. "The Poet", though thoughtfully named, is an upmarket restaurant which doesn't tend to attract cricket teams.
You may think I have departed from the topic of living history, but I really haven't. The Brenchley archivists and the West Kent military history enthusiasts are all contributing to the understanding of our world as it was a hundred years ago. The photographic evidence survives of the self-contained rural community in which Siegfried grew up. When we were asked "Which biography of Sassoon should I read to find out about his life in this area?", we suggested reading The Weald of Youth instead. Some will argue that we don't need to "live" history. Some will say that the past is best forgotten.
Up to a point, I agree that we need to put the past behind us. I have been particularly disturbed by some of the coverage of the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, which has mentioned the defeat of the Germans as a matter for exultation as often as it has sounded regretful about the mass slaughter. I discovered recently that a neighbour's grandfather was a VC recipient; he keeps very quiet about this and was actually annoyed that one of his relatives had agreed to be interviewed by TV reporters. Even siblings can view the significance of history from quite different angles.
Siegfried Sassoon made his views on remembrance quite clear - as the lovely new carving at Brenchley says, "Look up and swear by the green of the spring that you will never forget." It was not because he wanted to remember. He saw the lists of names on the Menin Gate memorial as a cause for shame rather than a focus either for celebration or even for respectful mourning. On the other hand, if one did not remember, how could one hope to prevent a recurrence? The outbreak of another world war in 1939 filled him with despair.
Those of us who study history in the hope of not repeating the mistakes of the past are fully aware that we are wasting our time. Better, perhaps, to concentrate on understanding the past in order to see the present in context. So many of the racial and political tensions prevalent in today's world can be attributed to mere ignorance of the past.

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