#Churchill2015 – History for Our Time

from Getty Images

50 years since Churchill’s funeral. In a way that seems a remarkably short space of time, considering that we associate him with his finest moments in the Second World War, still in living memory but fast retreating for it, a world away from the way we do war now. 1965 sounds to us like pop culture, plastic, the pill: different fashions, sure, but somewhere recognisable as a predecessor of today’s society. The time when the Union Jack became a fashion statement, a marketable brand, as well as ‘our national pride’ and ‘the Butcher’s Apron.’

But there’s been programme after programme, plenty of news articles, and now a hashtag – so 50 years since Churchill’s death must be an event. Do we have shorter memories now?

Of course, I am all in favour of examining history while it is still in living memory. I never thought I’d find myself blogging in defence of Jeremy Paxman (normal service will be resumed later), but his programme on Wednesday included oral testimony from many included in the original funeral – including a man who worked in London’s dockyards in ’65, when the cranes made their iconic, moving gesture of bowing their heads to the barge carrying Churchill’s coffin. Was this a sign of deep respect from an area hit hard during the Blitz? Well, the docker (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) explained – we didn’t like Churchill much, he was a Tory, no friend to the workers. And we wouldn’t have normally been working on a Saturday, but they paid some people to go in and do that. (They, unless I am mistaken, being the BBC.) And those who went in were frowned on, cause if you didn’t like him you’d shouldn’t do it, but if you did respect him you should’ve done it for nothing.

Now, discussing more than the official perspective of an event, especially one in living memory where multiple views are more easily found, should be the absolute sodding minimum for a history programme, but with my drastically lowered expectations I was pleasantly surprised to see this included. It’s far enough in the past now not to do lasting damage to anyone’s reputation at the BBC, of course. You’ll notice I said ‘original funeral’ in the other paragraph there. Because that’s the strangest part of all this. The BBC organised a re-enactment of Churchill’s funeral and its procession, to take place exactly 50 years to the day after the original. As someone who trained as an ethnologist and folklorist, my initial reaction was: EH? You don’t … re-enact … a funeral. Especially not of someone whose friends and family members are still here to remember the original. (Though I have to say, they seemed okay with the TV coverage.) A funeral is one of these rituals which does something, it has a unique function, to lay that person to rest. Even from a secular and entirely un-supernatural perspective, funerals are still seen as an essential, one-off part of the death and grieving process. While memorial services are common, re-enacting a funeral is something I am only aware of happening on this occasion. (I am willing to stand corrected, please let me know.)

So, why the extravagant, unprecedented commemorations of a not-particularly-memorable event? (To paraphrase my favourite doctor, everybody dies. It was about the least memorable thing Churchill ever did.)  Is it because this is a convenient time to have a Historical Event, especially one which unites us in blitz spirit, and reminds us that ‘we’re all in this together’? Remind me, is there an election coming up?

On Twitter, Churchill has become another blank canvas to support any cause you choose to name. His words are being used on Twitter to support Euroscepticism, and to justify the EU. He would have joined UKIP. He would have hated UKIP. He would have joined the BNP. We’ll never see his like again, which is tragic. We’ll never see his like again, thank the Lord. His natural successor is Boris Johnson (granted, a view mostly promoted by Boris himself.) He was a racist, Empire-lover who sympathised with Hitler til it made political sense not to. He was Of His Time. We could use him in our time.

My own opinion on the man himself is not well-informed enough to be of use to the debate here. I came here not to praise Churchill, nor to bury him (again), but to point out that today’s popular history is far from de-politicised. It suits certain people in positions of power to rekindle a cheery, old-fashioned, ‘us against the world’ Britishness, and this is done not just through giving UKIP inexplicable levels of coverage and demonising immigrants and benefit recipients on the cover of every newspaper. It’s also done by ‘celebrating’ the centenary of the incomprehensible waste of life which was the First World War, with events focusing on anything but the reasons it happened in the first place. And by fostering nostalgia for a time fifty years ago which in some ways never existed (as the dockers can tell us), but in some ways hasn’t really gone away (the champagne budget in parliament is as high as ever). Churchill may indeed have been a man of his time, but this is heritage firmly designed for our times. The only way to deal with any heritage safely is to keep asking whose it is, and where we might find the other stories.

– Erin Farley


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