Susie Mesure: Never has so little history been known by so few...

Roundup: Talking About History

[Susie Mesure is a journalist.]

If there was ever a date on which to reproach ourselves, it is Tuesday week: 7 September will mark 70 years since the Luftwaffe first switched its attention from bombing our airfields to the streets of London. It stands out among the many Battle of Britain landmarks being remembered this year, because it left ordinary citizens with nowhere to escape from the German bombs that began falling on the capital, night after relentless night, for the next nine months, killing 20,000 and shattering 1.5 million homes.

It will be suitably commemorated with a service at St Paul's Cathedral, itself a survivor of the Blitz, for all who played the biggest part in defending the nation, and by inference, the western world, from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. Or at least, for as many as can fit into that great, contemplative space, some 2,300 in all, with my grandpa, Wing Commander John Tipton, among them.

Unlike many others, however, my sense of guilt doesn't stem from not having served my country, or not knowing what it is like to live through a world war or even its aftermath. No, my feelings of inadequacy will come from the embarrassingly sketchy knowledge I have of what did indeed go on over London's skies that first terrible night, and the many, many more that followed. For I suffer from the guilt of ignorance, an affliction that plagues not only my contemporaries but the vast majority of all those spat out by the education system since me. And I speak as a so-called history graduate with a decent enough degree.

I am, however, the product of a liberal teaching establishment that ran a mile from inculcating any sense of national pride in its students, for fear of being accused of banging the imperial drum. Ordinarily I wouldn't mind that, being of a similarly liberal disposition. On this occasion, however, I would be wrong. As are all those responsible for my lack of knowledge. I share in the blame; given the choice at university, I opted for the glamour of the discovery of the New World, and the creation of an entirely new nation, the United States, rather than dwell on the hegemony of the old. But before that, when the Government decreed what knowledge I needed to reach GCSE and beyond, a healthy dose of British history wouldn't have gone amiss. And what better chapter than our finest hour?..

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