The History Boys on Memorials

‘The History Boys’ is an Alan Bennett play about eight English boys being tutored for their Oxford University entrance exams. It’s a book that we had to study in my English class, and while it is by no means my favourite play, there were a few quotes that really made me think.

The following quote about commemorating war is one that has stayed with me, despite having finished studying the play over a year ago:

“A photograph on every mantlepiece. And all this mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realise where the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

Obviously you can’t just accept whatever you read, however articulately expressed, so I spent a lot of time wrestling with the concept. I know my teacher flat-out condemned this as wrong, but I’m hesitant to write it off so quickly.

Here in Britain – as I’m sure they do in many other countries – we have a memorial plaques in almost every town and village listing the names of the local men who gave their lives in battle, specifically the World Wars. We have special days where we are obliged to take a moment’s silence to ponder and remember the horrific violence that bought us our freedom as a country.

We are taught our history through every available media: we vanquished the bad guys and lost some good men whose names are carved in stone in the very hearts of our communities.

What we often fail to remember is the vast mortality counts suffered by other countries. By simultaneously victimising ourselves and making ourselves heroes, we flush away any doubt that Great Britain (‘Great’ being the operative word) could have possibly partaken in any ethically questionable activity.

And of course memorial days are sad days because real people died for real causes. The point, I think, of this quote is not to incite the eradication of war commemoration but to confront us with the idea that we are writing and molding our own version of historical events. In the words of another History Boys quote:

“It’s subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.”

I would never suggest that we should then forget the losses our country suffered. What I do wonder though, is whether we commemorate solely out of respect, or out of a need to make ourselves the ‘goodies’. Is the act of commemoration simply a way to appease our consciences and our need to be right?

I realise this is a touchy subject, and I’ve tried to be sensitive. Many people will probably disagree whole-heartedly with me. But that’s ok! The whole point of reading literature like this is to make you question what we know to be true, and that’s great!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, whether you agree or not.

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely day.



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