In unhistoric acts does true history lie
Frances Osborne says that the death of a dictator and a terrorist atrocity do not speak as powerfully to the human heart as a single image
Last week my four-year-old son gained a new classmate. She arrived in the middle of term as her mother has just walked out of Zimbabwe, leaving everything behind to start again from scratch here. I don’t just mean financial scratch — ‘we couldn’t bring a single penny’, she told me as she dashed off to an employment agency — but personal scratch too. When we exchanged mobile telephone numbers I asked her if she texted. She replied that she knew how ‘but I’ve nobody here to text me yet’. The decision of this well-connected graduate who has worked for the Zimbabwean parliament, the Red Cross and the UN — to turn herself into a refugee tells me as much about the future of Zimbabwe as anything I have read about Mugabe.
I am not alone in finding individuals’ stories a way of understanding current, and historical, events. Take 9/11. Those pictures of the collapsing towers are being replaced by a new iconic image — the grainy photographs of one of the several hundred people who judged their chances higher outside the burning building than in. Last week’s television documentary, The Falling Man, recreated his last day. He rose early on the morning of 11 September 2001, pulled on a pair of black trainers and an orange T-shirt, kissed his family goodbye, left for work and never returned. His absence tore a hole in the family he left behind. The detail of a single life destroyed rams home the irrationality of terrorism far more than distant generalisations. Unidentified, the falling man represents every life lost that day. He has become the first unknown soldier of the 21st century. You could even argue that, by leaping out of the window, he cheated the terrorists. He is both America’s tragedy and its defiance.
Similarly, as much as the death of Milosevic has filled the papers, it alone conveys little of the Balkan war. The death of the make-up artist whose charred body was found in the ruins of the Belgrade television station bombed by the Allies tells us that, like the falling man, that particular armed conflict meant people in a very modern world woke up, dressed, went to work and were burned to death. Milosevic’s actions are perhaps most clearly explained by the compelling images of terrified mothers wearing jeans and anoraks, running down the road carrying small children, and emaciated faces and bodies trapped behind barbed wire. Stopping history with a politician’s decision is like hitting a tennis ball without bothering to see where it lands.
Eye-level-view history such as this is of particular interest to me right now as I travel the country talking about a book, Lilla’s Feast, I have written about a woman named Lilla, who happened to be my great-grandmother. Lilla, the author of a recipe book now in the Imperial War Museum, was born a Brit in a tiny trading post in China in 1882. Her early life was tumultuous. Her father shot himself when she was two. She rushed into a loveless marriage to keep up with her identical twin, was almost abandoned with a small child on the other side of the world, survived a winter in a fishing hut in Kashmir, and found herself as good as widowed twice by her mid-thirties. But the single decision in her life that I found it hardest to come to grips with was the one to stay in Japanese-occupied China after Pearl Harbor, when her businesses had been closed down, her bank account frozen and she was under house arrest. At this stage she was offered a place on a boat back to England and refused it. It seemed so hard to understand, especially as she went on to spend the next three years in a Japanese concentration camp. Even after the second world war ended Lilla stayed in China until she was not just arrested by the Red Army, but deported.
Why do some people choose to leave (my new friend from Zimbabwe; the falling man) and others (those Balkan mothers and Lilla) hang on in the face of impending disaster? When people choose whether to change the family’s religion, or to move town or country, unless they are deranged they will do the best they believe they can for the people they love. Their decisions therefore show us what, in practice, the possibilities really were. How bad was religious persecution at that time? How meagre were job prospects or those of survival in those towers? Could they really afford to buy the boat or carriage fares out? How much information did they really have about their chances elsewhere? The answers to these questions are immensely revealing of both historical and contemporary situations.
Trying to understand these individual stories also forces us to remember that the people who make them don’t know what is going to happen next. Those Balkan mothers didn’t really believe that soldiers were going to storm their cosy village and burn their homes to the ground; they lived in Europe in the late 20th (not 12th) century. It seemed as likely as War of the Worlds meets Miss Marple. Similarly, Lilla and her family couldn’t conceive that the Japanese, with whom they had been on friendly terms for about 40 years, were going to lock them up in a camp and slowly starve them. In both cases, the prospect of leaving everything they had and starting again in an unknown place did not appear to be the best they could do for their family — in contrast to the choices made by the falling man and the refugees now coming in from Zimbabwe. All these choices provide valuable contemporary snapshots without the obscuring wisdom of hindsight.
Zooming in on the lives of real people caught up on historical tides is not just shifting focus from the perpetrators to the victims. It’s about fleshing out the past from the bare bones of dates and statistics into a form to which most people can relate their own lives. Our own humanity connects us more directly with other humans and their struggles than do numbers. The bigger the numbers involved, the more we need those personal stories — feelings with which to empathise rather than figures to memorise. We can’t picture a thousand dead bodies without standing back so far as to make the features of each indistinct. We can more easily learn about the life of one person, look at their photographs, hear what happened to them — and then imagine it happening again and again and again. History isn’t just made in parliaments, but in homes, too.
Lilla’s Feast by Frances Osborne is published in paperback by Black Swan at £7.99.