Wednesday, July 28, 2010

the sweep of history

OK, I probably think too much. The loss of someone can make us think about the marks we make, the things we leave and the temporary nature of everything. This is related to the reason I value so highly, the creative achievements of 'ordinary' people.

For some years now I have been fascinated by the nature of the 'sweep' of history; the abrasion of ordinary lives against someone's big idea, the grand scheme that will tidy things up and put power where it belongs. Well, 'sweep' is a very good word if you think of the image it creates in having things, people and ideas brushed aside. A giant broom.

It was in writing about the death of my uncles that this idea first formed in me, how big ideas enabled the machinery that brought the guns and ships and planes that killed people who until then had been no-one's enemy. This idea (amongst others) also compelled me to write the second book about the causal factors of the Pacific War, to try to understand how it is that ideas made enemies of peoples unknown to each other.

The photo above is of one of our sons in a church in a village in Turkey. The building was the centre of ritual and communal life for generations of people of Greek ethnicity. It was a beautiful, very domestic space, but we stood in it absolutely haunted by the knowledge of the things that ultimately took place there. It was one of many villages and towns inhabited by Greek and Turkish people that were forcibly evacuated to fit the neat and proper ideas of nationalism and statism. I'm not saying that these ideas are wrong, only that they come at an enormous cost, and those of us given to enforcing big ideas need to dwell carefully on the smudges left on the ground formerly populated by people who primarily wanted family, food on the table and protection from the baser human inclinations.

The Turks have kept the entire village as an empty memorial. A haunting hill of empty streets, shattered dreams and the dislocation of history. Hatred and mutual distrust will probably outlast the buildings, but not in everyone's mind. To think that would be to confuse the big idea with the reality for ordinary folk.


  1. what? You mean it hasnt yet been rezoned for medium density housing development? I mean, what about the ECONOMY?

    I think leaving physical history alone like this is underrated.And lost mostly in our big cities. I know greeks who have never even been to greece that cannot let go of their hatred of the turks. 400 years of eye for an eye isnt easily eroded

  2. We found a lot of reverence and respect in Turkey- and a recognition that some of these communities lived side by side for centuries without major dramas. Having said that, the region has always been contested territory and subject to constant invasion. The most recent organised hatred was created by the big nationalistic ideas involving lines on maps and ideas of ethnic purity, and in general these ideas came from the Great Powers, not the communities, although it has always been easy of course to foment trouble by creating fear of 'the other'...
    I take your point, but I confess that my motivation was more to write about loss and being ordinary in the face of upheaval than about hatred, or judgement of any particular ethnic group.

  3. yeah I was just trying to say something that appeared knowledgeable:)

  4. And you did. Your comments about physical history related my waffle to the landscape I live in!