Mutas mutandis – yes really. When my children were small I used to tell my family I felt like a Roman matron before the sacking of Rome. By which I mean living a contented and domestic life imagining this was how life would always be before massive change occurred. I sensed it in my bones that was a particular moment in history that would not be as long lived as it seemed.
My children are grown now, and it turns out that feeling was mostly right. I had always had some cause for satisfaction that my generation had not had to send our husbands or children off as conscripts to fight a war.
My grandfather whose father’s death when he was three, plunged the family into poverty in pre welfare Victorian times, had gone for a boy soldier and fought in the South African campaigns. An imperial war fought by poor boys from the slums for the benefit of others, he at least managed to pass his apprenticeship in Bloemfontein. He then fought in the Great War. Like all of his generation unaware at the time that this would one day be viewed as World War 1.
He was by then a saddler, taking care of the mules and horses in the supply chains in the first great industrial war that created slaughter on a previously unimagined scale. He came home, and married my grandmother. And as far as I know never spoke of it all again until he became a Chelsea Pensioner after her death.
My uncle and my father fought in World War 2. My father arriving as a refugee, being interned, and then joining the Austrian Brigade. My uncle fighting in Burma on what is largely a forgotten campaign. So many lives lost or ruined for reasons that had nothing to do with the people who were fighting. And the bombing of urban non military targets, from Dresden to East London, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What a leap forward into progress that was.
I took much comfort in the fact that neither my brother, my husband or my sons, were called up to fight in another ‘great European war’ though my older brother protested against first the Korean and then Vietnam wars, as the long proxy war between great powers began to play itself out in countries that seemed a long way from home.
Friends served in wars from the Falklands to Iraq, but they were not conscripts and despite the massive cost it did not feel as though the barbarians were at the gate, nor indeed as if we were the barbarians.
Then Bosnia showed us that the era of European conflict was far from over. Yet again Sarajevo seemed to offer the possibility of a Europe in flames. My daughter in law to be arrived as a refugee and yet another generation of my family learned how to settle in and how to get along.
And all along the endless litany of proxy wars and arms deals, supporting the insupportable, arming the dangerous, betraying our allies, from Syria Somalia to Libya to Afghanistan. Too many to list or mention.
And the endless battering press convincing us that refugees were economic migrants, that Britain has done proportionally too much in humanitarian terms and that we should pull up the drawbridge and let the world drown. Withdraw, retreat, come back and hold our borders firm against the tide of refugees from wars funded and often armed and caused by us, and from climate change in all its unfolding tragedy.
My father, who loved his adopted city of London as much as any Londoner, was always astonished by the British system of voting, education and attitudes to foreigners. He used to say to me “the only reason the British poor do not riot in the streets as they have in other European countries is because they are taught at every turn that they may be treated as trash but they are still better than any foreigner – particularly one of a different colour or religion”.
Rome at least would offer citizenship to the legionaries who had served their time, regardless of their origin, and to slaves who were able to buy their freedom or freed by their masters. Our education taught us we had fought to end the slave trade, conveniently forgetting that we had played a massive part in setting up the transatlantic slave trade in the first place.
And now, the barbarians are at the gates. The domestic bliss of a business owner and family member, like the little world of hobbits, is dimmed as yet again Europe turns to war. A war we feel we did not ask for, but caused by the very same ‘Great Game’ that sent my Grandfather’s generation to Africa and India. This vying of agendas and causes is to suit old rich men who dispute over resources, power and territory to ensure someone’s continuing prosperity. But not ours. And not the people over whose land such terrible battles are fought.
We can and do routinely bomb cities’ back to the stone age’ as if it were a natural thing to do. We decry it when our ‘enemy’ does it, but do not hesitate to do the same if it is us and a ‘just’ cause. The barbarians are truly at the gates now and the most shocking thing of all, is that we are the barbarians too.
Our government imagines their words and actions have great influence. Yet they are like the Senators of Ancient Rome, talking and gesticulating to an empty forum. Everyone has gone home to watch the news, and marvel at how all we were has been sold and all that is left is the certainty that in the great game of politics, many more will die. And our government will remain resolute that somehow we can wash our hands of our responsibility in this, as in so many other things, so that rich men can feast while poor children pass out from hunger in queues at foodbanks. Because the poor, like foreigners, deserve all this.
It is time to hide the precious relics of civilisation somewhere deep where our children’s children can access them. This is the beginning of an extended period of disruption where our leaders are guided only by the desire to own it all.
Hold your children tight tonight and keep them warm and fed if you can. Winter is coming and someone has already sold the wall and been paid to open the gates. If you can keep someone else’s children fed and warm, do so. Our state refuses to do so and we have only ourselves and our own behaviour now to tell us who is the barbarian. What do you choose to do?