I went to a small village school in Wiltshire. When I was a boy I mean, not yesterday. It would be called a faith school now. It was Church of England and all that meant was that once a year Canon Long (oh how we laughed) came presumably to see that things were done in a godly way, although as a school of that least demanding of faiths presumably an ungodly way would have done just as well. We had hymns and prayers but no more than seems healthy for children even now when for me, hymns are just for Christmas and funerals. I still sometimes think there really is a green hill far away. I see it whenever I go back there. Ours had a white horse on it.
The school had a stone bell tower although we never once heard the bell rung and a cloakroom with sinks which I never, ever liked being in, particularly on my own, because it always felt as if I wasn’t alone there at all.
Hiding in plain sight
None of that was the big secret. That was hanging on the wall, four feet long.
When I went to my next school there was a huge, wall-sized map of the town. It showed things that weren’t there, like shunting yards and engine sheds and a turntable for locomotives on the railway and curiously, a tiny hut labelled as being owned, presumably collectively, by the local branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I don’t know if thst had all gone but most of the railway certainly had.
The map at the village school had something much bigger that wasn’t there: the British Empire. It was there on the wall. It was never discussed. Ever. Under any circumstances, other than just to say it was the Commonwealth now, as if Cromwell’s dour shade had banned dancing for hottentots and admired the lack of worldly ornament favoured by Inuit igloo makers. It made no sense.
There were hints that things had gone wrong somewhere. Our Brave Boys who had kept India British for 200 years had saved it from the Japs in 1945 then somehow two years later decided it hadn’t been worth saving and all went home. We could still find books that talked about the Groundnut Scheme as a great prospect for the residents of Tanganyika. The Ealing comedy of the Groundnut Scheme packed-up in 1951. Ghandi’s name came up from time to time too, rarely favourably.
There it all was, coloured red, on the map in our classroom. There it all wasn’t in reality outside. Nobody mentioned it. Nobody said what had happened, nor why. It certainly wasn’t ever even touched on in History, at primary school or even A Levels; I’m not convinced it is now.
The past is another country. They do things differently there. But here or then, we don’t talk about how or why it all fell to bits. Maybe it’s embarassment, maybe it’s denial. It made me wonder then and now what else I’m not going to be told.