Anniversaries can seem a bit overdone – especially when they trip over each other.
June saw the appropriately grand D-Day 75th commemorations. Last month there was a quieter marking the 80th anniversary World War Two’s start. Among the modest selection of media interests in this 80th birthday was the publication of a book about W.H.Auden’s poem September 1, 1939. The book by Ian Sansom is titled September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem.
It is a poem that Auden later disowned and would have liked to have ‘un-written’. His change of heart centred on the line ”We must love one another or die”. He realised too late that everyone dies.
The poem’s first five lines are famous for bringing us one of the most quoted and harshest characterisations of the 1930s – those years of Fascism, chaos and delusion that led up to the 1939-1945 war:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
As we are currently going through – or being pulled kicking and not screaming loudly enough through – a period of great uncertainty that has all too many colours and tones of the 1930s, there is another line in the poem’s opening that we need to mark carefully:
As the clever hopes expire
Auden pinned those hopes to the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930’s. However, as we approach the start of a new decade and, before that, approach the new ‘do or die’ deadline for Brexit, we should be considering all the ‘clever hopes’ we have been sold. All the ‘clever hopes’ that wrap around the bright new ‘independent’ (to use Mr Farage’s dishonest term) future for the UK.
31 October 2019 is not, of course, the only deadline we face. We have been fiddling around with Brexit while the world burns. This week we were told that the disastrous effects of climate change are being seen and felt faster than was expected.
The British science fiction disaster movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), which I saw as a student, had a huge impact. Some people saw it has a warning against nuclear war: the causes in the film of all the trouble were simultaneous nuclear weapons tests in the USA and the USSR that shifted the earth’s axis leading to catastrophic overheating – and fires, lots of them.
In the film, the British government declares a state of emergency and starts rationing water and supplies. The only answer is to detonate more nuclear bombs and tilt the earth back to its proper position.
I have to admit that although the film fuelled student anti-nuclear protests, as an eager student journalist I was more interested in its depiction of the Daily Express’ newsroom – with the newspaper’s legendary editor Arthur Christiansen playing himself.
The Express - then a newspaper of substance – played a central role in the film. Would the extra nuclear explosions save the world? In the Daily Express newsroom they prepared alternative front pages: one with the massive headline “World Saved”, the other with the sombre but equally large headline “World Doomed”.
The film ended without telling the audience which front page went to press.
Those were the days before we had any inkling that it did not need nuclear explosions to cause the earth to overheat and threaten human existence, but everyday human activity was doing it only too well – not tilting the earth, but changing the world’s climate.
As we approach the new decade, can we expect it to be filled with dishonest claims and ‘clever hopes’? Or could we perhaps have honesty and realism that could make the difference between the world being saved or doomed?
Whether climate change deniers like it or not, glaciers and ice caps are vanishing. If we wait till the last glacier has gone, there may not be too many people around to mark the 80th anniversary of its disappearance.
The new decade will, of course, bring many opportunities for anniversaries. Tuesday, 23 June 2026 will, of course, be the tenth anniversary of the EU Referendum. And Monday, 24 September 2029 will, of course, be the tenth anniversary of the UK’s Supreme Court ruling that a British Prime Minister has broken the law…can’t wait for all the celebrations!