The lives of others

paul nash2
Painting by Paul Nash

Today I spent the day listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I came to it via a recommendation by Sam Harris. You can listen for free to Carlin’s episode about World War One here. His enthusiasm for his subject is contagious and his interjections, opinions and meanderings personalise the whole thing and turn it into an entertaining and compelling history lesson.

Hearing about the lives of soldiers in the Great War, I couldn’t help but ask myself how I would have coped in such a situation and the answer is that I wouldn’t. It could be that most people from my generation and later are no longer physically or mentally capable of enduring such strains. Even getting rained on or not being able to sit down on the train is enough to spoil my day.

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Painting by Paul Nash

In Carlin’s podcast about WWI there was a story about one private Sampson, who was lying wounded in no-man’s land. He had been shot 17 times. His wailing caused his comrades to try to rescue him several times. Three of them were shot dead in the attempt and two more wounded. One soldier finally reached him and Sampson apologised for making so much noise and for thus being responsible for the deaths of his comrades. He told the soldier to leave him there as he wouldn’t survive anyway and dragging him back would represent too much of a risk. The next day another soldier (actually the writer Robert Graves) found Sampson dead, with his hand stuffed into his mouth to stop himself from moaning and further distressing his fellow soldiers. Hearing of such acts of kindness and heroism just made me feel ashamed of my own constant griping.

One positive effect of such stories was to take my thoughts away from myself. It seems that an interest in others is more effective way of escaping the self than focusing on, say, the here and now. Such mental tricks might be okay for someone stuck out on some God-forsaken Hebridean island with no books and no company but they can’t compete with an interest in someone who isn’t you.

I then listened to the historian Victor Davis Hanson talking about how pampered modern westerners accuse earlier westerners of not possessing their own finely-tuned sensibilities. It is only when you hear about those rough, harsh lives on whose accomplishments our own comfortable lives were built that you realise what selfish, whining monkeys, to use Rod Liddle’s phrase, we are.

I now think my reading over the last couple of decades has been a bit dry, too lacking in human interest. It has all been about abstract ideas rather than people in particular. And thinking back, those books full of ideas often sent me to sleep, while Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade, a collection of obituaries on the deaths of famous people, never did. The most moving book I have ever read was Man is Wolf to Man by Janusz Bardach, an autobiography. The older I get, the more I want to read autobiographies, biographies and histories relating the lives of real people.


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