Chapter 9 History Lessons

George was rather subdued for the next few days, but happy to head up to Tom’s room to celebrate after their Thursday tutorial on Mathematical Sets, once their two combined laundries were churning through their cycles. Rhan was slightly disappointed that he had not remarked on her new sports outfit, which made up her Gloucester rowing uniform in the approach to the novice regatta. She was dying to tell him all about her progress and new friends and had resolved not to lie, but neither was she going to volunteer information about her other life.
They climbed the stairs and entered Tom and Danny’s palatial room where an argument seemed to be in full swing. ‘Nah, no one claims to predict the future,’ argued Danny, emphasising his points with an almost-empty beer bottle. Rhan tried to decipher Danny’s accent. ‘History ne’er repeats itself exactly; there’s always something different, some change in parameters.’
‘But history can lead to predictions of likely outcomes,’ Chris responded on behalf of his subject, running his fingers through his dark hair.
‘Well that’s what economics tries to do as well,’ Fiona got in. ‘There are well-known principles that can predict what will happen to trade, balance of payments, inflation and the like, if certain measures are taken.’
‘I’m not sure that economics has definite rules or laws,’ Tom said, laughing. ‘We can’t pretend economics is a science. History might repeat itself because conditions are the same or because a warlord knows his history of previous victories and knows when and where to strike. Economics, however, has relatively rapid positive and negative feedbacks, so whatever the prediction, the very science of economics ensures that the predictions will never come true in quite the same way.’
‘Well if all sides knew their history,’ David said, ‘the same feedback would apply to larger events, so the parameters would be different, as Danny so succinctly pointed out.’ The argument stopped, having completed a circle.
‘Look, I’ll go and get the source so I can prove my point,’ said Chris. ‘Hang on a sec, it’s just upstairs.’ He dashed out and the conversation froze. George asked quietly whether, while they were waiting, anyone wanted him to read from Theory of Sets and their Applications, to general snorts of derision. Chris returned, and coughed theatrically, leafing through a small book.
‘We are talking about 731AD and the Venerable Bede, who lived in the north of England and expressed a concern for the future. Bede was the eminent historian of his time and made use of his keen historical research…’
‘Gerr on wi’it!’ Danny heckled. ‘What did Bede say?’
Sighing, Chris began to read from the text. ‘At the present time, the Picts have a treaty of peace with the English, and are glad to be united in Catholic peace and truth to the universal Church. The Scots, who are living in Britain, are content with their own territories, and do not contemplate any raids or stratagems against the English. The Britons for the most part have a national hatred for the English, but they have also been brought to some extent under subjection to the English.
‘As peace and prosperity prevail in these days, many of the Northumbrians, both noble and simple, together with their children, have laid aside their weapons, preferring to receive the tonsure and take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war. What results from this will be seen in the next generation.’
‘So?’ Danny asked.
‘Vikings!’ exclaimed David with excitement. ‘Of course. Cool! Seven something or other was just before the Vikings started hitting the coast where Bede hung out. Bede saw that not having the power to resist would create trouble, and the first Norse raids found gold lying around in the churches and monasteries without any protection. Not only that, they got their oats in both senses of the word with the local girls and the grain stores, so this created a raiding culture. Brilliant!’
‘Thank God for chemists!’ Chris intoned.
George, who was standing against the wall, arms crossed, murmured under his breath to Rhan, ‘Cooling of the local climate also came into it.’ She raised her eyebrows in partial interest.
Danny went on a bit more cynically. ‘Yerr well, the Viking raids and invasions continued for generations and extended south’ards as far as Crete, east’ards towards Constantinople and west’ard across the Atlantic. So Bede predicted all that did he?’
David answered for Chris, who was pleased to stand back. ‘It is interesting – to think that the whole raiding and bragging society might never have begun if the monks had listened to Bede, created a militant order and sent the first raiders home crying to their mothers with bloody noses.’
‘The only snippet I can remember about Bede,’ George said, ‘was that he had no real idea who built Hadrian’s Wall, even though he lived at its east end, just – what, two or three hundred years after the Romans left? Not inspiring for a historian!’
Fiona, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, took the conversation off in another direction. ‘I have often wondered what the Romanised Britons thought when they heard that they were on their own and the legions were never coming back. Did everyone realise that their cosy, safe lives were doomed sooner or later?’
‘Well getting out of Europe might not be that bad!’ Tom fired back immediately.
‘If you want bad news,’ George said, ‘you chaps should study what may have happened at the end of the Neolithic age, when the Bronze Age hordes arrived.’
‘That’s not even history – it’s prehistory, George!’ Chris was trying to retrieve the subject. ‘We know that the people of Roman Britain relied on mercenaries, who eventually brought over their families, settled and took over. But, like Fiona, I sometimes wonder if it was a gradual process that benefited the majority, or whether it was seen as the end of a civilisation.’
The conversation then split into two: one group covering the Romans, with the other returning to the politics and economics of twenty-first century nationalism, until Tom asked, ‘What do you think, Rhan?’ Everyone else had butted in, but the foreign girl standing at the window had her own slot and spoke slowly and quietly in a rich voice that no one wanted to interrupt.
‘In my part of the world, Syria, the Roman Empire ended much more recently. We used to visit houses in the desert that must have been abandoned in a hurry for a few days when the Turks invaded, yet remained in that condition six hundred years later – right up to the recent war.
‘So, I wonder how long you fine philosophers think our current society will last in the face of real upheaval?’
There were raised eyebrows at this question, but Rhan carried on.
‘Following the industrial revolution led first by Britain and then by its protégé, the United States, your world has so far enjoyed a mere three or four hundred years of western supremacy. With banking, trade, engineering and gunboat diplomacy, the whole world has been forced, without choice, to industrialise as well.’
‘Capitalism is unstable and carries its own downfall,’ Tom responded, to the usual cries of derision. ‘Everyone knows it is only a transition state, as Marx pointed out.’
‘Well with the engineers around here I can understand that collapse,’ said Chris, looking at George, who was propping up the wall.
‘But will collapse be due to the stupid expectation and self-deception that the laws of physics can be bent and set aside by popular consent?’ Rhan argued. ‘What happens if or when nature hits back, tossing first the outlying reaches of our world into the dustbin, but eventually even the ancient ruins of Oxford?’
‘Will this collapse be ‘fore or after next week’s essay?’ Danny asked.
‘Are you suggesting that we might be spending three years studying a system that could collapse partway through?’ Chris asked. ‘If so, I’m going to refuse to repay my student loan.’
‘Come on, Rhan. What do you have in mind?’ David asked.
‘Well, I suppose my parents taught me to see war coming, to recognise the writing on the wall and to listen out for subjects that are too sensitive to be discussed,’ she continued. It was the first time that she had mentioned her parents in a gathering and suddenly everyone was listening without interruption.
‘I, like Fiona, have also wondered what it would feel like to be living when a civilisation collapses. When Justinian, the emperor of the east, sent an army from Constantinople under Count Belisarius to recapture Rome from the Goths, he found hunger – not because of a lack of wheat, but because the citizens could only grind corn by hand and had lost the know-how to repair the mills. For us it would be much worse after such a long period of specialisation. We probably wouldn’t recognise wheat until it’s ripe, and wouldn’t know how to guard it or grind enough of it to make a loaf. We have been in isolation from the essentials of life and any instability for so long.’
‘Apart from the odd world war,’ Chris murmured.
‘No, they were just capitalist-inspired internal struggles for leadership and never really threatened western society,’ Tom responded quickly, with a nod from Rhan.
‘You’re talking about global warming!’ David nailed the issue smugly, not mentioning his prior knowledge of the sustainability talk. He elicited a second nod of the head from Rhan, who was silhouetted against the setting sun.
‘So creating a Marxist state of equality of need is an obvious option?’ Tom suggested, to more howls of disdain as they dashed off for supper.
‘Well that was a surprise from you, Rhan!’ George said quietly as they wandered towards the dining hall. ‘I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.’

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