“I know perfectly well that it’s actually quite wrong to try to live in the past or to seek it.
I think a lot of the reason why people do sometimes do it and some little moment of reminiscence will bring on a voyage into the past is because they would like to open a door and find that their parents were alive again. And then you could show them that you’d grown up. You’d like to say, ‘Look, all that nonsense that you had to put up with, it’s over. And here are your grandchildren,’ who in my mother’s case, she never met and in my father’s case he only ever met one of them.
So yes, that would be a good thing to do. It’s futile. There is no such door. You can go back into the houses of your youth and they are other peoples’ houses — they’re not yours anymore.
The only purpose of going into the past is to examine it and to know what it was really like. And often these days, people defame the past and pretend that it was a waste of time — nothing but misery and poverty and drabness. And to recognize that while yes there were many things that were wrong about the past, there were good things that we’ve lost and that are recoverable.
And those who know nothing of the past will simply experience the future as a series of unnecessary mistakes and of mysterious events they had no possibility of understanding because they have no understanding of the way people behave and the way nations behave.
He who doesn’t know his own past and the past of his own country and his own people is perpetually a child.”
The concluding remarks from Peter Hitchens in his 2011 profile for the BBC radio program The House I Grew Up In, for which he returned to several childhood homes on the English coastline to see how they reflected and stirred his memories of family life.
These remarks are especially melancholic in context, as Peter spends much of the episode wandering the streets of his childhood and discussing his rebellious youth, which involved, among other things, burning his Bible on the soccer pitch of his prep school. That prep school, more especially the money it siphoned from his working class mother and father, is to his mind at least part of the reason for their unhappy divorce and his mother’s eventual, tragic demise. Peter declines to discuss either event in much detail; Christopher, his older brother by two years, was more open, facing it with beautiful, plaintive words in the first and best chapter (“Yvonne”) of his memoir Hitch-22.
I recommend listening to the entire episode, as Peter’s a first class guide of not only his past but of a kind of postwar English life that’s now nearly all gone. Perpetually overcast skies drizzling on hedgerows and Edwardian pubs; wheezing tea kettles; the cults of Winston Churchill and Admiral Nelson; double-decker buses and soldiers scuttling by in crisp Royal Navy uniforms. The England of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Peter can immerse readers and listeners in that world because he is of that world. His wry lamenting of his 60’s rebelliousness recalls one of his most epic lines, wielded in his debate at the Oxford Union on the existence of God: he opens his rebuttal by saying of his opponents that they — paraphrasing — “remind me of the most obnoxious, selfishness person I’ve ever known: my 15-year-old self.”
For more on Peter’s conversion to Christianity, pick up his apologetic memoir The Rage Against God. For more on his politics, check out The Abolition of Britain and Short Breaks in Mordor: Dawns and Departures of a Scribbler’s Life.
More Hitchens bro’s:
- Peter argues you can’t know your country’s history unless you know its poetry
- Peter asks can western civilization survive without religion
- Christopher Hitchens describes his relationship with his mother
- Christopher and Peter duke it out over the challenge of Nietzsche