Good morning, dear reader! Happy Wednesday!
Today I would like to talk to you about the idea of standing by while stuff happens. How often do we get involved with what’s going on around us?
I recently finished reading Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland, which is a bizarre combination of fact and fiction. It faithfully describes the words and actions of Idi Amin during his tyrannous rule of Uganda, but the narrator is a fictional character who never really existed (although his experiences in the novel are loosely based on those of real people). The character is a doctor, so it makes absolute sense that he describes the events in the novel with clinical precision and accuracy. It is difficult, however, to get inside his head and feel that you know him. Perhaps that’s for the best – his destructive and terrifying friendship with a dictator is not something that we necessarily want to sympathise with – but it was a bit jarring all the same.
There is also a moral dilemma afoot (that’s right: afoot). Should Nicholas Garrigan (for ‘t’was the narrator’s name) have stepped in at some point? He was afraid, and he was inexplicably drawn in to Amin’s web, but couldn’t he have done something? He never says anything and he doesn’t try to create change in Uganda. The British government repeatedly ask him to kill Amin, or at least to spy on him for them, and he refuses. What a wuss.
I had a similarly irritated reaction to Robert Graves’ autobiographical account of the First World War, Goodbye to All That. Graves was, I’m sure, a very brave man who fought well for his country. Having said that, he comes across in his autobiography as a complete and total prat. He has an assumed self-importance that some people get when they’ve befriended famous people, or happened to be in the right place at the right time. Graves is like that about Siegfried Sassoon’s letter to The Times in 1917 – he essentially says “Oh, yeah, I was totally there for that. Yeah. Told him not to send it, actually. Yeah. Me and Siggy – we’re like that.”
Forgetting for a moment that Sassoon’s letter was a major turning point in public awareness of the horrors of trench warfare and the campaign as a whole, Graves’ approach repels the reader by making them feel that inactivity would have been better than what Sassoon did. Garrigan and Graves – both too far from fiction to be ignored – are discomfiting people because they show us that not all humans are heroes. We would all love to think that we would take action when faced with their situations, but the truth is that we have no way of knowing for sure.
Wouldn’t it be weird if Prince Charles finally got the throne, and it turned out that all those years of waiting had turned him into a crazed tyrant? (Probably not going to happen, but something to bear in mind.) How do you think you’d behave? Do you think that you’d speak out against him? Would you wage a campaign? Would you help to save those who’d been mauled by corgis in the street for incorrect etiquette (or whatever his problem turns out to be)?
We have no way of knowing how we would behave in situations like that, but I think that we can find smaller ways to find out. We don’t need a tyrant or a global war to show us who we are. We can step up to the smaller, everyday moments of injustice, and refuse to accept them, like we do when we donate to charity or run a marathon for cancer research. That is all excellent stuff to do.
Well, I’m off to the Post Office, because my life is thrilling like that. You have an absolutely cracking Wednesday.