Monday, 16 May 2022


Anthony Seldon recently said we need historians in important positions in government to categorise, interpret and help us learn from what happened in the past. 

Anthony Seldon: why I changed my mind about Toby Young | Times Higher  Education (THE)

An executive steeped in the pharmaceutical industry said something similar to me about the absence of “corporate memory.” 

In both politics and in business, incoming regimes want to demolish their predecessor’s work and innovations. We live in a time of brooms zealously sweeping clean but losing lessons from which we might otherwise learn.

When I was in advertising we worked with Heinz. Their Tomato Ketchup is still without a challenger. 

Heinz | Tomato Ketchup

They were impressively demanding but also courteous in their demands;  the ideal client. They were heavy users of market research. 

In theory no one should have known more but as people retired or left, their library of research gathered dust and they started to forget what they’d known. One weekend we assembled a team to scour part of the library, summarising what was in it and what its key conclusions and insights were. We unearthed a treasure trove of material. I realised that sustaining a corporate memory required hard work. Also that the more valuable insights lay in either understanding why something had gone right or wrong or what over time were the unchanging values and attitudes .

In this, the Queen’s Platinum Anniversary, some of those intrinsic values, memories and recipes will be recreated, Coronation Chicken, Brown Windsor Soup (although to survive this will have to be radically  new and improved,) Meat Loaf, Prawn Cocktail, Chicken Kiev and winner of the recent Mary Berry inspired cookery competition for the Platinum Pudding , Jemma Melvin’s Lemon Swiss roll and amaretti trifle (we hear this tastes utterly amazing although it takes 5 hours to create from scratch). 

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But we all need a party after the traumas of Covid and this year we’ll have ‘nostalgia-thon’ and a series of street parties celebrating home cooking and old fashioned neighbourly values.

Feast are fine but how do we retain those lost memories and build a better sense of our history? And remembering too that history is not just about dates and documents but also about feelings, beliefs and prejudices.

I had a conversation with a centenarian who speaks of the learning from the Treaty of Versailles which was more punitive, indeed was so overly restrictive on Germany that after the 1930’s economic crises, its consequences led to the Second World War. 

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This was followed by a half century of global economic growth, globalisation of trade and some significant skirmishes or worse in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and  across borders from time to time. Overall though “peace in our times” seemed to have been achieved. Until Thursday 24th of February this year when Russia invaded Ukraine. 

She sighed and said how many more times in our history shall we say “that’s it. No more wars.”

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall | Waterstones

If more people had read Tim Marshall 7 years ago when he wrote “Prisoners of Geography” they wouldn’t have been so surprised. “Putin has not finished with Ukraine yet” he said. And to understand Putin “this student of history” read this:

“..the map that Ivan the Terrible confronted is the same one Vladimir Putin is faced with today.”

Few expected Ukraine to be so courageously enterprising (like mounting an undercover attack on Quad Bikes) or Russia to be so ponderous and inept. But why not? Remember Vietnam, remember Afghanistan, remember David and Goliath.

Let’s hope we have politicians studying the Treaty of Versailles to understand what we must not re-enact after this “war” grinds to a halt.

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