Monday, December 02, 2013

The grassy knoll

Visiting Dallas 50 years after the Kennedy assassination could be a significant experience. After all, the shooting was a defining moment in contemporary life, wasn't it? But today looking down on that rather familiar-looking stretch of road, standing on the grassy knoll, gazing up at the box-like structure of the book depository, up to the sixth floor, it all seems rather flat and clean. Sterile, you might say. The memorial fountains are bathed in full sunshine. The sky is a deep blue. It's so neat and clean it's hyper-real. Museum staff are on the streets selling facsimiles of the Dallas newspaper of 22/11/63, but those events have already been swallowed up by history, they are long gone. So, how is it that we can best relate to recent historical events? The most familiar way, I suppose, is to think about what we were doing on that particular day. That helps to pinpoint it, to remember, to tie it to our experience in order to make it more real. In this case I can remember it well. We had been walking in Bradgate Park. It was a cold day, and my father had the gas fire on full when he tuned in the radio for the six o'clock news. That was how he kept up, it was like a religious ritual - listening to the BBC on the wireless (and that's what he called it, the wireless). He was shocked by the headlines, nodding his head saying 'Crikey',or something like that. But my mother's reaction made a much stronger impact on me, because when she came in the room, the rest of the news was playing. Aldous Huxley had died, and that upset her more, and I think she made the mistake of saying so. My father ridiculed her, as he often did. But Huxley was one of her literary heroes, and there was no denying that. Huxley was a towering figure, in more ways than one, and his death was inevitably rather overshadowed by Kennedy's, which is a shame. But they weren't the only newsworthy deaths that day. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, which I had read, and loved, also died that day. And in my still impressionable young mind, I understood my mother's viewpoint completely. Narnia was brilliant; Kennedy was just someone on the news. I'd never been to Dallas, but I had been to Narnia. That was a strange day then: Huxley first, then about 10 minutes later Lewis, followed an hour later by Kennedy. Each died in a very different way, each left a distinctive legacy. I'd very much like to return to Narnia in the same way that I first did, slipping between the fur coats into that snowy landscape, but the warm Texas sunshine seems to place it far out of reach. In some ways it's all in the past.

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