Sunday Express

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:25

Sunday Express

4 June 2000


Dorothy Rowe

Dunkirk is remembered now as a national triumph of hope and courage, but that was not how it was seen in the dark days of 1940. I was a child of nine in Australia, but I remember it well because I saw my father, who had been a soldier in France in the First World War, angry with what he saw as a the betrayal of the British troops by the French. Not long after Singapore fell and nothing stood between us and the advancing Japanese army. I saw that Dad was afraid. Only the stupidity of the Japanese generals who attacked Pearl Harbour and brought the USA into the war saved us.

People in Britain and in Australia, as they stood defenceless before their enemy's advancing army, were afraid, not just because they were in danger of dying but because all of them had grown up believing that Britain and the British Empire were absolute, impregnable fixtures in a dangerous, unstable world. Now those ideas which had informed us who we were were crumbling.

What wins wars is not troops and equipment but ideas. Propaganda is vital, but for it to work it must put out ideas which are seen to be believable and attractive. British government's propaganda did this. British people were told that, as ordinary people working together, they would win because they were strong, brave, honest, decent people. The process of turning the defeat at Dunkirk into a victory had begun.

We Australians were well aware of how to turn a defeat into a victory. Although in the First World War Australian troops had fought with distinction in France, it was their defeat at Gallipoli that became the event which marked Australia as a nation. Anzac Day became our national day. At school I was told to be proud of being an Australian because our nation was built upon the sacrifices made by our soldiers.

Those defeats which are turned into victories have at their centre the idea of sacrifice. When in 1389 Prince Lazar led his troops against the Ottoman army he told himself, 'Because I am virtuous I must die,' and die he did along with his troops. This sacrifice and defeat at Kosova became the idea which is central to Serbian nationalism. As the story of Dunkirk was told and retold what was stressed was the sacrifices made by ordinary people - those who gave up their small boats and those who gave up their lives to save the troops.

This way of telling the story of Dunkirk fed straight back into what the British government was telling the British people about themselves - that they were brave and virtuous and that they were prepared to make sacrifices, perhaps sacrificing their aluminium pots and pans to make guns, perhaps sacrificing their lives.

History is always a matter of who tells the story. It is always a matter of interpretation. To understand ourselves we need to understand that this is what we do every minute of our lives - interpreting, creating meaning. Neurophysiologists used to talk about how our brain enabled us to see the world, but now they talk about how our brain creates what we see. As babies we have to learn to see, and indeed have to learn to use all our senses. Just what we learn depends on our own individual experience, and, since no two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two people see themselves and their world in exactly the same way.

Babies actually start creating interpretations while they are still in the womb. Some interpretations are lost but others grow and collect new interpretations so that a whole structure of interpretations is created. It is this structure of interpretations or meanings which is what you call 'I', 'me', 'myself'. It is your sense of being a person.

If I said to you, 'Who are you?' you could describe your gender, age, nationality, work, family relationships and so on. If I then asked, 'What matters to you?' you could tell me about your interests, passions, beliefs and so on. Your answers to these questions are made up of some of the ideas which constitute your sense of being a person.

Central to your sense of being a person is how you feel about yourself. The jargon word for this is 'self-esteem' but that hides a complex set of ideas about how you care for yourself, how you value yourself and how you judge yourself. We are always trying to keep our meaning structure together and to feel good about ourselves. Whenever we feel that we have failed, done something wrong or stupid we start to feel shaky, as if we are falling apart, which is very frightening. We can try to hold ourselves together by re-interpreting what has happened to us.

We have little control over what happens to us, but we always have total control over how we interpret what happens to us. It is our interpretations which determine what we do. If British people had interpreted Dunkirk as a total defeat they would have surrendered to the Germans and all our lives would have been different. Instead, they interpreted Dunkirk as a victory of the British spirit, and from that went on to real victory.

This interpretation strengthened the idea held by many people, that it was good to be British. It also enabled people to feel good about themselves as individuals. They could think, 'I mightn't be much of a person but at least I'm British, the greatest nation in the world.'

We all need to be able to interpret some of our failures as victories. Failure can leave us with a painful sense of waste, so being able to see our failures as something we can learn from is very comforting. However, we need to be modest and realistic in our re-interpretations. If you regard everything you do as a brilliant success you will soon lose touch with reality and disaster will follow. Similarly a nation needs to be circumspect in its re-interpretation of the past. Prince Lazar's defeat at Kosova became the excuse for Milosovic to launch his war on the rest of Yugoslavia. Thanks goodness the British know how to be circumspect in celebrating their defeats.

Dorothy Rowe The Real Meaning of Money(HarperCollins).