Like most people, I know a lot about what happened during my parent’s generation’s time.
So I grew up knowing a lot about the Second World War.
But, until I visited the RAF Museum in Hendon yesterday, I had never heard of Sir Keith Park.
A New Zealander, he was in operational command of the defence of London during the Battle of Britain in World War Two and, later in the War, in charge of the defence of Malta.
I had, of course, heard of British national hero ‘Bomber’ Harris, who is now partially discredited because of his bombing of Dresden but I had never heard of Sir Keith Park.
The dividing line between being remembered and being forgotten by history is thin and random.
When I woke up this morning, the Google.com homepage was celebrating the 197th birthday of Augusta Ada King, countess of Lovelace – aka Ada Lovelance.
I had never heard of her but, in 1843, she first published the idea of inputting punch cards to Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytic Machine’.
Charles Babbage, of whom I had heard, designed his Analytic Machine purely as a powerful calculator but is remembered as the father of computing. The less-remembered (and, by me, totally unknown) Ada is, according to Google, considered by some “the world’s first computer programmer, as well as a visionary of the computing age”.
The dividing line between being remembered and being forgotten by history really is random.
Everyone knows John Logie Baird invented television.
Except, of course, he did not. He had the wrong system.
My favourite author, George Eliot, is usually credited with the quote “It is never too late to be what you might have been” and it sounds, indeed, very much like her. But it seems to have actually been an urban myth type variation on a quote from the novel John Halifax, Gentleman by the almost totally forgotten Dinah Mulock Craik.
The original quote is the unmemorable: “You mean, Mr. Halifax, what I might have been. Now it is too late.”
That has pretty much the opposite meaning to the more famous remembered quote “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” which seems to have been conjured out of nowhere by generations of misquotation.
Who is remembered and why and for what is fairly random.
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Sic transit gloria.
Ars longa vita brevis.
They all seem to cover it.
But I, perhaps not surprisingly, prefer to remember a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel set partly in the post-War US, partly during the bombing of Dresden by Bomber Harris’ planes and partly on the fictional planet of Tralfamadore:
“Now when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘so it goes’.”