Tuesday 12 August 2008

The silliest month of the year

One of my mother’s imperishable sayings was “You’re frightened of the death you’ll never die.” Why worry, when fate can be relied upon to deliver something completely unexpected?

Having watched her whole generation shuffle off into eternity, I can confirm that she was absolutely right. There was the odd case of a fatty dropping dead of a heart attack, or a chain smoker succumbing to lung cancer. But, by and large, the causes of death in her social circle were surprising enough to provoke cries of “Eeh! Never!” when the survivors gathered in the Conservative Club to drink beer, smoke tabs and discuss why the flag was yet again flying at half mast.

As with individuals, so with nations and even planets. We are all now conditioned to expect the human race to end gasping for water in the desert created by global warming. It came as a shock to hear a sonorous and authoritative Russian voice on the wireless at the weekend, explaining how we could so easily go up in a big mushroom cloud instead.

The war between Russia and Georgia he was talking about is a classic example of what Neville Chamberlain, in an equally dangerous context, called “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. Hands up anyone who had even heard of South Ossetia before last week, remembering that no-one likes a swot.

It seems like a throwback to another century, and we may be forgiven for not having seen it coming. But perhaps we could have anticipated something pretty unpleasant, given the time of year.

Already this month we have passed the anniversaries of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914 and the first Al-Qaeda attacks on US targets on 7 August 1998. The list continues right up to 31 August, when in 1939 Hitler precipitated the Second World War by ordering the invasion of Poland.

There is some logic to European wars kicking off in August. The harvest is safely gathered in to feed the troops, and there should theoretically be a few months of decent campaigning weather before winter bogs everything down.

Memorable battles this month include Bosworth on 22 August 1485, which won the English throne for the Tudors, and the great English victory at Crécy on 26 August 1346. The Battle of Britain reached its height in August 1940 and the Second World War was brought to an end by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The long and painful British military deployment in Northern Ireland began on 14 August 1969, and the murders of Lord Mountbatten and his sailing companions, and of 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint, took place on 27 August 1979.

In short, far from being “the silly season”, this month has actually generated far more than its share of grim news. Royal conspiracy theorists have been buzzing around it like flies since the mysterious death of King William Rufus in an alleged hunting accident in the New Forest on 2 August 1100, all the way through to the car crash that killed Diana in Paris on 31 August 1997.

For pub quiz fans, it was also the month of the Great Train Robbery (8 August 1963) and the death of Elvis Presley (16 August 1977).

So please avoid the mistake that those foolish grouse make every year of thinking that nothing bad ever happens in August. Do keep in touch by buying The Journal every day, but do not brood. The good news, as my mother pointed out, is that the awful fate you fear for yourself is, in one sense or another, absolutely the last thing that will happen.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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