Magazine

Point of View: Why 2012 is a year to remember

Bogart and the Queen

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee festivities this summer marks one of a number of noble commemorations this year, says historian David Cannadine.

Just a few days ago, the sixth of February saw the anniversary of the death of King George VI, and the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne, inaugurating the Diamond Jubilee celebrations that will culminate during the first week of June.

These are bound to be remarkable: in part because the Queen will be only the second of our monarchs, along with Victoria, to have celebrated both a Diamond and a Golden Jubilee. And in part because she will be the only one of our sovereigns ever to have celebrated a Silver Jubilee as well.

Victoria, by contrast, was in deep mourning for her beloved Albert when she completed her first 25 years on the throne, and in any case the very idea of staging a Silver Jubilee was only invented in 1935 for the reign of King George V. Then a day later on 7 February, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, which had been anticipated even before 2011 was out, with a spate of new biographies, a Christmas adaptation of Great Expectations on television and a brilliant exhibition on him that's still running at the Museum of London.

And this is only the beginning; for 2012 is set to be a bumper year for such commemorations. Between the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, yet to come are two significant but slightly ambiguous centenaries: the death of Captain Scott, which took place in March 1912, and the sinking of the Titanic in the following month.

These are not so easy to celebrate: Scott and his colleagues were beaten in the race to reach the South Pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and they died on the way back. And the Titanic, having been proudly and hubristically described as being unsinkable, did just that on its maiden voyage having hit an iceberg.

To be sure, Scott and his colleagues demonstrated immense courage and heroism and only the meanest of spirits and coldest of hearts can be unmoved by the letters he left behind. And there were some men on the Titanic (though by no means all) who gave their lives so that women and children might go first into the lifeboats that were in limited supply.

But neither of these episodes has ever been free from controversy and recrimination and both of them are a salutary reminder that challenging Mother Nature has always been a hazardous undertaking.

Image caption It's 200 years since Charles Dickens was born

If we go back another hundred years, 2012 also marks the bicentenary of an event that will undoubtedly receive less attention: the assassination of the then Prime Minster, Spencer Perceval, which took place in the central lobby of the House of Commons on 11 May 1812.

At the time when Britain was still locked in its desperate struggle against Napoleonic France, and when domestic subversion was also constantly suspected, there were fears that this murder might mark the beginning of a general uprising. But the assassin, John Bellingham, had a personal grievance against the government and had in fact acted alone.

If Perceval is remembered at all, it's more for the manner of his death than for the distinction of his life: he was widely known as "Little P" and he remains the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. Of course, if the IRA had had its way, Perceval would have been joined by Margaret Thatcher. However she survived the bombing of her Brighton hotel at the time of the Conservative Party conference and no friend or foe would surely have been so foolish or so misguided as to describe her as "Little T".

It's hard to believe that the 200th anniversary of the death of Spencer Perceval will be widely noticed, but there are two other good reasons why we should remember the year 1812. The first is that it witnessed the outbreak of war between the United Kingdom and the United States: a rarely-remembered conflict, which ended in stalemate three years later but not before the British had stormed the recently established federal capital in Washington and set fire to the White House.

The second was Napoleon's failed attempt to invade and conquer Russia, which effectively spelt the end of his imperial ambitions and would later be enduringly commemorated by Tolstoy in War and Peace and by Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture.

But these two episodes were also harbingers of a new world to come, not then, and not soon, but one day. For the failure of the British to defeat the Americans, and of the French to overwhelm the Russians, portended the bi-polar world dominated by the two super powers of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which would last from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

So in one way and another, 2012 is going to be a big year for anniversaries, but if we cast our eyes forward into the near future it will seem little more than a prologue to the veritable cascade of commemorations by which we shall soon be overwhelmed. In 2014, we will not only be marking the centenary of the start of WWI but also the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II.

Image caption Margaret Thatcher at the Tory Party conference the day after the bombing

Meanwhile, the routine business of annual commemoration will also be going on, and 2015 will be particularly crowded. For those whose appetite for military events will be insufficiently sated by World War I and II, there will also be the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, which together should be more than enough for those who like to bash the French. And those who are more pacifically inclined will also have their commemorative share: for 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the 750th anniversary of the first summoning of an English parliament by Simon de Montfort.

If all that seems like too much, and too far off, then we can always console ourselves with another and more immediate anniversary, but of a very different sort: for in November 2012 it will be 70 years since the first showing of the Bogart-Bergman film, Casablanca.

We all have our favourite lines from it, but for me, the crucial words are spoken by Rick to the object of his love, Ilsa almost at the very end, when he urges her to go off with her husband Victor Lazlo, to help him with his war work, and to leave Rick behind, so he can get on with his. "I'm no good at being noble", Rick tells her, "but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world".

And so Rick, who is ostensibly cynical, indifferent, and always concerned with himself, turns out to be very noble indeed, as he urges the greater claims of duty before love and public obligation before private satisfaction. Such robust sentiments no doubt had a strong wartime resonance but they also recall an earlier historical episode, of six years before, where the principal character took exactly the opposite decision, namely King Edward VIII at the time of the Abdication.

Image caption The Queen at a tree planting ceremony for her Diamond Jubilee

"I have", the former sovereign said in the broadcast he delivered after giving up the throne, "found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love." Such was Edward's justification for taking the alternative course of putting personal happiness before public duty but it didn't play well with many ordinary people.

One cartoon of the time depicted a workman throwing down his shovel and walking off the job, explaining that he, too, could not discharge his duties as he would wish to do without the help and support of the woman he loved. And nor did Edward's decision play well higher up the social scale, least of all with his mother, Queen Mary.

"It seems inconceivable", she told him, "to those who made such sacrifices during the war that you, as their king, refused a lesser sacrifice." "All my life", she went on, "I have put my country before everything else and I simply cannot change now."

I've no idea whether Queen Mary ever watched Casablanca or whether our present sovereign has seen it. But as she celebrates her Diamond Jubilee this year, amidst so many other and very different anniversaries, there can surely be no doubt that Queen Elizabeth II would side with the dutiful Rick.