A personal reflection

The wedding of a son or daughter stirs parental memories as nothing else can.  As guests congregate you come face-to-face with different chapters of your child’s life, and you are reminded of your own early life together.  Being a story-telling species our minds struggle to draw all these pieces together into a meaningful narrative.

Two of our three sons have married in the past couple of months.  David married Frea on one of the wettest days of July in a wonderful ceremony in Somerset; his best man was an American whom David had known at school and university when we lived in Virginia, and a number of the guests had crossed the Atlantic for the wedding.  It was a wonderfully happy time.  Then last Saturday Peter married Lindsey in Washington D.C. where Peter, within eleven years of graduating from his Virginian high school, had already climbed the ranks of the Foreign Office to become Chief of Staff at the British Embassy.  Both weddings were enormously happy and lively events, and it was not until afterwards that Anne and I had any opportunity to draw all the bits together in our minds.

It was twenty-one years ago, when Peter was ten, David seven and Tom five that we first swapped our house in England for the summer holidays with friends in Virginia.  The highlight of that trip was a three-day visit to the old colonial capital of Williamsburg, possibly the first genuine historical recreation of a bygone era.  Stretching for a mile from the reconstructed House of Burgesses (where representative government had first started in America) down the Duke of Gloucester Street to the College of William and Mary with Bruton Parish Church and the Governor’s Palace to one side, and the Powder Magazine on the other, it has almost ninety original buildings.  Williamsburg has been meticulously restored and we were enchanted by the numerous character actors talking with visitors in the streets, the houses, gardens and in their workshops.

Especially we delighted in the various debates between serious actors taking the parts of such historic figures as Jefferson, Washington, Patrick Henry, George Wythe and Peyton Randolph.  The debates in the Raleigh Tavern, the House of Burgesses and in the Courthouse, required much concentration from the visitors who were then invited not simply to ask abstract questions of the actors from a late 20th century perspective, but themselves to think and question as if they, too, lived in 1774.  It wasn’t easy, and required considerable feats of imagination to appreciate how finely-balanced were the views of the emerging patriots who first coined the name “Americans” and the residual loyalists who argued with intense emotions “we are, after all, Englishmen.”  There was nothing triumphal about these arguments and the actors were most careful to remind their audiences that there was nothing inevitable about the transformation of the fiercely individualistic thirteen colonies into the land which later 20th century Americans had come to see as the undoubted leader of the free world.

Our young sons learnt so much about the origins of democracy from 15 or so visits we have made to Williamsburg in the past 21 years.  For the first seven of those years the boys returned to their English comprehensive school, and then for four years to the high school in Fairfax County outside Washington where we then lived.  Peter then went to Cambridge where the young orator who had first debated the case for severing all ties with King George’s England, became President of the University Debating Society, spent time as intern both on Capitol Hill and in Washington, and then joined the Foreign Office. During the wedding reception one member of the Embassy staff took us to one side to say how invaluable was Peter’s daily advice to the Ambassador “as Peter understands the Americans better than any of us.”

Before flying back to England Anne and I took a couple of days for R&R and went back to Williamsburg.  The fall colours were spectacular, and the town looked its best.  But, as we had been noticing for the past seven or eight years, the essential human spirit that made Williamsburg such a pivotal experience for our sons, was rapidly disappearing.  The buildings are still there and well cared for, but there are now far fewer character actors.  Several years ago this had been explained away as a result of the recession and a falloff in the number of visitors.  But it’s much more than that, and the explanation needs to be noted as much by my English as American readers.  In 2005 I was told by a disenchanted character actor that there were so few youngsters who, having been disciplined in school to memorise the correct answers, had the personal confidence to join in the debates.  They were largely disinterested in talks with ‘old-fashioned’ craftsmen – be they silversmiths, milliners or shoemakers.  Last week the opportunity to talk personally to actors had all but disappeared and had been replaced by set-piece ‘incidents’ where all the visitors had to do was to stand around and watch.  “It’s all become Mickey Mouse now”, said one of the character actors who, 20 years before, had regularly filled Bruton Parish Church for half an hour to hear a recitation of a 1774 sermon.  “What we do now does not require any imagination on the part of the visitor,” he explained.

As evening drew on I feared for the dumbing down of young people for, as Einstein once remarked, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Leaving the bookstore I saw a new edition of David McCullough’s excellent biography of John Adams, second President of the United States.  The publisher had seen fit to replace a copy of a contemporary oil painting of the real John Adams on the book’s cover with a photograph of the actor Paul Giamatti who had played the part of Adams in a recent television reconstruction of his life.  Stare into the eyes of Giamatti, most accomplished actor as he is, and you see a 21st century mind; what the next generation needs is the imagination to stare into a portrait drawn from real life, and then realise that the future is theirs to make.

See Actions 1 and 10 of the Briefing Paper