Today, I put up two memorial crosses in my living room window for men I never knew.
A few weeks ago, a hand-delivered letter dropped through my door. Inside was a wooden cross and a note. It read: ‘A man who died in World War I lived in your house. Please help us commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day by displaying this cross and his biography in your front window’.
I read the biography of John Newman Bunting, his short life and the time he spent living in the house I now live in, and I felt deeply sad. I messaged my dad and brothers about how sad it was. We all agreed: so sad. Sad emoji.
An hour later a second letter dropped through my door. It was the cross for his brother, George Lewis Bunting. The story of his equally short life, his equally futile death. Our shared name. Oh dear. Now what do I do? Am I double sad? Extra sad? 37 million sad? How sad do we have to be before it counts?
Actually what I do is sit on the sofa in silence for a while and wonder how we’re back here again, the world teetering on the brink in a way that it hasn’t for decades. I can’t comprehend 37 million lives or deaths. I can’t even comprehend two lives. These men who lived in my house, slept in my children’s bedrooms, stomped muddy boots over my kitchen floor, lit fires in my hearth, dug vegetables in my garden. There is, for a second, a direct, physical connection, from their feet on my floor through the earth and back through me, and I realise I don’t even know what World War I was about. I have no idea why they all died. Something to do with an umbrella and an ABBA song? How disgusting that I don’t know that story.
But there is a story I do know. The great fairytale of our time. The one called Never Again. It goes like this: Once there were bad men and we vanquished them with our good men and everyone died but it’s okay because never again.
I know this one so well because the story of World War II is less of a mystery to me. When you grow up in a Jewish family with immediate relatives – real actual living people – who just about escaped and who you can talk to about it, Never Again has a particular taste, a particular meaning that’s more like a memory, something buried in your flesh. It’s three million stories in two words.
The stories that stick are the ones we truly feel. Macbeth tells us what we already know about human greed and the corruptive power of power itself. Snow White tells us about jealousy and vanity. Like all stories, their meaning changes with context. Macbeth is relevant today exactly because it is still relevant. These days, Snow White is a cautionary feminist tale – why wait for the man to save you when you when you can be a strong, independent woman and save yourself? Likewise, Never Again has changed. It used to be a story of grief, then it was a reminder (PSA: don’t do genocide kids! Don’t descend into fascism, lols!). More recently it has been a warning, and now it is a defeated shrug. What happened to never again? I thought we said never again?
The problem with Never Again is it is a lie, as a story and as a reflection of ourselves. It is not even the kind of lie we tell as an oblique way of getting to the truth. It’s just… not true.
It erases the fundamental truth that some humans are now and always will be assholes. It ignores a system which makes it far easier for assholes to gain power than it does for relatively good people to gain power. It ignores the cyclical nature of things, that sometimes things are good, sometimes things are bad. It makes the assumption that we can remain, through politics and sort-of-democracy and diplomacy and progress, on a fairly centrist keel forever.
There will always be an ‘again’. There will always be people for whom power, ideology and hate outweigh the seemingly basic ideals of not oppressing and murdering millions. We all know the human capacity for horror. What we don’t know is how to progress from it.
And so, when things get bad, when we see the global rise of fascism, with the added fun deadline of a decade to stop the world turning into a giant fiery climate changed wasteland, Never Again falls apart and we look at each other and shrug and say, ‘well I don’t know what to do, I thought we said Never Again.’
Never Again has always been an abstraction; too utopian in its simplicity, too aphoristic to hold deep meaning. Once there were bad men and we vanquished them with our good men and everyone died but it’s okay because never again. We aren’t doomed by failing to learn from the past. The past, up until now, has proven to be a useless teacher. We are doomed by failing to imagine the future.
Our stories have always told us that we are warriors and explorers, inventors and pioneers, yet through these tales we celebrate victory through violence and domination. The final battle is won through bloodshed. It is no wonder, then, that we struggle to enact progress in any other way. We have to ask: is this really who we are now? After everything, is this all we’ve managed to become?
Through stories we share the universal experience of who we are and what we do, and every single one of them matters, not just the blockbuster films or bestselling novels. They matter because this is how life happens: through the stories we tell one another, the secrets we share among ourselves. Through the Chinese Whispers of who we are, we transmit the vast complexities and rules of life around the whole, global network of people. And it’s through our fictions, whether structural or ideological or explorative or just because we love telling stories, that we begin to move forward with a common goal; a goal of peace, of survival, and ultimately of abundance.
Never Again is a story that is not fit for purpose. Once there were bad men and we vanquished them with our good men and everyone died but it’s okay because never again. We are completely desensitised to its horror because we are surrounded by it all the time – again, again, again. We know it is a platitude in the place of hard work. It sticks through repetition, but we do not truly feel it.
It is a story that needs editing. A redraft or reboot. And it needs retelling over and over again in a million different ways until we start to find the ones that feel right. Because once we start to imagine what Never Again really could be, once we start dropping the breadcrumbs of that universal human experience, we have a chance of heading in the right direction. And guess what? Telling stories is your job. We’ve got a deadline guys. It’s time to get to work.