Lest We Forget
LONDON, England—One afternoon midweek, I head home early to do some work at our local internet café—the pub. I pass a signpost in our neighborhood garden displaying “Today’s Weather,” but the group of people who have retired early from work to gather at the pub has already informed me that the weather is unseasonably nice for London. Weaving through the throngs of people and flying trays of glistening cider, I finally arrive at my rickety “desk” in the dark interior of the pub. Like everywhere else in the pre-Jubilee, pre-Olympics London, the pub is decked out in British paraphernalia. But compared to the brash nationalism that I saw in various parades while living in Beijing, the pub’s patriotism was a suiting background—almost a given element. The country seemed to be approaching the upcoming events in a similar way, as if they were a mere sprinkling of additional gems on a crown already hefty with imperial achievement and tradition.
When I first arrived in London, I must admit, I held some disdain for this attitude of reveling in past imperial glory. I was fresh out of a semester of critiquing the country in my British Empire class and therefore did not expect to hold the same blind admiration for England that I had on past trips. However, even with this predisposition, I was quickly drawn in by the allure of the city in its summer splendor. The languorous pleasure of afternoon tea, the spires of Westminster seemingly shooting out of the Thames, and the casual grandeur of riders in pristine britches exercising their horses in Hyde park all reminded me that it is impossible not to appreciate the tradition of this country.
But when my eyes were just beginning to be glazed over by the city’s glory, my job reminded me of what was lying under the façade I was seeing. History remains a tangible element in the city today, but through my job, I encountered the sagas that aren’t on display in the British Museum. I spent my days in the National Archives reading documents from the end of the Empire that have recently been released for public viewing. While most of the material was relatively benign, occasionally I would stumble across a subtle reference to the former Empire’s darker side: document destruction during decolonization in Kenya or villagization in Emergency Malaya. Later, I also traveled to the Imperial War Museum where the voices of the government officials who I had gotten to know through these documents were preserved on hundreds of reels of interviews.
Beyond the revelry of pub-goers and the summer routines of Londoners, these voices and these documents represented the other side of humanity I encountered in London. The dichotomy of my experience in the city reminded me to always be aware of what lies beneath the exterior—the meticulously trimmed hedges of the parks, the neat rows of townhouses, and the well-worn interior of my favorite pub. Over a century ago, Rudyard Kipling, himself an advocate for British imperialism, wrote the phrase “lest we forget” in “Recessional,” a poem honoring Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. As the Jubilee and Olympics come and go, I believe it is especially vital to heed Kipling’s warning and remember the imperial stories that aren’t on display while we celebrate England at its finest.
Elizabeth W. Pike ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House.