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OU on the BBC: The Things We Forgot To Remember - Presenter's perspective

Updated Wednesday, 22nd November 2006

As he moves his focus from current affairs to history, Michael Portillo considers the way our collective memory lets facts slip from its grasp.

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Michael Portillo Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Britain was saved from invasion in 1940 by the RAF’s victory over the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. That is one of the "facts" handed down by British people from generation to generation. But is it true? That was a question I asked in the first series of "The Things We Forgot To Remember" on BBC Radio 4.

Is it not really the case that Hitler was very ill-prepared for a sea-launched assault on our shores, and that since the Royal Navy dominated the seas it could have dealt prettily easily with a flotilla of invasion craft? In that case, perhaps the engagement at Mes-el-Kebir in Algeria, where a British fleet sank the prize ships of the French navy so as to stop them falling into Nazi hands, was the most significant battle of the summer of 1940.

When we inherit historical memory it has already been filtered. Jack the Ripper continues to titillate ghoulish audiences today, even though with just five confirmed murders to his name over ten weeks in 1888 he comes some way down the league of serial killers and his reign of terror was short. Have we forgotten that the propertied people of London were worried about something else that might creep out of the slums of the East End? It was not the killer of prostitutes that scared them as much as the mob, the fear that political revolution would sweep London as it had Paris a century before. That’s the conclusion in the first of a new series of 'The Things We Forgot to Remember'.

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Why do we forget some things and remember others? In 1940 the government exaggerated the strategic significance of the battle in the air (but not the courage of the airmen). The victory was a huge boost to national morale. The Ripper is simply more memorable than a revolution that did not happen. Sometimes memory changes over time. In the second programme I look at why we remember the terrible loss of British lives at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but not the series of British victories in 1918. Our memory has been shaped by certain war poets and by recent spoofs such as "Oh What a Lovely War" and "Blackadder".

I read History at university and was taught to question received wisdoms. You always need to ask "what is the evidence for what happened?" and "who supplied the evidence, and with what possible motive?" So these radio series have intrigued me. It is good to ask what we have forgotten to remember and why.

Such questions nudge us closer to the truth.





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