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I won’t be alone in feeling that the Christmas holidays were a long time ago: all that time for reading both indulgently and for improvement! A test for me of being properly relaxed is bothering to read Times 2 or the weekend supplements, or doing so and revelling in the entertainment value rather than busily expostulating at the nonsense of the latest metropolitan or provincial fad.

I read one piece about yet another diet, and found myself uncharacteristically cheered up by the writer’s line: it sounded as though everything my grannie had said about cooking and eating was now on trend: a balanced diet means one with plenty of fruit and veg, of course, but also starchy foods (she wouldn’t have said carbs), and butter and milk and eggs, and the like. Home cooking rather than processed foods. I think a glass of wine was fine. Skipping meals was definitely out. Looking to eliminate a food group In favour of a super food was unwise. Common sense, grannie’s style. I was a bit envious of the food writer who was clearly making a fortune telling us what we all know and selling books to stuff our Christmas stockings, but, hey, that’s entrepreneurship for you.

One of my colleagues was clearly concerned that I might disappear into a beanbag feast of lifestyle reading and easy thrillers (can’t beat them for relaxation value; the equivalent of a mental hotbath), and gave me Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. It had a similar effect, albeit for different reasons. Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, asserts that ‘History does not repeat, but it does instruct […] History can familiarize, and it can warn.’ He goes on to offer twenty lessons from the twentieth century on what history’s warning signals are when our political order is imperilled; as an American, he feels that peril urgently. And so, each warning is prefaced by advice: Do not obey in advance. Beware the one-party state. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

Each has a compelling back-story drawn from societies which have suffered tyranny: how they slipped almost seamlessly, dreamily into totalitarianism; how the pre-tyranny felt much like our society feels today – safe, secure, certain, complacent.

Some of the advice is stuff we often say to our children: ‘Make eye contact and small talk.’ Or: ‘Contribute to good causes.’

Other advice, unpacked, is similarly compelling, if a little worthy when head teachers say it: ‘Defend institutions […] choose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a labor union – and take its side.’

‘Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.’

Of course, the power and persuasiveness lie in Snyder’s prose and in his learning: so grounded in scholarship and historical insight, Snyder’s lessons carry weight which others’ similarly grounded words wouldn’t. But I was struck by what we know to be true, to be healthy, to be right, sometimes needs rehearsing, especially to the young who, discovering everything for the first time, can’t always have the perspective to weigh up the worthiness, the truthfulness of the familiar versus the new. We need to be jolted into realising why things (eye contact, having a private, non-digital life, voting) matter when the things that matter aren’t in danger.

Which then brought me back to that sometimes double-edged accolade of being ‘forward-thinking’, and it struck me that it’s actually being ‘thinking’ that matters, and which is what I hope we are. And that’s probably why I look forward to the return to school and the springtime season of ideas in action, of debate, of thinking, of what Snyder calls ‘[practising] corporeal politics.’ (‘Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.’ Brilliant.)

What Clinton calls the culture of encounter. What Grannie called getting out and about.

Adam Pettitt, 17 January 2018