Same as it ever was, why we are all hostages to history

New Year’s resolutions are often framed in terms of comparison. “I will drink less.” “I will read more.” “I will make more time for family.” We believe they are about the future; about the enticing year ahead. Really, they are about the past, and our relationship to it: regret, shame, blindness.

The past few summers have seen us walled off from both past and future. Bushfires, flood, fast-spreading disease – each locked us into immediate considerations, forced us to stay still and look only at what was closest. As this year began it may have seemed, for a moment, as though we were free once more to consider the future and how we might shape it.

Cardinal George Pell, Prince Harry and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet. Credit:

So it seems oddly appropriate that, already, several of the major stories of this year have plunged us back so firmly into the past, as though to remind us that what feels like limitless freedom is in fact quite limited; that what has gone before always hems us in.

Last week, Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, was published. It is striking that in this, Harry’s most audacious attempt yet to move into his future, to announce the beginning of something new, he has chosen a form so focused on the past. And yet while a memoir is obviously about the past, it is also about the present. The writer reaches back and shapes his material according to his current beliefs and preoccupations. But the material, of course, shapes him as well; for it is his past that has formed those beliefs and preoccupations that then reach back and redraw the way he sees his past. There is an endless dance between the two, and it is impossible for anyone to be sure where one begins and the other ends.

We might be persuaded, by recent excavations of trivial royal episodes – frostbitten penis springs to mind, a phrase I hope to use just once in my life – to ask the question: how much should the past remain the past? But having some moral view is probably pointless because the reality is it never does. Two days after Spare’s release, the NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, admitted he had worn a Nazi uniform to his 21st birthday party. The irony is perfect: a man who once treated the history of others with contempt, as something that could be sneered or laughed at, is now unable to escape his own, brought up short by that very same contempt. It reads like a fable about the perils of believing the past can ever be trifled with.

As a fable, its force pales next to the shape of George Pell’s life. He spent years acquiring power and reputation, attaining what to some seemed like great heights. His admirers are already fighting to establish his posthumous reputation: Tony Abbott, in a formal tribute, described him as “a saint for our times”. But Abbott, in that tribute – who in other contexts has warned against rewriting history – stunningly failed to mention the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The commission found that Pell had protected abusive priests instead of children. Later, the scheme he established to compensate victims ensured the compensation was measly and that victims kept quiet.

Illustration by Joe Benke

Illustration by Joe BenkeCredit:

These failures have already begun to overshadow anything else Pell did. This does not amount to justice, of course – the suffering of those Pell turned away from will always far outweigh any reputational harm Pell himself suffered. Rather, it is a reminder of the way things are: what actually happened cannot, finally, be ignored. Pell turned away from the present and turned away from the past. In the end, it was not only the facts he tried to silence but the fact he tried to silence them that became the loudest thing about him.

This summer, I read a book review by the academic William Davies. Politics can often seem gripped by the present; a trend matched by the apparent shape of our economy, with tech driving constant novelty and change. This sense of forward movement gained strength over the past century, in which capitalism and progress seemed tied to one another, severing us from the past.

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