Monday 2 January 2017

The Quiet Achievers of History, by Gillian Polack

The silent partner of most of the political discussions rampaging around the interweb is the public sector. The public service is a strong part of any country’s work. It’s not as colourful as the politics and people who make the history books, but it’s what keeps everything together. I’m thinking about it in this new year of ours, for one of the main reasons we got through 2016 in as good condition as we did was many people working hard behind the scenes, to turn grand declarations into achievable goals and to keep the wheels of government rolling.

I love telling my students that a country without an effective public sector is a country in George RR Martin’s universe. It’s impossible. It falls apart.

When we think of falling apart in the Middle Ages, we think of the epic arguments between Stephen and Matilda. We think of Sharon Penman’s story of the period that was so very nasty for ordinary people that it was described as “When Christ and his Saints slept.” Yet... the public sector was active throughout that time. Not as active as it had been. Not as active as it would be. Justice was limited. Taxation was complicated. But the workers were still there, holding the country together so that when Henry came to the throne, there was still a throne to come to. 

It’s much harder to pull together a country that doesn’t have a viable public sector. By ‘much harder’, of course, I mean ‘next to impossible’.

It’s the quiet dudes who work behind the scenes to keep the correspondence flowing and the paperwork done who make our historical happy endings possible. We don’t often see them in our fiction, but they’re there, working. 

An occasional person appears in detective fiction, because the shape of the detective story lends itself to regular workers just doing their job. It doesn’t lend itself so well to fiction that describe bloody battles and cries of hate and love and challenge. That would be like a waiter butting into the last moments of a marriage by asking “And would you like to order dessert?”

The thing about the quiet work that keeps a country running is, history-wise, it’s only boring if you don’t know where to look. Or maybe if you don’t know how to look. 

So many of the really colourful stories novelists tell have just a bit of the public service in them, for instance. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” is not nearly as interesting if we don’t know what happened next. Henry’s sublimely dramatic penitence isn’t just an exercise in self-abnegation: it links the murderous actions of four wayward knights back to the normal world, making sure that there is responsibility and that it is taken.

It’s a different kind of story, though. It’s the story of the quiet drama involved in getting the meal to the table, rather than the glamorous drama of the couple arguing their marriage into oblivion over a fine meal. It’s the story of the woman creating a beautiful dessert doing it through the veil of a migraine because she’s worked too long without a break and her life, too, is falling to pieces. Her life isn’t public, so no-one knows that it’s the reason the line of strawberry sauce is wobbly.

That strawberry sauce...

What happens if we translate that anecdote to the Middle Ages?

The historical novel might be about the amazing team of scribes that got out all the copies of the Magna Carta to everyone who needed one. It might be about how their private lives suffered while the barons announced “Look how clever we are.”

The historical novel might be about making sure that horses were shod for royal use during a major campaign. A loose shoe in battle could kill a king.

The historical novel might follow the public servants who handles the paperwork for London imports. Sounds boring? It wasn’t. Think of smugglers and international intrigue. But there are no important people involved? There are. The public service mixed with the good and great all the time. Name-dropping is easy. Chaucer, for instance, was heavily involved in that kind of activity, and from Chaucer, it was one step to royalty. A sexy step, too, given who he married.


I’m talking about the many people who keep countries going today. These quiet and industrious souls have always been with us. They’ve always had stories to tell, too. It’s a matter of cultural preference that we seldom tell these stories. The stories themselves are amazing.


Penny Dolan said...

What a wise and much-needed observation, Gillian, especially when we have a culture where some people make news-worthy pronouncements without - or so it seems to me - any idea of the extent of the administrative work involved. Unsung heroes, many of them, and with their work likely to be undone without any recourse.

Thank you for this post!

Leslie Wilson said...

As the mother and mother-in-law of 2 civil servants, I applaud! Well said.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for this!