Thursday 23 March 2017

Where does history begin, actually? Scattered reflections by Leslie Wilson

Kendal Castle; tangible history in my childhood
The past begins as each second is left behind; indeed, the present moment is only a footstep between the past and the future. But where is the boundary between the past and history?
I've been thinking this rather a lot over the last while, as I have had the feeling of living through history, what with Brexit and Trump in America, and the way in which the UK seems to be morphing into a rather unpleasant place which isn't what I thought it was. Of course, nowadays, we access unrolling history, even across the Atlantic, as it happens. In the past, news  arrived as fast as the report could reach you; on foot, or horseback, by boat, and later by train. (There was also the semaphore in the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the earliest form of telegraph.) But reading old newspapers, you really notice this lag. It took six months, in the eighteen hundreds, to reach India, so news from the subcontinent would turn into history on the voyage, maybe. For the unlucky few, history came and found you. In the Thirty Years' War, some people only realised that there was a war when the soldiers arrived to rape, loot and pillage.

I remember Hilary Mantel saying, when we co-tutored an Arvon course, that lived history looked quite different from history written up in a book, because when you're living through events, they seem fluid. This came back to me when I wrote about the Kristallnacht pogrom in Saving Rafael. When some hooligans arrive and start to smash up your house, you have no idea that it's happening all over Berlin. It takes time for this to become apparent; which is why I sent my hero and heroine out onto the streets to find out. It is not yet Kristallnacht, it is a series of terrifying events that you can't get a handle on, that provoke raw, horrible emotions. The function of history is to analyse, to get a handle on these events. Maybe the function of the historical novelist is to take the handle off; the door swings wildly in a howling gale, and you have no idea where the wind is blowing from.
Berlin Wall art, East Side Gallery: Brezhnev and Honecker smash through the Wall.

I suppose this question exercises me particularly because I'm a historical novelist. If I write a novel about the protest against the Iraq war (for example), is that historical? Or Berlin, when the Wall came down? If not, how far back does one have to go? Would Greenham Common be historical, for example? Dickens's novels, and George Eliot's, were usually set in the past, maybe twenty years ago, but would not regard themselves as historical unless they were dealing with events a good deal further back. Maybe it doesn't matter.

What do you think?


Susan Price said...

I only put this forward as a talking point - Does 'History' begin at the point where an event is far enough in the past for it to be regarded, researched and evaluated neutrally?

This would take longer for some events than others - but the speed with which something becomes neutral would also depend on geographical position. That is, someone from a country unaffected from an event might be able to take an unemotional view of its causes and outcomes sooner than someone from a country involved, whether that country was greatly enriched or damaged by the event.

It's much easier for a modern historian to stand right outside the 16th Century, to investigate and weigh all sources and come to an unbiased conclusion that it is for anyone at the moment to take an unbiased view of, say, Brexit or the present condition of the Labour Party, or the Scottish Referendum. For one thing, an historian would probably have access to all the resources available on the 16th Century, from all political sides, which they certainly don't for more recent events, given the high emotions, lies, confusions and secrecies.

Leslie Wilson said...

Interesting. But how neutral are historians, ever? Certainly, the history of World War 2 would still be hard put to it to shrug off nationalistic prejudices. I don't mean that condemnation of Nazi Germany is nationalistic - far from it. But the word 'Nazi' is still used by right and left to further their own arguments, and personally, I think British historians, with some exceptions, are often still too fond of making blanket judgements to shore up their own satisfaction that 'we beat Nazi Germany.' When you get contemporary historians stating that the Germans all approved of Hitler because they didn't topple him, and blithely ignoring the fact of the terror society, for example. On the other hand, you get revisionist accounts of history, particularly on the web, denying the Holocaust and 'bringing out the positive side' of the Nazi regime. The same tinges seep into accounts of World War 1, and the narrative of Empire is still tainted by nostalgia for lost British greatness. So can the Second World War be history?

Michelle Ann said...

I was taught at school that life only becomes history when there is no-one around to remember it first-hand. I don't think we will ever have a 'complete' view of history, as everyone's experiences are different, as you say. Often, going back a long way, we only have a limited number of documents from which to form opinions. And judgements do change with time, or the current prevailing climate. I remember as a child feeling rather sorry for the red indians in westerns, but I knew I must be wrong, as they were the baddies!

Also, the danger of looking at recent events as history is that we have no idea which currently minor issues may be the start of something big, and which currently major issues will prove to be dead ends.

Anyway, a very interesting discussion.