It is a rarity, in our modern, technology-filled world, to find someone who openly admits to being interested in history, and even more uncommon to discover that this someone goes a stage further, and breaks the interest down into both Ancient and Modern history. Society is no longer interested in such things: society is interested in the future, in the advance of technology, in automation, games, and the possibility that, while some believe it to be merely a well-timed film, we are all trapped within the Matrix. Game of Thrones is, for them, far more realistic, and historically accurate, than Downton Abbey. However, before we descend into a discussion on the merits of either programme, I must tell you I have seen neither, have no intention of watching them, and am quite sure my life will still be complete without them. I am happy to follow the lead of Neil Postman – in his work Amusing Ourselves To Death – when it comes to the television and its adverse effects upon our society in general, and specifically my generation. Later generations can put their intellectual and cultural demise down to Pokémon Go, Xbox 360 and smart phones, mine was destroyed by the bigger box given pride of place in every living room and, in later years, many bedrooms too. I am a great fan of history, and believe that it should be given far more importance in education – and most certainly be a qualification for politicians – along with two or three languages and the ability to read, write and debate intelligently. Anything beyond these basics is a bonus, and to be welcomed.
The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time
as Richard Hofstadter put it, and it was these intellectuals who managed to put together a nation which, up until fairly recently, has had remarkable success in many national and international fields. I can’t imagine them having the same level of fortitude against such high odds had they been concentrating on their mobile phones and the status of their friends on social media.
A few days ago I watched a form of debate in one of the House of Commons special committees on the forthcoming arrangements for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. There was not so much debate involved, more a question and answer session where a group of politicians from all parties questioned experts in the field of transport and logistics. They call it taking verbal evidence, although I find this term slightly overblown: they posed questions, the four experts answered. What struck me, though, was the amazing lack of preparation these politicians appear to have made prior to taking their evidence. Upon their report rests the future of a massive industry which is responsible for the expedient and safe delivery of everything coming into and leaving the British Isles, and those people upon whose shoulders this responsibility rests had problems understanding what customs and excise is, what the officers do, and even why the system stops working when, at four in the afternoon, an office closes for the day. These are the people who are shaping our future, what will eventually become the history taught in schools for your children and children’s children, and it makes me wonder whether politicians and those with vested interests were as short-sighted and lacking in the most basic form of preparation in the past.
Admittedly, my interest in history tends more towards the personal and social history that has been passed down to us through diaries and letters, and not necessarily that which is taught in a school or university environment. I am more interested in the people and how they experienced events, be it François Bourgogne and the retreat from Moscow in 1812, Basel as seen through the eyes of Jacob Burckhardt or the preparation and travel experiences of Richard Madox in 1582, en route to Brazil. I am not adverse to adding such people as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to this list of modern history makers and go as far back as Michel de Montaigne and his inspiring observations on life and the banality of normality. This, for me, is the modern age, the times which have brought society as we know it to the form it is now in, even if we have not seen them actively shaping and forming society as such, but only as part of a greater movement. And ancient history? Well, of course, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, a long list which would throw this short letter into the realms of the index to a dry treatise. As Bill Moyers, the American journalist, said:
Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvellous.
History is formed and influenced by ordinary people, who tend to be relegated to the background, as much as by those hogging the limelight, and it is these personal stories which bring light into what we read, personal interest into what we learn, understanding into how we judge those times and people in our distant, and not so distant, past.
I’m not sure when I first began to have an interest in history, most certainly not during my time at school. Our history teacher was someone who tended to wander off the path of teaching us what we needed to know and onto the slippery slope of what he believed we should be doing with our lives, based on his own experiences within a reasonably conservative educational community and the confines of military service during and following the Second World War. He decided at a very early juncture in our education who would pass the examinations, and who would have to fall back and hope for a good grade in geography, as the two were set one against the other during the upper school years. I was one of his failures: predestined to fall behind; forget homework; dates; places; names. He consigned the likes of me to the rear desks in his classroom, where several of us would have wished to be seated anyway, as luck would have it. I think it came about because of my passion for reading books, and my desire to have all the world’s literature available at my fingertips at all times. We all know how impossible that is, even the Internet hasn’t made that much information available to the masses, but I was young enough to dream. Also young enough to know that I could do whatever I wanted to, if I wanted to, and no old teacher was going to stop me rising to the heights, wherever and whatever those heights might be.
In the upper school I was arm-twisted into helping two (slightly) older women learn their history for the final examinations. Both needed history at A level to get into the universities of their choice, but were continually being distracted from learning by the interests and realities of teenage life. I should change all that, but sitting in one of the free study rooms with them, and forcing them to learn. This was the year that A level questions also came up on O level papers. This was the year I learned all the A level answers so I didn’t need to keep on turning pages back and forth through the textbooks when testing two young women who, in the end, didn’t go on to university anyway. Now, it could be said I had been challenged, with one of these reverse psychology tricks, to combat the lack of acceptance from my history teacher by doing exactly that which he said I couldn’t, pass the tests, and whilst appearing to prove him wrong, justify him in claiming his teaching methods had been right all along and this was exactly what he wanted. I am sure there are many teachers who try this form of encouragement, getting a pupil to prove them wrong and then smugly telling them this is what they wanted all along. In this case I was called by my history teacher into his office one afternoon, when the staff had the results but we didn’t, and told that he didn’t consider my success earned in any way, shape or form, and he would never have given me even a sniff at a passing grade.
… history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions
according to Neil Postman. I tend to disagree in that I find his definition too limiting: I believe history is an indication of society’s growth, of the manner in which we have learned to live and work with other people in a wide variety of circumstances and it is of value to absolutely everyone, whether they wish to study socio-economic change, Marxist-Leninist literary deconstruction, or simply pass a test to get themselves into university. It is far more than just an indication of traditions, but a means of discovering how those traditions came to be and why. It is a chance to explore a past which we will never be able to experience but which, thanks to a few men and women – such as Samuel Pepys or Virginia Woolf – is kept alive by their words. It is not just patterns, nor is it just a direct path from one idea to an event, from a notion or theory to a fact, it is the memory of life itself.
There is one area of life, or one thing which should be part and parcel of every person’s life, which I believe benefits greatly from an interest in history, and which advances it too, even without the person partaking necessarily knowing that they are taking part, and that is reading books. I have three main personal hobbies: letter writing, books, photography. It is fair to say that all three have something to do with history, the latter two considerably more in my case, but even letter writing, after a while, is of historical worth. People who do not read books, even occasionally, miss out, in my opinion, on one of the greatest benefits of life, one of the most enjoyable experiences: the reader enters different worlds, either ones of fantasy concocted in the writer’s mind, or of historical relevance where the reader, if they immerse themselves fully, can literally walk the streets of a long gone era. Of course, most books are automatically historical works since they are set in present times and dates as soon as the words are set on paper or read; anything else is either science fiction or fantasy – set in another world or in the future.
I recently had a long conversation with a seventy-two year old woman, born and bred in Bremen, who told me there is nothing about the city she has spent her entire life in that she doesn’t know. The discussion on such knowledge came about as we were talking about how little the residents of my own (new) home town know about the area in which they live, and the intransigence of the director of our local museum when it comes to people with a private interest in historical matters. I discovered on first arriving here, over twenty years ago now, that the locals didn’t know the first thing about their own town, not even the meaning of some of the monuments in the local park. Many I had spoken to were proud to claim that their families had lived in the same house or street for several generations – it came about because I am an outsider, and always will be – but I wonder how many of them had their eyes open on the rare occasions they ventured out through the front door and into our real world.
This conversation took place on the banks of the river Weser in Bremen, where we were discussing some of the ships moored as tourist attractions, as theatres and restaurants. One of them is about to be moved, and has had a brand new quay built which had caused a considerably amount of inconvenience for the many people who set up flea market stands in the area every Saturday. She was telling me how the area had always been a hub of industry, with countless ships working their way down the river and into the heart of Bremen to deliver coffee, linens and countless other products. This threw me slightly, and I pointed out that the ships didn’t moor where we were standing, but travelled further into the very heart of Bremen to an area next to the great Dom. That, of course, would be impossible, she told me, since there is no river there, and no docks.
It is interesting, as an outsider almost everywhere in the world, to watch the reactions of people as they learn. It is also interesting to learn for one’s self the best way to tell people about their chosen specialist subject without appearing arrogant or derogatory. I’m still working on all these aspects of my personality! However, I did manage to introduce my partner in historical discussion and memories to the idea that there had been docks in the centre of Bremen, away from the river Weser, and along a small river called the Balge, long since filled in and erased from memory. Well, not quite erased, since there are markings along part of its route near a central bus station and a plaque where the river once met and flowed into the Weser. I am told, and I suspect it is true, that people who come into a town and claim it, after however long, to be their home, tend to know more about that town than people who have lived there their entire lives.
For my own part, as someone born and (partially) bred in London, it is always fascinating to read historical works about the city, to discover little known facts and to fit them into my own picture – and memories – of the an area I could easily have lived in all my life, but for other circumstances. Recently I read Arthur Morrison’s The Hole in the Wall for the first time, and delighted in experiencing the docks area around Wapping and along the river Thames as a den of thievery and murder. I wonder whether you have had the same experiences in your home town? And what will people think, in one or two hundred years time, of the tales we write today?