It had to happen…

It had to happen i.e. I was going to write about History at some stage…It just took a time for me to remember why I fell in love with it in the first place. And why do I love it? Because it makes me think but more importantly it makes me feel E. H Carr in his, for the time, groundbreaking lecture series asked ‘What is History?’ He asked us to rethink what we knew and to move out from the shadows of Victorian certainty, to break the bonds of the belief that the historian was an impartial observer. As he said ‘The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate’. I love that quote and can imagine dusty old professors as they read it in the 1960s spluttering up a lung as their monocles fall into a glass of brandy.

 And why did they nearly choke on their brandy? Because Carr was pointing out that as a species we are informed by our society, we choose what we think is important and we are told by those in the know what we should and shouldn’t value. Therefore the objective historian does not exist. People feel for a history; feel for what calls out from the past. Our culture informs us and shapes how we relate to history. Take Russia, for me it is always hard not to get swept away by the romantic scope of it history: the Mongol invasions, Ivan the Terrible, the Romanovs, Peter I and his wife Catherine, Napoleonic War, Serfs, Cossacks and Communists, the Red and White armies and the rise of the soviet. Over my childhood, both America and Russia loomed large. You could feel it, comedies were informed by it, drama was shaped by it and sport was a battleground in which two ideologically opposed forces battled it out. But we were always told that the Russians were the bad guys and that was that. They were nothing more than Atheists and Commies according to films. Rocky had to beat one of them and Rambo wiped them out in Afghanistan. Case closed they were the bad guys. Look I’m not saying Stalin was a good guy, indeed he was nut, but what I’m saying is that for a time nobody talked about old Russia, nobody highlighted that millions of people starved under the monarchy, the films didn’t show the people under the Communist yoke and their struggle. Those facts didn’t suit the agenda ‘our’ society informed us and we defined ‘them’ as other and with it enter the world of the bias.

Carr was right and as he said ‘Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.’ Why? I hear you ask, well because that is where bias lives. Being biased isn’t always a bad thing for instance we are biased towards members of our family, we want them to do well and to succeed. As you can probably guess I had a secret and biased regard for the USSR in the 1980s. Not because my 11 year old self was a card carrying Communist but because it was a bit taboo to shout for the bad guy, I was contrary and somewhere in myself I always wanted to be an historian. I wanted to know why they were seen as the bad guys. I wanted to know were they that bad and if so why?  I was biased but only because I am human. Therefore the historian cannot write an objective history but that is no bad thing. Think of the biased sources we have around us particularly the personal letters, diaries and memoirs that foreground how people felt.

Now the first time I can remember feeling anything about academic history was hearing about the Vikings coming to Ireland. A nasty bunch that wore horned helmets (they never wore horned helmets as in battle all you would have to do is grab the horns which rather handily doubled up as handle bars and then you could pummel the shite out of them). They were nasty to monks but the bit that impressed me was after Brian Boru defeated them he was killed by one. Now it is not the fact that Boru was killed that impressed me but the grief and anger that followed. The Irish captured the assailant, disemboweled him and tied him to a tree by his entrails- now that, my friends, is history come alive.  But probably the history that spoke to me the most back then was Irish myths especially Cuchulainn, his origin story, the cattle raid and his death. He was hardcore: he killed his best-friend Ferdia and he also killed his son oh and it was set in Ireland and that simple idea sold it to me. Here was a mythological cycle set in my own backyard. But what really struck me was the feeling, I wondered how he felt when he killed his best friend and how he was so feared that when he died his enemies still wouldn’t approach him. I know they are myths but there is history within, it reveals the culture and ideas of those that created the narrative but more importantly it is meant to make us feel something. Such a simple idea isn’t it?

To me history has always been more then an academic pursuit. I see the threads that connect us to our past and in doing so I feel connected to that past. I think about my forebears and somewhere inside me I know that they are a part of me. I look at a building and in my minds eye I can see the people that passed through it, lived in it and died in it. When I visit Kilmainham jail I can’t help but feel moved by the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, the romantic in me knows that the sacrifice was worth it and that no amount of corruption can ever take away what they gave us: our country. To paraphrase Yeats they hurled the little streets upon the great. How did they all feel in those last hours or as they tied the blindfold round them? I am sure their friends and families must have cried bitter tears but then I am sure that the British families that lost theirs felt the same way. 1914-1918 years that must have known so much weeping and so much pain the soil of Europe sodden with the blood of young men. Sometimes history offers no hope and no lesson. Why? Well I suppose human beings have no rhyme or reason. The way we react is not bound by a set of rules even though history books often present it in that way.

For a time I got lost in these books, in essays and in journals. The academic within made me forget why I loved history in the first place. I worried about grades, about marking and about deadlines. And, like an old couple that resents each other, history and I constantly bickered for a time. We took each other for granted and then we ignored each other, each of us could only see each others faults. After a time though I missed history and we reconciled. For this I would like to thank Dr Lucy Worsley (below) and her wonderful programmes especially Elegance and Decadence: the age of the Regency. She reminded me what history really is: a dialogue with the past, a celebration of people, a feeling that you get when something interests you and last but not least it can be fun. An old tutor of mine once said: ‘We are not the great unwashed looking at history with our faces pressed against the window, we are part of history and we help shape it.’  Words I forgot but in the end it had to happen: I’ve fallen in love with history again.


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