Tag Archives: History

Isn’t all history relatively fictional?

One of things I enjoy most about my annual blogging marathon is stumbling across a potential topic for the day’s post and then following threads that emerge and disappearing off down a whole series of rabbit holes, discovering all sorts of interesting ideas along the way. This post started with a story that appeared on Politics Home this morning. In summary, the UK’s most senior government minister with responsibility for culture and media is on the verge of writing to Netflix (an on-line video streaming service) asking them to place an advisory notice to the start of each edition of their highly popular and critically acclaimed series on the Bristish monarchy The Crown. The Minister, Oliver Dowden, is quoted as saying : “It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that. Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in Netflix series The Crown

I was going to write about the irony of a Minister in a government that has an at best tenuous grasp on the difference between truth and fiction, having the temerity to require a TV company to state explicitly that a historical fiction drama series was (shock! horror!) fictional. I might have gone on to suggest that every time in the next month that a government minister stands up in Parliament (or more likely writes in a column for the Daily Telegraph) that a no-deal Brexit is the will of the British people as voted for in a referendum four years’ ago, coverage should also carry a warning that such accounts are also “beautifully produced works of fiction”. Surely, without such a warning, people who voted for Brexit on the basis that we would remain members of the European Single Market and Customs Union might also “mistake fiction for fact”.

I then started to reflect on the contrast between reactions to the idea that The Crown might in some way present a distorted view of history; and the outrage felt in some quarters at suggestions that ‘whitewashed’ histories of those implicated in slavery and other colonial abuses were themselves, if not works of fiction, then at least only partial versions of the truth. The quotes attributed to Dowden in the Independent piece are particularly interesting when juxtaposed with his views on the Netflix series : “History is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today.” It’s unclear whether that same analysis holds true for the behaviours and attitudes of the UK’s Royal Family during the real-life events that are the basis of the historical fiction that is The Crown.

Edward Colston statue dumped in Bristol dock during Black Lives Matter protest

History itself is a highly contentious subject. There is no absolutely objective, impartial, reliable and value-free account of any past event. Henry Ford is commonly believed to have stated that : “History is bunk”. But ironically, even that is historically questionable. The actual quote that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in May 1916 was : “History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now.” One interpretation of this is that Ford – who was known to be sceptical about US involvement in the First World War – was suggesting that a focus on history, on tradition, was not going to help address the problems facing the world as it was in May 1916. However, it’s not absolutely clear what he meant – and interpretations necessarily involve assumptions and attribution of motivation and values that Ford may hardly have recognised himself. Indeed, later in the same piece, Daniel Strohl writes that : “One explanation posits simply that Ford was trying to dissemble using a debate tactic he often deployed called the ‘Ford flurry’ or the ‘Gish gallop’ in which Ford threw out an array of arguments or statements of fact when cornered or when he couldn’t muster a sufficient response.” I wonder if it will take 100 years for somebody to write the same of the current President of the United States.

So is all history necessarily partly fiction then? This was the question posed in a fascinating essay published on the Evatt Foundation website and written by Australian historians Ann Curthoys and John Docker in 2006. Curthoys and Docker consider the question through the various lenses that have been applied to the academic study of history. They identify various dualities that exist in historical writing, including “nationalist historians [who] seek to justify and praise the nation through a particular version of its past, while revisionist historians aim to question national historical myths through what they see as an honest coming to terms with its darker aspects.” They also draw out the distinction between history as verifiable fact, and history as a literary art, “constituted through language, narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and allegory”. It is in this “space between history as rigorous scrutiny of sources and history as part of the world of literary forms” that the discussion about the historical accuracy and validity of The Crown resides.

But there is another doubleness in academic history that is also described by Curthoys and Docker and of relevance here. They label them Herodotean and Thucydidean after the great historians of ancient Athenian conflicts. “The Herodotean is a mode of history which is expansive and inclusive, history as sexual, erotic, religious, social, cultural, as well as political and military. The Thucydidean is a mode that is highly focused on war and the state and the interaction of states, ignoring gender and social and cultural history, and is presented in an authoritative and magisterial tone and manner.” Arguably, this is the conflict that is playing out in Dowden’s proposed letter to Netflix. Dowden’s Thucydidean motive is to protect and preserve the dignity and solemnity of the state as embodied in the Royal Family. The literary narrative of The Crown is altogether more down and dirty, focusing on the characters not as officers of the state but rather less grandly as men and women subject to all the same desires, foibles and imperfections as all other men and women.

So is all history fiction? Curthoys and Docker think not, and I agree with them. “‘[W]e do indeed believe in truth and in the search for truth. We point out that no-one… would do history, would pursue historical research, unless [they] thought they could arrive, however provisionally, at some kind of truth about the past. We think, however, that the temptation to declare that the historian can objectively establish the truth about the past is to be resisted. There always has to be a question mark hovering over any claim to having attained an objective, let alone scientific, status for one’s findings.”

I have never watched The Crown and I have no idea whether the fictionalised accounts that it contains of day to day going-on in the House of Windsor during the great historical events of the last century are even close to being accurate. But one thing I do know is that Oliver Dowden can’t know one way or the other either!

Learning from the past to understand the present

I was struck by a story from my neck of the woods on the BBC News website today.

The Welsh Assembly’s Culture Committee has released a report into its review of history teaching in Wales; and among the recommendations is some clearer direction and guidance on the key historical events and topics in Welsh history that must be covered as part of the national curriculum here.

It’s only been fairly late in life that my own lack of history education has become really clear to me. I only did one year of formal history after the age of 14, completing an accelerated ‘O’ level (yes – I’m THAT old) in the UK’s social and economic history (effectively the story of the Industrial Revolution). Prior to that, the only thing that I remember from secondary school history lessons is some stuff about the Tudors. This has meant that my understanding of why things are as they are in the UK, British Isles and European continent has been severely underdeveloped. I am grateful that two books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last twelve months have started to fill in the gaps for me. I have previously reviewed Fergal Keane’s excellent memoir on the history of the island of Ireland on this blog. And I mentioned earlier this month that I was currently reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe from Pericles to Putin. I will write a fuller review of this one later in the month.

What I wanted to reflect on today though was the fact that it is only through reading these histories that I have come to a fuller understanding of the challenges that the UK now faces as it wrestles with conversion of the Brexit referendum result into something that can work in practice. Only those with no appreciation of the history of the island of Ireland, the political compromises inherent in the creation of the Republic of Ireland; and the social, political and emotional knots that had to be untangled in creating the Good Friday Agreement, can believe that anything approaching a border between Ireland and Great Britain could ever be acceptable.

Similarly, understanding that the European Union’s roots are firmly embedded in the series of diplomatic and commercial partnerships that emerged after 1945, is critical to an appreciation of why so many French and German politicians in particular find it so hard to understand the UK’s position. The EU as we know it today has been a gradual journey from an initial steel and coal cartel in western Europe, to a wider Economic Community and then the European Union as we have it now. Its origins are very much in a desire to ensure that there could never be another major conflict in Europe; and to provide some social democratic barrier to the emergence of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

It’s interesting to speculate whether part of the reason why a small majority of people voted in favour of Leave in 2016 is because most people’s knowledge of 20th Century UK history is focused on the World Wars and the causes of them, rather than on the 75 years since and the peace and prosperity that has been achieved through closer collaboration with our continental neighbours. Similarly, in a Welsh context, I am embarrassed to say that I had virtually know understanding of the resentment that was generated in mid and north Wales as a result of the flooding of Welsh communities to provide water to English Cities. Cofiwch Dryweryn as a movement and rallying point for Welsh independence was a wholly closed book to me as a child growing up in Cardiff.

So on balance, I find myself supportive of calls for a common core to history curriculums. A series of themes and topics that helps today’s children to better understand their local history, their place in the United Kingdom, and the reasons why the European Union emerged and is so fiercely defended on the continent, seems to me like a very good thing to be doing – irrespective of whether we end up Leaving or Staying.

A virtual meeting

Day 5 Challenge : meet somebody new and learn something about them.

This is quite a tricky one for somebody who leaves the house at 6.40am to drive to work, spends all day in the office, and then gets in at 6.30pm in the evening looking forward to something to eat and a bit of R&R time before bed. But then I remembered that this challenge is as much about the blogging as it is about the lived experience. Blogging is the ultimate virtual activity – so I have chosen to ‘meet’ somebody virtually. And no – I haven’t joined downloaded a dating app! Rather, having consulted a list of people linked to 4th November, I have gone back to the seventeenth century and have chosen to learn something more about Mary, the first British Princess Royal and the Princess of Orange, who was born on this day in 1631 in St. James’s Palace, London.

Mary was the eldest daughter of King Charles I and in line with acknowledged practice in Europe at that time, she was lined up for marriage in a way that was all about politics and diplomacy. Charles initially sought to arrange a marriage to her cousin, the first in line to the Spanish throne; and subsequently, she was connected to the Bohemian royal household. Ultimately however, at the age of 10 years old, she was married to William II of Orange, although it appears that their union was not consummated until several years’ later. William died in 1647 just days before the birth of the couple’s son Willem (later William III of Orange). Willem was brought up largely under the control of influence of his father’s mother and brother, and Mary herself struggled to be accepted in her adopted home in the Netherlands. Her loyalty to her brothers (the future King Charles II and the future James II) did not go down well with the Dutch public, and there were rumours of an affair between Mary and one Henry Jermyn, a member of James’ household. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in England, and Charles accession to the throne, that Mary’s stock rose within the House of Orange. She returned to England in September 1660 but died just three months’ later, apparently of smallpox (the disease that had claimed her husband 13 years earlier).

I am indebted to that font of all knowledge (and saviour of secondary school pupils across the world) Wikipedia for the biographical information that features in this post.

I am also reading Simon Jenkins’ excellent historical primer, A Short History of Europe : From Pericles to Putin. It’s a fascinating chronology of the history of the political and geographical entity that we now recognise as Europe, but which was for much of its first two thousand years, wracked by internal division and warfare, and the constant threat of attack from the Ottomans in the east. I highly recommend it as an accessible and eminently readable introduction to intrigues, alliances, betrayals and deceptions that forged the nation states of modern Europe. Jenkins’ own mischievousness is revealed in the subtle references to the UK’s current wrestling with its future relationship with the EU, counterpointing the modern day turmoil to equally turbulent events throughout the continent’s history.