Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Past: History Matters

I saw from Peter Black this morning that several charities have chosen today to raise awareness of history. They’re encouraging people to create ‘the biggest blog in history’ by writing about their day; everyone who says what they were doing on October 17th, 2006 will have their entry logged with the British Library as a sort of time capsule, and – by talking about the impact of history on our daily lives – help build interest and support in looking after our heritage. I’ll sign up later to ‘One Day in History’, and I’d encourage you to do the same.

Apparently every school in the country has been invited to join in (there are 29,000 of them – gosh), as well as various celebs. Good job Peter mentioned it, though, as all the other publicity had entirely passed me by. I’ve always been fascinated by history; though I didn’t study it past GCSE, I’ve often read around the subject out of sheer interest, whether it’s reading one of Conrad Russell’s books on the Civil Wars in Britain, enthusing about I, Claudius or just getting distracted on Wikipedia and spending an hour or two looking up obscure period details while quite losing track of what I’d gone there for. Of course, for anyone interested in politics a sense of history is vital. It’s a cliché to say that you should learn history’s lessons or repeat them, but it’s still true. When our world and our culture is changing so rapidly, though, it’s important to remember that history is a living thing and not just the fossil record. Know where you come from, cherish the best bits and remember the worst, but don’t hang onto them like grim death and let them prevent you going on anywhere else. Perhaps more importantly still, with so many of the world’s more intractable problems mired in history and grievances that sometimes go back centuries, in many cases the most important lesson of history isn’t who did what and who’s to blame, but that, if you can see that it’s all gone on so long and still nobody’s happy with it, perhaps it’s time to let go at last. History isn’t just the past; it’s about the future, too.

I’ve been interested in history since long before I was interested in politics, though, and perhaps a lot of one interest grew out of the other. But where did the interest in history start? I suspect it’s tied in with my love of stories, and wanting to know more than just the beginning, the middle and the end – where did these people come from, what happened to them afterwards, and how did their society fit together? Even stories where the history isn’t real have always had a greater appeal to me if they’ve had a sense that they’re telling a part of a larger story, rather than a perfunctory tale that’s made up exactly as much as is needed and not a scrap of an idea more. Perhaps that accounts for the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, a mere part of an epic imaginary worldview, or explains why I’m so fond of the Doctor Who stories by Robert Holmes, an author who not only peppered his dialogue with characterful anachronisms but often set his adventures on the fringes of great events. Even touches of imaginary history seem more real, and add greater fire to the imagination, than stories where everything is neatly laid out at the beginning and wrapped up at the end.

If you asked me to say what the perfect sort of Doctor Who story was, though, I’d say the ones set in real history but challenging what we know – perhaps it’s no surprise that my favourite of the Doctor’s companions is an archaeologist. There’s something uniquely Who-ish in the historical anachronisms of aliens or time meddlers, and there are few set-ups closer to my heart than when the Doctor travels back to a well-known period of Earth’s history, meets both exactly the sort of people we’d expect him to and some outer space people we really wouldn’t, and they all have larks together. I loved the stories that educated me about real events and tried their best to get them right, but for me an even more effective way to fire an interest in history is to give some of the real details alongside something that’s so ostentatiously fictional. In part it’s the excitement of aliens, naturally, but it’s not because they ‘liven up’ history – it’s because the historical detail whets your appetite to know more, and the out-of-kilter elements make you certain there’s more to be discovered. Tell someone a set piece of history and they’re in danger of thinking that’s all there is, but that mixed-up Doctor Who angle positively encourages asking questions. What could be a better approach for a budding historian than to want to find it out for yourself, rather than thinking history is a dead issue where you just believe everything you’re told?

Present: One Small Blog For Me, One Giant Blog With Everyone Else
Future: Torchwood

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There is a 4,000 character limit Alex :-)
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