The organisation English Heritage has launched a new campaign called History Matters, which aims to find out whether or not – and why – people in the UK care about history.
Setting aside critical questions of Britishness, the campaign has drummed up an impressive line-up of celebrities and historians (and some who are both) to support its aims, and get debate underway. The not-too-subtle message behind the campaign, of course, is that history matters very much, but that it’s important to understand why.
The campaign’s declaration reads:
We believe that history matters. A society out of touch with its past cannot have confidence in its future. History defines, educates and inspires us. It lives on in our historic environment.
As custodians of our past, we will be judged by generations to come. We must value it, nurture it and pass it on.
Value it, nurture it, pass it on intact and explored by all means. Search it out. Protect and illuminate it.
But the definition of us by our history is a much more complex matter. Who does history define? How? Does British history define its recent immigrants? No. Does English history define the Scots? Try having that argument in a pub in Edinburgh. Does military history define its survivors? Possibly, but each is marked in his or her own way.
Of course there’s also the much recycled position of Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s true, and also not true enough.
“History is what makes us human,” suggests campaign supporter Dr David Starkey (Tudor and general monarchy expert). “It is collective memory and the country that has lost its sense of history has ceased to be itself.”
Another campaign supporter, actor Gryff Rhys-Jones appeals to the heart: “History matters because of the emotions it evokes. You just can’t measure the importance of how history makes us feel.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. History matters a great deal to me. I read about it all the time, write about it, even dream about it.
But here’s the thing: in the UK, or here in NZ or in Australia, and almost everywhere there are many histories. There’s your top-level kings and queens and chiefs and battles and dates history. There’s military history and economic history and oral history and imagined history and colonial history and anti-colonist history, the stories of the dispossessed, the stories of the unheard, the children and the women and the paupers and cut-throats and sailors and legionaries and firemen and warriors. History is a mongrel.
I’m a mongrel. What’s my history, then? In my family, we can only trace back about a hundred years. Two at the most. Even that’s mongrel. Australian now. But before that Irish, English, Scots, and nobody knows what else. A mixture of faiths, trades, deaths, births and marriages – not necessarily in the correct order. Marks in spidery ink in the pawn shop register (Hegarty, one linen tablecloth, one shilling, redeemed two weeks later, pawned again the next month). A few lines in the Captain’s log. A dusty certificate. Ship registers. News clippings.
Sometimes people say to me – or the limitation is implied in funding criteria or book awards – we must write about our own history, our own landscapes. We shouldn’t write about the history of places on the other side of the world.
But mongrels can be promiscuous, undefined. Should we be limited by geography, by some definition of our cultural ownership or particular histories? Should anyone? And when do we cross the line into appropriation?
Australia’s convict past, for example, is fascinating, but is it more my history than the London or Dublin from which they were sent? No.
Bushrangers? No more than highwaymen or pirates. Possibly the potato famine – but then, that happened in a country on the other side of the world I’ve never visited (yet). It affected my ancestors – does that make it mine?
Maybe one day I will write about my own history: about the wharf, and Port Melbourne, the strike. Maybe one day I will write about my great aunt Madge, the smallest suffragette. Or a stretcher bearer in the Boer War.
Or dancing on the bar in a Sydney pub in the crazy days before the world was affected by AIDS. Before we all grew up.
But the history in my blood is such a mixture that it seems just as right to write instead about pirates in the sea off Malta, or printers in Amsterdam, or the London Blitz. Or dinosaurs. Or football. Or Siberia.
History isn’t just history, after all. It’s also imagination. And that’s partly why it matters.
Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.
~ Herodotus (The “father of history”)