History, True or False?

OK everyone – hope you’re all well and hanging in there.

Something quite serious today.

History and how important is it in our lives?

When I first started writing, back in 2011/2012 there was no such thing as Fake History. Yes, there was ‘spin’ of course, as politicians attempted to persuade us to regard their most recent disasters in a more favourable light, but most of us just laughed and went on our way.

It seemed to me while writing Just One Damned Thing After Another that I had to give historians a good reason for doing what they do – other than because they have a happy mix of every personality disorder known to man and a near terminal death wish, of course – so I simply had Dr Bairstow vaguely say that it was always important to know the truth. The often-inconvenient truth – not the religious, politically correct, politically expedient, written by the victors truth, but the real truth. Everyone at St Mary’s solemnly nodded their heads and cantered off to wreak more havoc on the already battered timeline.

It never occurred to me – not in a million years – that in such a short time we would move into the realms of real Fake History. Where sometimes the events of only last week could be denied/altered/ignored/misrepresented and so on. Right in front of our eyes, sometimes.

I was scribbling away the other day – a scribble a day keeps the electrodes away – and thinking about this because it’s a small part of the plot in Another Time – Another Place (the next St Mary's book). It seemed to me that because we can’t always trust our leaders – bless them – it is essential to know the truth.

And then – because I was born to argue – I thought, actually, is it? How important is it to know the truth?

Consider – Country A and Country B. They’re nice little countries, quite well off as countries go and the people are pleasant and friendly and you’d really like them if you ever met.

Except – they’ve been at war since the year dot. The history of all the military engagements is taught at school. Each side instructs their people not to trust the other. That they’re a bunch of treacherous fanatics who would sell their own grandmother if it suited them. Each side is brought up hating the other. They don’t fight all the time, of course, but every now and then it flares up – it’s the anniversary of the famous Massacre of Town C – conveniently ignoring the fact they lose more citizens in a week to road traffic accidents than to the supposed massacre which might never actually have occurred – and off they go again on the Treadmill of War.

Could it be argued that without a knowledge of previous history the inhabitants of each country would encounter each other with open minds and possibly quite like each other? The events of the past would literally be lost in the mists of time and without the Millstone of Memory around their necks, would they stop blowing each other to pieces and build trading and cultural relationships instead?

Or should we always remember our past? And if we do, are we intelligent and tolerant enough to rise above it?

Or should we actively change our past? Should the films and books of Countries A and B show them as equal and honourable partners, not only treating each other with respect now, but in the past as well. Wishful thinking, I know, and dangerous, too but does this give them something to aspire to?

Or would that be dishonouring all those who died in the conflict? Is this sweeping war and death under the carpet? As Max says, ‘Looking away when bad things happen does not mean that bad things cease to happen?’

Should their cultures reflect the way they wish things were – or the way they actually are? And if the latter – how do they move on?

If everyone from A and B woke up one morning with their memories erased – would this be such a bad thing? Is it ever acceptable to change history? I don’t just mean politicians spinning events to make things seem if not better, then at least less bad, but actually erase or rewrite history? Given that we seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, what would happen if we were able to sever our link with the past and look only forwards? Or will we always find something to fight about?

On the other hand – did I mention I was born to argue? – if real history is to be swept aside who is to say what should replace it? A carefully edited version that everyone would be comfortable with? And if so, how long until someone dreamed up a better version and it’s replaced again. At least the old ‘warts and all’ history had one virtue – that of truth.

So – does history serve a useful purpose? Does it enable us to learn from our mistakes? Or is it actually a major factor in the never-ending wars of our species? Would we be better off without it?

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24 comments

  • I think kids should be taught from an early age that history isn’t simple, and that the “truth” can often depend on where you’re looking from. (In saying that, I’m not talking about blatant lies, which the current occupant of the White House is so fond of telling.) Maybe if we can get people to look at issues from both sides we will understand that there are no cut an dried solutions, and that there can be truth (and moral, thinking people) on both sides of an argument.

    I attended Catholic elementary school. We studied English history, and I’ll never forget that in our history books, “Bloody Mary” was defended as just trying to protect her faith, while Elizabeth was a terrible queen who killed those who followed the “true” religion. That has stuck with me through 60-plus years; it would have been so much better to have learned where each side was coming from and why things happened as they did.

    Kids also need to see historical figures as people, because it may help them understand that just like all people, leaders make mistakes and do stupid and immoral things. That’s truth, too.

    Mary Lou Jay
  • My amazing History teacher for A Level told us two important things about History:

    1. History is never black and white. It is shades of grey.

    2. The victors wrote the History books.

    I would add a third: The generals and politicians are the tellers of History because their records are most often the only ones that exist.

    While working on the First World War centennial commemorations I learned a great deal about individual ordinary people who were never mentioned in any books except as part of a ‘common herd’, both socially and as statistics. Not just soldiers and not only men.

    It was wonderful to know that so many schools took part in projects. Some asked their pupils to research a person from the same school who had been through the war. It wasn’t celebration but digging up memories of what had never been written in books. Many of their stories are now in books as part local history.

    I’m from Northern Ireland, Protestant mother, Catholic father, brought up on a mixed council estate in the1960s and 1970s. We were a tribe in our little square within the estate, regardless of religion. We went to different schools and different churches. But if we differed in opinions we never went there. There was no point. We differed in a lot of ways but we knew to be tolerant. That’s how our friendships survived.

    We recognised propaganda early on in our lives. We recognised rabble-rousers. Not everyone is so lucky. Trying to explain that to others is extremely difficult. They are entrenched in their beliefs and it’s a series of ‘But they did this’ and ‘But they did that’. They’re not wrong. Seeing both sides is rare. It’s difficult. Tolerance for the differences is the key. Sadly I find the loudest voices voices still tend to be the rabble-rousers who pump out one virulent view.

    Rosemary
  • I would argue that there is rarely an undeniable truth or an uncomplicated one, with people doing bad things for both good and bad reasons and inversely, with points of view or aspects forgotten to make a simpler version more easily told and remembered, to protect themselves, to give themselves advantages etc It all ends up being whispers transmitted overtime. Even if we forced the learning of texts word by word to be sure of the transmission as we do for poetry, who would choose which texts to remember? As in all things maybe we need balance, to remember and to forget at the same time. Each new generation has to do that, to remember what was before to create from it, and forget it at the same time, to create something new and feel like they can add something. Is there a difference in creativity and entrepreneurship between North America and Europe? Europe is heavy on the history side and I sometimes get the feeling it weighs as much as a stone cathedral, what can we do that hasn’t already been done, do we have the right to feel like we could make a difference, to compare ourselves to those that have come before? We have to free ourselves from this to make our time our own, but still learn from what was to not have to start from scratch. Maybe there should be a balance too in the way we remember history. Maybe we could actually leave the choice to each individual, learning what they feel like learning as we propose subjects but do not enforce them so they still feel that what they think and feel counts, and while making a model of questioning what we read to develop critical thinking, and not judge what is worth learning and what isn’t. Ultimately I think we all have to make the choice of what version we believe in, helped by those who came before us, and we all learn a history with holes that can’t be filled, except by future time travellers and writers!

    Jennifer

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