Saturday, 24 May 2014

A Reality Check

"History is our reality check," says Michael Wood in his regular column in this month's BBC History magazine.  Michael (or so I like to think of him) has a habit of coming out with percipient comments like that one.  He is, to my mind, the ultimate TV historian - possibly the man who made it all happen, with his 1979 series "In Search of the Dark Ages".  Apparently it was all an accident; after he wrote the scripts, the producer suggested he should present the programmes himself as an economy measure.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Only the ubiquitous Dan Snow can compete with Michael Wood in terms of all-round knowledge and presentational style.  It does, of course, help that both are good-looking men guaranteed to appeal to the female audience, but I do think they also have their admirers among their own gender.  I wonder, if either of them had been in the age group for conscription during the First World War, what their fate would have been.  I've previously touched on the subject of the Lost Generation in this blog, so I won't repeat myself. 

The First World War "lives" project, for all its failings, does bring us into close touch with reality.  Looking at official records can somehow make you see your own family from the outside, and shows them up for exactly what they are.  My 88-year-old father was overjoyed to see the charge sheet proving that his own father had not been telling tall stories when he claimed to have spent a fortnight in a military prison in 1919 for running a gambling business on board ship on the way home to Blighty.  Nor had he lied when he claimed to have been "jumped" by a group of locals in an Italian village after drinking something called vino, which he believed to be the equivalent of beer and therefore consumed in similar quantities (or at least, what he told his sons was similar to the written testimony he gave the military authorities).

Similarly, an investigation into Siegfried Sassoon's official records demonstrates that he was generally exactly where he said he was, doing what he claimed in his memoirs.  Why one should expect anything different I don't know, and yet it brings it all home when you see it down in black and white.  That doesn't, of course, mean that there is only one version of reality, or indeed of history.  Yet there are certain facts and events for which the documentary evidence is overwhelming.  This, strictly speaking, is what history is: things that happened in the past that were recorded, hence the term "prehistory" for events that took place but were not recorded in writing.  Both historical and prehistorical events may be open to interpretation, but it is to the written sources (plus archaeological evidence) that we turn when there is doubt.  If an event has only been recorded by one person, the evidence is slim; if, on the other hand, it has been recorded by several independent individuals, the chances are that it happened as described.

This is not what Michael Wood was talking about in his article.  He was focusing on the slave trade and discussing the reluctance of the British people to recognise their own historical role in creating it.   In a rather different way, in the course of his talk at last year's SSF conference, Phil Carradice referred to the human race's habit of repeating its errors because of its ignorance of history (with particular reference to Afghanistan), which is more in line with the central theme of E H Carr's seminal 1961 book What is History?  Carr, although commenting that the belief in "historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy", he also described "counter-factual" history as a "parlour game" played by history's "losers".  He believed in causation and took a determinist view, dismissing Churchill as a historian because of the latter's suggestion that the accidental death of King Alexander of Greece was the cause of the Greco-Turkish wars of the early twentieth century.  History, for Carr, was a science rather than an art, one that offered an opportunity for understanding the present and future as well as the past.

What would E H Carr have made of the currently fashionable "Poets versus Generals" debate?  Do we have anything to learn from revisiting the First World War in the light of what we now know?  Well, if we look at it without our judgement being clouded by 21st century values, we will certainly learn that some of the popular fallacies do not hold water.  You only have to go on one of Clive Harris's battlefield tours to recognise the falsity of some of the urban myths that have spread so freely through the British population in the course of the past century.  Yet, if we ignore the views of men like Sassoon and Owen who actually lived through the war, how can we claim to be looking at these events with an impartial eye?  As usual, I find I have more questions than answers.

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