I’ll be back…

30 04 2008

Apologies for a lack of regular posts over the past month or so, I’ve had quite a hectic time of things.

This doesn’t look like it is going to stop any time soon either, so posts may be more and more infrequent, at least in the short term.

More as soon as I can…


Nutty Nationalists?

23 04 2008

So today is St. George’s Day. The patron saint of England who remains less celebrated than his free drinking Irish counterpart. Great. Does this mean anything to the people of England now?  Is nationalism a thing of the past in what we are frequently reminded is a ‘multi-cultural’ society? To some extent, I think it is, and here is why.

The growing influx of migrants (of which lots has been said by all sides of the political spectrum) has, I think, impacted upon good old George. That communities in the larger towns and cities now incorporate people from all corners of the globe is not a bad thing, but I think that this does, naturally enough, lead to some sort of loss of identity. It is only to be expected that  with people from across Europe coming to  England, ties with St. George get weaker. They bring with them cultures, food, lifestyles. Some do want to become part of English life, saints days and all. Others don’t. The more St. George has to compete with, the more he will lose. St. Paddy, as alluded to at the start, is a more popular saints day in England because of the associations with Dublins famous brew. As St. George competes against various other festivals, he is, as I see it, becoming more marginalised. People seem to be a bit afraid of celebrating St. George. I think.

That does not though mean that nationalism is dead in the water. The trouble is that there are too few people in the middle ground. Either you have the extreme BNP style nationalists, wanting to exile anyone who wasn’t absolutely English. Or you have people who don’t care enough to show that they are proud to be English. From what I see, you do not have enough people who are willing to stand up and be counted as nationalists, without preaching death to all black people.

I cast my mind back three or four years to a piece on the radio. Scott Mills, the radio one DJ, had a piece with a guy who would stand up and put his hand on his heart whenever the national anthem was played. Mills and co found this hilarious, and were heard playing the first few notes of the anthem to see this guy shoot up like a jack-in-the-box. The effect that such public mockery has, I think, is to make people almost ashamed to be English. Almost ashamed to do patriotic things like stand up for the anthem.

Regardless of whether you are a tory, a labourite, or a lib dem, I cannot understand why being proud to be English is a bad thing. You might, for example, welcome our European connections, but still be proud to say you come from England. The two, I think, do not have to necessarily be incompatible.

For me, I am happy to say I’m English, rather than British. On forms when asked my ethnicity, I write English, if the option is not there already. This doesn’t mean I want to take a shotgun to the Polish people, or deport all Indian people. I recognise the good that most do for the country. But I do not want to be ashamed of calling myself English, of belting out the national anthem, or of celebrating St. George’s Day. Why should we be?

Damming the River…

20 04 2008

I am reliably informed by the BBC that today is the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood ” speech. Obviously I was aware of the speech, and the fallout from it, but, like many others I’m guessing, would not have been able to tell you when it was made. Incidently, the name given to the speech is something of a misnomer, as nowhere in the speech did Powell ever say “rivers of blood”, but merely alluded to a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid. But that’s neither here nor there.

As a Black Country boy, I feel almost happy that Powell put Wolverhampton on the map, although I wish it was in better circumstances. I remember the first time I heard the name of Powell. We were in a history lesson and had been asked to do projects on something that interested us. A classmate chose Powell, but it didn’t really register with me the significance of the man.

Obviously he has aroused a huge amount of controversy, both at the time, and since. I am amazed by the general feelings of support that still float around the place. Just a quick scan through the hits that Google provides indicates to me that the thoughts of Powell still resonate with many people. So was Powell really speaking for the people? Unfortunately I think that he was. At least in the 1960s. I’m not so sure that the views are as prevalent any more. That is not to say they no longer exist, far from it, the small but vocal support for the BNP serves to prove this.

The whole affair though serves to raise an interesting question from a political point of view. Should governments act on behalf of the majority which elected them (generally), even if the issues they are acting upon are morally and ethically flawed? I ask this in light of the “Commonwealth Immigrations Act” which was brought in around the same time as Powell was making his name in politics. The population, generally, responded positivey to the act, although it was, at least according to The Spectator, “one of the most immoral pieces of legislation to have emerged from any British Parliament”. Is this indicative of the government appeasing the voters against the tide of common sense? Or was it a necessary step to avoid unrestricted access to British infrastructure, something which, if remaining unchecked, could have collapsed Britain?

Finally to conclude this brief piece I think it is interesting to note how quickly reputations can be broken. Powell was a hugely intelligent, well-educated, respected man. That he has been portrayed as some idiotic racialist following the speech is, to me at least, wrong. Now I disagree with most of what he said in that speech, but I will not pretend that he was stupid. Which perhaps makes the whole affair worse.

For the moment, the jury remains out on Powell, some see him as an “enormous folk hero, a tribune of Britain’s silent white majority” (Racist Nation? BBC History, March), others see him as a repugnant character, representative of very distinctly right wing approach to immigration. For me, I see him as someone who proved to be ultimately miguided, but who’s head was in the right place.

Countering the Facts…

19 04 2008

I return after my two week hiatus full of various ideas, opinions and thoughts, some of which I shall undoubtedly put down in words at some point. However first things first. Being the slower reader that I am, it was only last week that I read a piece by Dominic Sandbrook on the First World War. The thoughts of other people on the article are here to read. The article, basically suggested that Britain didn’t need to go to war in 1914, and if she hadn’t, Europe would have been fine under the control of Germany.

Now, as much as I find counter-factual history entertaining, this cannot, to my mind at least, claim to be ‘good’ history writing. For me, the suggestion that had Britain not entered the war, the likes of Hitler and Stalin would never have cast their long shadows over the 20th Century, is flawed. I cannot, in all honesty, understand the ‘what if’ arguments. They have the misfortune of doing two things. The first is that they make the writer seem, bigoted, arrogant, and consequently, stupid. Having read a lot of Sandbrook’s other stuff I know that this isn’t the case. Yet his thoughts that it was, in fact, very easy to opt out of the war, thereby avoiding the millions of deaths that came to pass, are basically nonsense.

However, the second reason that ‘what if’s?’ should be disgarded is one of common sense. They are neither useful nor productive to consider. They do not change the facts of the matter, nor do they change thoughts about the matter. They do very little but theorise about the possible outcomes of events had they not happened the way they did.

“What if Harold was not killed by that arrow in the eye at Hastings in 1066?”

“What if Cook had missed New Zealand and Australia?”

“What if Hitler hadn’t been elected in 1932?”

“What if 9/11 had never happened?”

All are interesting questions to think about, but ultimately meaningless. The trouble is, they all did happen, and consequently shaped history.

The emphasised quote on the page of Sandbrook’s article read “Had Britain stayed out of the First World War, our recent history- and that of Europe- would have been a good deal rosier”. I am struggling to find the words to explain how stupid and flawed this idea is. Sandbrook presents a picture that suggests that it was a simple case of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as if someone simply asked the question “Does anyone fancy going to war today chaps?”.

The reality, as anyone with half any iota of intelligence will tell you, was very different. A complex series of agreements, both verbal and written, as well as a concern for Britain’s own empire and the security of Europe were all contributory causes for Britain’s entry into the war. It is ironic therefore that as a result of entering the war, Britain eventually came to losing most of her empire by the 1950s. But this is to stray away from the point.

My own point, albeit briefly discussed here, is that counter-factual history is really a very flawed, ultimately stupid, waste of time for people who like to think that they are intelligent. It avoids tackling the big questions in favour of the hypothetical nonsense. It contributes nothing to debate surrounding these topics. It seems to me that it is just a timewasting device for the historian until they can actually find something worthwhile contrbuting to the discussion.

Historical Reasonings…

2 04 2008

Following my thoughts yesterday about the actual act of studying history, I thought I would elaborate further on this point. I would therefore like to question just what the role of the historian is in todays society.

The final qualification to that is important, I feel that to some degree the role of the historian has changed over time, and as a consequence todays historians (of which I think I am part) are entirely different creatures to those who were involved in recording history 100, 200  or 1000 years ago.

For me, I see a clear difference between ‘recording history’ which, to my mind was the job of those employed by the victors, of whom I was talking yesterday; and actually being a historian.

This though opens up a whole new avenue of questions. The most obvious one to ask is what does the historian do if not record history? To this, I feel the answer is simple. Historians (from a modern perspective) offer a comment on historical events. The historian in this case does not simply recite facts, but instead offers justifications for these ‘facts’. History therefore, simply put, is opinion. No historian can, by this logic, be wrong. They have their own interpretations of different events and they have considered the evidence to form a conclusion.

Except we all know that historians can be wrong. Naturally my thoughts turn to David Irving, the well known Holocaust denier. I am not going to try and justify him, or his thoughts, that is beyond me. Society has dictated that his thoughts about the Holocaust are wrong, and (shock horror) I agree with what society says here.

So, if historians can be wrong, there must be something which says that they are wrong. This limiter, as already intimated, is social values. There are topics which are taboo in all societies, and this necessarily means that they are not ‘open’ for discussion from anyone, except to conform to the already outlined social values. The issue of social values is another interesting one, but will not be explored further here.

To return then to the issue of what the historian does. If the historian does not simply record facts, then what do they do? There is the oft churned out line that historians are there to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. However, this flies in the face of my other premise, that is, history is cyclical. If we just run with this for a moment, the logical implication that it makes is that the historian is somehow failing to to do their job because the history keeps repeating itself under new guises. If therefore the historian is failing, what is their role in a world which will keep playing out similar scenarios dressed up in different clothing for the rest of time?

Of course these latter musings work on one very big premise, that is, is history cyclical. I think it is. I think broad general patterns have thus far emerged in history which serve to indicate this: a technical revolution (iron age, industial revolution) followed by war seems to a generalisation that can be made I feel. Dictatorial leaders emerging (Hussein, Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, back to Caesar) getting too big for their own good, and being destroyed. Human growth followed by a natural disaster to check it.

The trouble with the cyclical history idea is that it is broad, sweeping, and vague. When the details are explored further there seems little which unites the two comparative periods. Nonetheless, I maintain that history does indeed act in cycles, albeit very large cycles.

In which case, does that mean that the role of the historian is a redundant one? If history is repeating, the same mistakes are being made, and the historians are thereby failing the the assumed task which I stated earlier. Such a claim though ignores the point that cyclical history does not stop the world developing, it merely suggests that the same basic patterns of human behaviour are mapped out onto varying circumstances, as dictated by the time. Therefore, in essence, the historian still very much has a role to play, regardless of whether cyclical history is something which is happening.

What then is this role? For the first time in a while, I am drawing a blank. I’m not sure what the historians role actually is, and whether this is different to what it should be. Should historians be there to open the eyes of the people to varying understandings of events? Should historians by very much like political parties, you declare yourself as agreeing with one about something, and stick to that? Such thinking presumes the role of the historian is a public one. What about the personal aspect of studying history? Surely some people are historians due to a thirst for knowledge about the subject in hand? Should historians only want to further enlighten themselves, or should their concerns lie with educating more people?

The point of all this is that I remain unclear what the role of the historian is. Perhaps historians are just there to be yet another voice in the crowd offering opinions about something. The real question that must be asked is should it matter what the role of the historian is in modern society? Is it not enough to know that there are historians and they do contribute to the wider understanding of any given period, whether this is for their gain, or for someone elses. If then I cannot work out what the role of the historian is, perhaps we should consider where we would be today without historians. For starters we wouldn’t have Gordon Brown as Prime Minister (he has a PhD in history).  Nor would we have had John Prescott or David Blunkett. It is also questionable how far Jonathan Ross, Sacha Baron Cohen or Louis Theroux would have got without their degrees in history.  Considering that list, some may say we would be better off without historians…

Historical winners…

1 04 2008

There is a general historical myth which explains simply that “history is written by the winners”. I wish to explore such an idea briefly.

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but the stereotypical conception of a historian is someone old, surrounded by hundreds of dust covered books peering at you disdainfully over the top of his or her round glasses. To me (as a historian), it used to be only these people who wrote history, and what they wrote stood.

Obviously as I have progressed, that image has been shattered by meeting various historians for whom such a cliche does not fit the bill. Likewise whatever they write should nearly always be treated with a hint of suspicion. Why are they writing, and what are they writing for? What do they hope to achieve in writing these works?

The phrase with which I opened already seems a tad simplistic. The obvious problems I have with the word “written” is nothing compared to the problems I have justifying who the “winners” were at any given time in history. Would it then be more accurate to suggest that history is not written by the winners (who ever they may be) but instead is written about the winners?

This latter thought though is still not entirely true. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are characters throughout the course of history who lost yet still have books aplenty written about them (Harold Godwinson, Napoloen Bonaparte, Charles I, and Adolf Hitler to name but a few). The implication of the statement is that the information we have available is from sources which were either sympathetic towards the ‘victors’ or had been influenced by the ‘victors’ in some way. This, it seems to me, is a problem for historians who are concerned with older periods of history. The twentieth century saw expansion of documentation from all sides of any conflict on a scale unknown previously. For those who study earlier periods, there is less in the way of this quantity of resources for the historian to work with. Obviously, this becomes more of a problem the further back you go, written documentation from the early medieval period, for example, is much more patchy than documents from the Second World War. We have few sources from the earlier period, and those we have, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are woefully unreliable for basic information (dates and names for example).

This then helps give rise to the myth that history was written by the winners. Older documents like the two named above, are examples of the winners recording a history which was favourable to them (Bede wanted to show the growth and significance of the church for example).  For the historically naive person, that would be where it stops. However, there is a growing concern amongst historians of these periods to think about the social aspects of the period, and aided by archeology, this can, to some extent by commented upon.

History, I would argue, is not written by the winners, nor is it written about the winners, at least not exclusively. Historians of the modern era are writing about various different elements of historical study, including social history, including military history, including counter-factual history. These studies are being made into a wide variety of time periods too. Post-modernist thought has lead to a widespread re-evaluation of historical understanding, and consequently history is no longer about the winners. It’s also becoming less about those who take part. History is becoming something much different. It is becoming something that the bespectacled dinosaur buried underneath books and manuscripts would barely recognise.

It is becoming popular.

And, I maintain, it is because of this one development, history can no longer be written by, or about the winners. History must be wide reaching enough to continue to engage with people who are suddenly fascinated by how people suffered bubonic plague, or how Joe Bloggs reacted to the reformation of the church. Popularity of the subject, I feel, necessarily means that history cannot be about those exclusive men or groups who won a battle.