The History Of Our History

Two new editions of classic texts illuminate the duality of deep histories

Jeremy Black

Utopias of abandoning the past and embracing a very different future have generally been the quickest route to dystopias of destruction, callousness and ignorance — not that that prevented New Labour from parroting the idea.

These two new editions of works first published in 1997 and 1985 respectively underline the duality of deep histories that structure and mould the present age and of the impact of current perceptions, concerns and assumptions in the reading of the past. This duality is scarcely new. Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599) tells us as much about an England under threat from Spain, the world-empire, and defining a new nationalism as about the pursuit of French territory by an early 15th-century ruler. The same is true of  20th-century portrayals of the monarch.

This transience makes any attempt to fix the past problematic. In particular, the element of transience ensures that books that the blurb-writers proclaim as definitive are anything but, and also means that the panoply of authority and reference in the shape of encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, historical atlases, companion guides and so on, is more fragile than it appears. And so with the Oxford Companion. The first edition reflected John Cannon’s particular version of left-of-centre politics, and the new edition, while cautious of partisanship, is not too different. It certainly shows the difficulties of prediction. The UKIP entry ends: “The expectation remained that the party could split the Conservative vote at the 2015 general election.” Ed Miliband is still leader of Labour, indeed “relatively secure in the post”. There is also a fair amount of uncritical praise. For example, the entry on the Olympics in Britain, which in practice is only on the 2012 Olympics, ignores the extent to which the Games did not promote exercise as anticipated. Yet, the piece on the welfare state correctly discerns concern over costs, dependency and affordability.

The book is presented as “the essential authoritative reference book on over 2,000 years of British history”. It is not of course that. In particular, there is too little on the local and the regional, on the places and spaces that are so significant to senses of identity and to the experience of the wider developments discussed. On the plus side, the writing is generally precise and concise, the level of detail good, and there is room for some of the more unusual episodes of national life. Take, for example, the Campden Wonder, described as perhaps the most baffling of all historical mysteries. In 1660, William Harrison, an elderly rent-collector in Chipping Campden, disappeared. His bloodstained hat was found, and a local youth and his brother and mother confessed to the murder. All three were convicted and hanged, only for Harrison to reappear two years later explaining that he had been kidnapped, sold as a slave to a Turkish physician near Smyrna, and subsequently released as a favour. The brief discussion of the case is very good. I have heard an hour-long paper on it that did not add much more.

From white-slaving it is fascinating to turn to David Lowenthal’s account of the varied ways in which we respond to the past. This is very much a personal account, but the range is truly impressive and the understanding, indeed vision, at play in the presentation of past legacies makes for an enthralling read. The past as identity serves Lowenthal as a point of departure for his presentation of nostalgia and heritage as pervading culture, a theme ably brought out in the illustrations. There is room to discuss emphasis. For example, China, India and television are all covered, but there is room for much more on all three, and not least because of their significance for moulding and disseminating particular perceptions.

Lowenthal is clear in his views. He argues that to live again in the past lends fullness and duration to the present and that passionate pursuit of the past is less debilitating than to lack concern for the past altogether. I would have preferred a consideration at that point of some of the recent Islamic excesses. Lowenthal does, however, point out that reactions to the past can be innately contrarian, as avowals of admiration or disdain can conceal or provoke their opposites: reverence for tradition incites iconoclasm and nostalgic retrieval foments modernist clean sweeps. Struggles over legitimacy and legitimation are clearly involved, and this very factor will ensure that the past will scarcely be “owned” by or for any one interpretation, let alone by academics.

Indeed, a major strand in Lowenthal’s coverage is that of differing forms of ownership. This is done brilliantly and provides a coherence to what might otherwise appear a rich stew. He is certainly up-to-date. For example, the arresting discussion of collective responsibility for the past includes the contemporary Russian attitude to Stalin’s crimes. The “incipient flux of time” is a concluding theme, with the “ongoing past” absorbing our creative energy. The read is exhilarating, and there is no pretence to definitive status in this mature and most valuable work.

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