Sunday, 20 March 2011

Last year's troubles

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

This well-worn quote is from L.P. Hartley’s beautiful coming of age novel The Go-Between. But this novel isn’t about a historian trying to relate to unknowable strangers. Instead it contemplates the unknowable actions of the self in a different time. The novel is about a young boy who is shut out from a particular class, as well as full understanding of adult romantic relationships. The pivotal moments in the novel are when the veil falls and the narrator is overwhelmed when his memories, which were once naively happy, become tainted by the new knowledge of his own gaucheness. Rather than a guide to historical method, it is a very personal novel about remembering and forgetting.

In The Go-Between, the knowledge that revolts the central character, that rocks him to his very core, is perversely rendered irrelevant by the relentless onward march of the 20th century. Writing as an old man, the narrator illustrates the nasty tricks of time as cultural values and attitudes shift within the span of a generation. A sensitive rendering of cognitive dissonance arising from change makes this perhaps too subtle an approach for most practising historians.

Like Leo, we none of us ever fully know our past selves. Timothy Garton Ash explains revisiting his past as a historical subject in The File;

To do this, I must explore not just a file but a life: The life of the person I was then. This in case you were wondering, is not the same as ‘my life’. What we call ‘my life’ is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. ‘My life’ is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter.

Timothy Garton Ash – The File p. 20
Using his own diary as a primary source, Garton Ash cross references his experiences &mdas; recorded and remembered — with the eponymous Stasi file accumulated during his stay in East Germany during the 1980s. In addition he talks to, and in some cases confronts, contemporary players (i.e., his informants) to represent their version of events. There is a certain kind of stoicism in Garton Ash’s study, as the Stasi file often grossly misrepresented his personality, forcing him to face some of the most negative aspects of himself, albeit as a young man. In his Forward, Garton Ash expresses an awareness of the dangers of revisiting his own past and scrutinising it so closely, and more so the hurt his study may cause others. Like an adoptee contacting a birth parent, going through one’s own Stasi file unearths things best left unknown.

Yet more painful reading is the recently published memoir of musician Kristin Hersh, which revisits a difficult and dark period in the author’s life. The diary Hersh kept during her descent into mental breakdown serves as a base for her story. This biography is harrowing enough for the reader. One wonders what toll it took on its writer. What monsters might be wakened by a return to the past?

Diaries are probably much easier to stomach when they are someone else's. This December, I found an abandoned diary in the snow on the Avebury overbridge. Excited at the prospect of ‘found evidence’ I seized upon it and flicked through. But this diary was empty. Like Milton Keynes itself, it seemed to have no secrets, no past, nothing to say. Perhaps there was a tale yet to be told, this paper never made live with ink. Or maybe the owner found the expanse of ruled paper yawning before them too overwhelming to tackle. This small nothing falls soundlessly as a tetris block, forming another great hole in the sediment of history.


The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this come after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things
Henry David Thoreau in Walden.

Here Thoreau talks about the emptiness of the pursuit of money and success which divorces people from nature. In his most famous sentence, it is the word “desperation” that draws your attention. Quiet is a retiring adverb, but in this case never more devastating. If we ourselves do not consign ourselves to oblivion, however, for the most part history does. The majority of human lives remain unrecorded, and if there is any description it is as seen by others. Historians interested in gaining access to the thoughts or feelings of anyone remotely normal before the advent of mass literacy have their work cut out for them. For historians of minorities in particular this has long been a problem. No amount of de-colonisation or denial of the patriarchy can fully counter this effect.

In absence of personal narrative we have to reconstruct these collective pasts through external observations and a dash of necessary imagination. The truth is that imagination is also one of the historian’s tools. Indeed it is necessary to fill in blanks and present a reasonable picture of what history might have looked like. The use of historical imagination was first highlighted by R. G. Collingwood in The Idea of History published after his death in 1946. Like Hartley, Collingwood explained that history is by necessity, past:

But what we perceive is always the this, the here, the now. Even when we hear a distant explosion or see a stellar conflagration long after it has happened, there is still a moment at which it is here and now perceptible, when it is this explosion, this new star. Historical thought is of something which can never be a this, because it is never a here and now. Its objects are events which have finished happening, and conditions no longer in existence. Only when they are no longer perceptible do they become objects for historical thought.

Unlike Garton Ash, most historians must remember that they will always be outside this narrative and that in many cases they will unwittingly perpetuate colonisation of someone else's culture or viewpoint. Even within our own society there always the face of the other, that is the “common people” as wonderfully illustrated in the Pulp song of the same name. They will often be our own ancestors, from whose modes of life we are now comfortably removed. Frank Ankersmit argues that this distance gives historians perspective:
Just as the fish does not know that it is swimming in the water, what is most characteristic of a period, most omnipresent in a period, is unknown to the period itself. It is not revealed until a period has come to an end.
 F. R. Ankersmit "Historiography and Postmodernism" in History and Theory (1989)

Ankersmit argues that historians like Garton Ash are burdened with the task of imagining themselves outside their own time. (Now partly because of the fragility of digital records historians have to act immediately should they wish to gather primary sources to study. The September 11 Archive being a case in point.) Perhaps this is becoming too much to ask of any particular individual. Even my own attempts to reflect on my recent impecunity against the backdrop of spending cuts have failed miserably, to the point this post has been four months in the making. If you had a chance to follow Matthew Dentith’s Episto Tweet Conference on 3rd of December 2010 you would see the discomfort the title of this blog has started to cause me as I realise I am not a voice of the downtrodden and (as it was once brutally pointed out to me) I am no everyman. It might be fairer to say I am out: I am excluded from understanding the lives of those more deeply  affected by the current economic climate.

Being employed, and of the professional classes, has brought my life back into sharp relief against those who surround me. The ease with I could improve my financial circumstances showed me the value of the mobility my status affords me. These times are harsh, and many around me are in situations they cannot easily escape. It is unlikely most people around me will document their lives for a large number of reasons too long and complex to discuss in full here. (Lack of incentive, training, resources, or time is a poor summary of the problem.)



  This is not to say that the down and out have never had an authentic voice in England. Among the working classes of the north there was a strong tradition of autodidacticism. Thousands of self-taught men have written their own stories as The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography edited by David Vincent demonstrates. But these date from the modern period, ending in 1900. In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes  Jonathan Rose argues that by the post war era this tradition lost impetus. One could say the demise of a culture of self education means things are now worse for the lower classes. One could also argue that the tradition remains and carries through to a new genre via the likes of Johnny Rotten, Morissey, Jarvis Cocker etc.


These sources are great fodder for 20th-century history, which saw a significant shift in emphasis, as social history grew in popularity and stature. After a couple of millennia, social history increasingly legitimised common experiences as worthy of study and comment. Perhaps the next most well-known use of the phrase “the past is a foreign country" was David Lowenthal's, in his work of the same name. The Past is a Foreign country is a comprehensive discussion of the role of time in history. He argues that new narratives disrupt traditional history:

Dates and chronology are now out of fashion. Especially since the Second World War, human history has been seen to follow not one line but those of many different cultures, impossible or pointless to lump within a common sequence. … New emphases on economic, social and intellectual history further vitiated the relevance of chronology: cultures and ideologies were less datable than kings and conquests. Increasingly accessible and germane, these new-found aspects of the past ‘impinge on the modern consciousness from so many directions’, concludes Einstein.
Lowenthal argues that social history destroys history as mapped out in linear time. History was once fable, there was a meaningful procession of historical drama through linear time. Events were influenced by the actions of great men who themselves were guided by the hand of God. Social history broke this tether as the chaotic, meaningless, sometimes godless lives of the excluded came more and more into focus. Furthermore as other narratives were found, we discovered that idyllic free love hippy communes were run off the back of female domination and drudgery; civil rights weren’t granted but bitterly fought for; and our most celebrated explorers were actually harbingers of destruction, disease and death.

Our postmodern society, which supposedly values all narratives, creates an equally unrealistic perception of representation. The deluge of information that rains upon us gives us a false sense of totality. It lulls us into thinking that we actually have a hope of constructing a complete past, enhances in 1080 high definition. The reality is that we still little understand each other’s experiences. Those of us who do talk  about  ourselves in  public self-edit our lives to produce digestable tidbits for public consumption. And while it may seem we may publish every piddling stupid thought that enters our heads, we often omit details that have massive impact on our lives such as messy divorces, miscarriages, prolonged illnesses and any other of life's bitter disappointments. To outsiders, we must come across a neurotic, hyper-sensitive bunch who have never had anything really bad happen to us. (In light of this, I would implore readers to keep diaries, or at least not make the mistake of thingking that Facebook and Twitter replace the historical function of diaries. Even blogs have their limits.)

This current version of plurality is often just the same thing over and over and over again. It seems as if our middling popular culture expands to cover over the holes left by others. Those of us who write, create, and commentate continue to create vast amounts of verbiage for future interpretation. The future historian’s problem is different from those who have gone before; now there is too much information. Historical records get made every day, so much so that we bore ourselves:

We communicate more and more
In more defined ways than ever before
But no one was got anything to say
It's all very poor it's all just a bore






The chattering classes have the luxury of finding plurality boring while those around them cannot risk remaining as historically quiet as before. If they do not speak out they will be ultimately be imagined by others, or worse, dished up as entertainment.






Milton Keynes is a child of a time when social inclusion was valued and so far it’s history has reflected. It did once have a purposeful message. As it matured, competing interestshave taken over and the city has become much  less sure of itself. Milton Keynes crisis of identity is not out of step with history and itshould not, and I hope will not be scared silent. Life shouldn’t be a blank page. And I do think Milton Keynes has more to say.