Monthly Archives: January 2014

On history repeating itself

Because historians have all the fun this week, I have been reading Francis Fukayama’s article The End of History? Now, this post is not going to be my opinions on that particular piece, for the simple fact that the first decade of the twenty first century proved that the answer to that question was a rather emphatic ‘no’, but rather my reflections on another popular opinion which, when expressed, makes me twitch with involuntary anger, and that is the idea that history is a cycle of constant repetition.

 

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that current affairs are not similar to past events, or that we cannot learn anything from history. There are lots of lessons the past can teach us that are still relevant today. To take a not-at-all worn out example, if people knew more about World War Two and the rise of Hitler (and for that matter Stalin) than “Britain won it”, we would be far more concerned about protecting our rights and liberties against government and corporate interests; and that we would also seriously question whether the way in which the media portrays issues such as immigration and people on benefits contributes to a meaningful discussion, or is little more than fear-mongering. This is not to say that the U.K. is Nazi Germany reincarnate, that would be silly; but merely that there is some historical precedent for what happens when central government is given too much power without any adequate civilian or legal oversight; or demonizing certain sections of society, and seeing them as inherently suspicious.

 

No. What really gets me is when people claim that the present is simply a repetition of the past. Again, this is not criticising people who draw parallels between the past and the present. To say something like, “the U.S.A. should have learnt lessons from the Vietnam war before it invaded Iraq” is a perfectly legitimate opinion, as there were several similar circumstances in the two cases. However, the crucial word there is ‘similar’. Not identical. Similar. As in, some things were the same but a lot of other things weren’t. Yet Iraq was frequently referred to as “the Vietnam of the twenty first century”, a view which seems to argue not just that the invasion was flawed, if not a failure, on its own terms; but that it was a mission that was, historically speaking, doomed to fail, and that anyone who did not realise this from day one was either ignorant, arrogant, or both.

 

Now this may be a case of semantics, but even if saying “X is the new Y” is shorthand for “X is similar to Y”, it needs to stop, and it needs to stop for two reasons. Firstly, it is just plain lazy. One of the things I truly love about history is its nuance. Certainly, there is a degree of continuity: for example, you can clearly trace the evolution of institutions over time; and you can see how certain events resemble and influence others.

 

But at the same time you can see how one idea is interpreted in radically different ways at different points in time or in different regions, or how two seemingly identical institutions are in fact substantially different; just as you can also see the same mistakes repeated time and time again, with nobody apparently any wiser about the lessons these episodes can teach us. Furthermore, what we can learn from a subject changes radically depending on how we choose to look at it, and the fact we can learn so many different things from one historical event means that for someone to reduce their historical analysis to “X is the new Y” is not just unimaginative, but is bad history, pure and simple.

 

However, what is most worrying about this opinion is that it can lead to a situation where we see history as a cycle which is doomed to repeat itself, and over which we have no control. What those historians (and journalists) who constantly try to frame current affairs as carbon copies of past events are arguing, inadvertent or otherwise, is that we are not just unwilling but unable to learn from the past, as if we were able to, what is happening now would not be happening. This is a genuinely dangerous view, as if enough people believe that what has happened before will happen again regardless of their attempts to prevent it, they have no reason to try, and as a result what has happened before will happen again.

 

Of course, I am not arguing that this is the current state of affairs. Whilst we all occasionally resign ourselves to some sort of doomed, “history is repeating itself” state of mind, we still have enough belief in our own ability to influence the present that we continue to try to do so, even if it does not achieve all that much. Nonetheless, I still feel that people who try and portray the present as a repeat of the past need to stop, not only because such a view is tired and clichéd, but because it can create a degree of pessimism and apathy which is toxic to a democratic society, as it results in a population which sees the present as inevitable and the future as uncontrollable. Arguing that we have failed to learn from the past is good; presenting it as something we are constantly reliving is not.

On the importance of books

This week, someone (who shall remain nameless because I am weak) I met expressed the view that books are the best way of informing people about history, and always will be. At first I did not quite know how to react this statement, but luckily I do now; and whilst I do partially agree that the book will always be a crucial tool for historians, to see it as the ‘best’ medium we have at our disposal is a view which is, put simply, outdated, and flies in the face of a historical experiment I like to call the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

Firstly, I will admit that I love books, which is lucky, because my degree requires me to read quite a lot of them. For me reading is enjoyable, and nothing can ever match the disproportionate sense of self-loathing I get when I leave a book unfinished. Books are great, and the advent of eBooks and tablets have only made them better. Not only is it now possible to carry around literally hundreds of books on a device which weighs roughly the same as air, but eBooks also have the potential to change the nature of books themselves, from a one-way delivery service to an interactive forum.

All that is great. But to say that the book, or even eBooks, are the most important medium for conveying knowledge in everyday life is idealised bunkum, as the simple fact is that most people read to relax. This is not to say that all history writing is unengaging or unimaginative, far from it. There are lots of historians who can write a narrative history which flows as well as any best-selling novel. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel that history books have a certain stigma attached to them, that because they are about history they are therefore ‘serious’ books, and not the sort of thing to read at the end of a busy day, or whilst lying in a deckchair on the Costa del Sol.

To say books are still the most important medium also ignores the elephant in the room that is most of the technologies produced over the past hundred years. Radio. Television. The Internet. All of these offer far more accessible and far more aesthetically appealing ways to consume history than the book does. Leaving aside the fact that you have to find time to read the thing in the first place, many history books are written in a style that seems to have been deliberately designed to make the reader hurl them across the room and curse the writer’s immortal soul, before writing an angry review on Amazon.

This is not the same for television or radio. For one thing, you can have them on in the background whilst you are doing something else, like ironing, cooking, or reading a book. But most importantly the language of both mediums is designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible without treating them like idiots. Obviously, not all programmes achieve this: some speak so far over their audience’s heads the only people who hear host’s words reside on Mars; and others assume so little of their audience that you are surprised the presenter does not talk like you would a toddler. But overall, radio and television hit that happy spot between talking down and dumbing down; and that is to say nothing of the internet, a medium which has completely changed the way we find, share and digest information.

So what is the answer to this problem? Do we abandon the book and focus all our efforts on the mass media? Or do we plough on like dogged travellers, and convince the world of the supremacy of the book? The obvious answer is neither. Books play a key role in teaching about history, and they always will. A historian can go into far more detail and specifics in a book than they can on a television or radio programme, for the simple fact that they can assume the reader is both reasonably interested and informed about the issues being discussed, otherwise they would not have bought the book.

But to retreat to an elitist, “books are the only place where proper history is done” attitude, is arrogant at best, and foolish at worst. Television and radio offer a level of personal engagement that books cannot, for the very simple reason that the information you are being told is done so by, well, a person; and the internet offers the user a level of informal interactivity that no other medium can even hope to replicate, including eBooks. They are all invaluable tools in the historian’s belt, and they must be assessed in terms of their own merits, not by whether they offer the same benefits as a book.

At the end of the day, the issue of “which medium is best” does not come down to some sort of arbitrary hierarchy based on which one has been around longer, it comes down to which medium is the best one for conveying the message you, as a historian, want to get across. Whether it books, television or smoke signals, each medium offers the historian a unique set of advantages and disadvantages, and to refrain from using any of them out of a misguided sense of it being “worse” than another is plain stubbornness. Historians today have tools that our ancestors could only dream of having, and we should make full use of them.

On the World War One debate…so far.

Admittedly, I am somewhat late to this debate, but I cannot put it off any longer: it is time to talk about World War One. Before we begin, whilst this post will reference Michael Gove’s column from two weeks ago, it is not going to discuss it directly. So much has been written about that particular opinion that for me to comment on what a poorly argued, reactionary and jingoistic piece of anti-history it was would not be so much flogging a dead horse, but whipping remorselessly at its headstone and hoping to draw blood. Rather, I am going to talk about a few issues that I hope are not overlooked during the commemoration year, as there are several topics that can easily be forgotten if we are not careful.

 

Firstly, the commemoration year should be used to have a genuine debate about the British Empire and its legacy. Among his more objectionable claims about the Great War, Mr Gove argued Britain’s intervention was justified on the grounds of Germany’s “ruthless social Darwinism… pitiless approach to occupation…aggressively expansionist war aims, and their scorn for international order.” The problem with this statement is that it could just as easily describe Britain’s foreign policy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The litany of abuses which British officials committed in her colonies before, during and after are legion; and similarly Britain’s wartime conduct can hardly be considered enlightened or benevolent, such as our involvement in the Allied blockade of Germany between 1914-1919.

 

As such, any debates about how far Germany’s international policies were the main cause of World War One must be placed in the context of how other Great Powers, such as France, the U.K. and Russia, conducted themselves on the international stage. This is not to say that we should excuse Germany’s behaviour, but that we should at the very least critically analyse whether Britain’s status as the largest Empire in the world affected Germany’s imperialist ambitions. Furthermore, we must use Germany’s expansionist policies as an opportunity to reflect on our own experience of Empire, and more specifically whether the traditional view of the British Empire as an overall benevolent and civilising force is a fair interpretation rooted in historical fact, or whether it was a myth created to explain and excuse morally and legally dubious acts committed in the name of ‘civilisation’.

 

We must also be careful not to forget about the courage shown by conscientious objectors during the war. In his column, Mr Gove was quick to praise the heroism and sacrifice demonstrated by those who died, but forgot to talk about the bravery shown by those who refused to go to war on moral principle. It is, admittedly, incredibly easy to see conscientious objectors as cowards, but to do so would be wrong, as conscientious objectors were not just mocked or taunted; they were openly vilified and portrayed as traitors, given white feathers so that everyone who saw them would know immediately to treat them in the same degrading fashion, and often imprisoned for their refusal to fight. As David Mitchell once said, they were brave, it was just a different type of bravery they had to display, and at the end of the day it takes a lot of courage and determination to fight against popular opinion for a cause you believe in, something that we often fail to recognise.

 

However, the most important issue that must be kept in mind during the commemoration is the damage suffered by those involved in the war. Whilst I am reasonably sure that issues such as the execution of deserters, the psychological and physical injuries soldiers suffered, and the number of men who committed suicide upon their return will be discussed, it is imperative to discuss them in their full moral complexities, and also consider the very real impact these issues had on their families for generations after they themselves had passed.

 

Moreover, we cannot just focus on the effects it had on those the front line, but also on those who were left behind. We must always remember that World War One was the first significant total war, and as such it had a direct impact on the home front. Whether it was the wives left without husbands and the children left without fathers; or the families who found their loved ones returned in body but not in spirit, the Great War hit everyone equally, and it hit them long after the final guns had been fired.

 

There are a host of other issues which must be addressed during 2014, such as how the realities of post-war Britain betrayed the ideals of the men who fought for her, and how far the Treaty of Versailles was a direct cause of the rise of Hitler and as such World War Two, but overall as the crucial lesson we must learn is that any commemoration of World War One must not only take a holistic view of the War’s effects on British society, but that it must also be nuanced. It is easy to shy away from difficult debates for fear of dishonouring the dead, but we cannot. To reduce World War One to crude sound bites or over simplistic interpretations, whether it is ‘lions led by donkeys’ or ‘Great Britain defending the world against evil Germany’ is not just bad history, it is immoral, and does more to betray the memory of those who lived and died than any Blackadder episode ever could.

On Desert Island Discs

In my ongoing to bid to become the physical manifestation of the acronym YOLO, I have recently started listening to Desert Island Discs. For those of you who are not familiar with the programme, Desert Island Discs consists of Kirsty Young interviewing a celebrity guest (or guests) about their lives, interspersed with eight songs which the guest particularly likes, or feel have influenced their lives in some way; plus they get to pick a luxury and a book to take with them to the titular desert island. Overall, it is a pretty good show, and in this post I am going to talk about what I feel historians can learn from the show, and more specifically how they can use this format in the future.

 

Firstly, the concept of using music as a means to frame a person’s life story is at the same time simple and genius. At the end of the day, almost everyone listens to music in some capacity, whether it is in the car on the way to work, sat down in your favourite armchair, or raving incoherently at Glastonbury; and every time you hear that song you are instantly transported back to the time, place and emotional state in which you heard it. If it does not define us music certainly shapes us, both emotionally and intellectually, as the messages they contain and the feelings they invoke stick with us long after we have heard them, and it is music’s universality and emotional impact which makes it the perfect medium for constructing a biographical narrative.

 

As such, the Desert Island Discs format is one which can be used for almost any guest. After all, to appear on the show all a guest has to be able to do is talk about their life and how the songs they have chosen relate to or have influenced it. Indeed, it is the perfect format for telling the stories of people who feel their lives are not particularly interesting or relevant to the general public, as not only is the idea of explaining to people why a certain song is important to you far less daunting than telling them your life story, but it can often provide some fascinating insights into both the guest’s character and the nature and history of other groups and institutions which they interacted with that a traditional one on one interview could not.

 

That said, I must make some qualifications. Firstly, there are times when the music element of Desert Island Discs comes off as secondary to the interview, rather than a central part of it. Admittedly I have only listened to the show for about two months, but it seems that rather than trying to construct her line of questioning around the guest’s choice of songs to create a coherent narrative, the songs are instead used by Kirsty Young as breaks between several disconnected themes. This may be due to time constraints, and sometimes it is unavoidable, but it is somewhat jarring for a guest to be talking about an important or interesting issue, only to be cut off so that another song can be played, and then have the programme resume with a line of questioning which had nothing to do with the topic previously being discussed, and any historian who wishes to emulate this format should bear this issue in mind.

 

Furthermore, sometimes Kirsty Young’s questions are less questions, and more monologues which the guest gets to reflect on. This could be a question of personal taste, but there are several occasions where Kirsty Young’s questions go into such detail that you almost know what the guest is going to say before they say it, as they are given a clear indication of the response which the presenter is expecting to hear. Such questions completely kill the spontaneity of the show, and it is a shame because when Kirsty Young asks shorter, pithier questions the responses are far more interesting to listen to, as it is clear the guest has had to think about what they want to say, rather than follow the presenter’s implicit directions.

 

Similarly, the presenter’s questioning sometimes falls into that ever pernicious pitfalls of becoming overly chummy. Now, do not get me wrong, informality is fine. Indeed, informality should be welcomed and embraced by all, if only for the fact that it makes the interview sound like it is being conducted by an actual human being, rather than the nearest approximation Skynet has been able to produce. However, chumminess is not good. It produces a programme which makes the listener feel like they have interrupted a weekly knees up, rather than listening to a serious but relaxed interview conducted by a host who, whilst they have a clear line of questioning in mind, will divert from it if they feel it will help them learn more about the guest.

 

All in all, the format of Desert Island Discs has great potential for history programming on radio, especially oral history. For one, the guest’s song choices not only reinforce the life story being told, but also provides a tailor made framework around which a narrative can be constructed; and the fact the show is primarily about how the guest’s choice of music relates to them means that the interview takes on a naturally relaxed tone. However, historians should be wary that this informality does not wander into overly friendly, as to do so has a damaging effect on the quality of the interview. They should also try, as far as possible, to ensure that the music is woven into a clear and consistent narrative, and is not simply used as a segue between two unrelated segments, and if they keep this in mind. That said, the positives of Desert Island Discs far outweigh its negatives, and it is a programme which all historians can, and should, learn from.

On the BBC History Extra podcast

Another year, another blog post. 2013 has been and gone, and so far 2014 is lining up to be a pretty busy year for… well, more or less everyone. Not only is it the International Year of Family Farming and Crystallography (thank you Wikipedia) amongst other things we can look forward to this year are the Winter Olympics, European Elections, the Scottish vote on independence, and of course, the one hundredth anniversary of World War One. But all that is yet to come, and this week I will be talking about a more sedate and uncontroversial topic, namely what I like and dislike about the BBC History Extra podcast.

 

Rather like In Our Time, overall I do enjoy History Extra, and I like it for many of the same reasons, namely that it covers a wide range of topics, and that it is presented by people who are clearly interested about the subject at hand but rarely inject their own opinion into the discussion, if at all. However, whereas In Our Time is based around three people discussing one topic, History Extra consists of two or three one-on-one interviews about different topics held together by one presenter, an approach which has the crucial benefit of allowing for a more in depth discussion of the topic at hand. Whilst on In Our Time a guest can easily find themselves cut off mid-flow, in a one-on-one setting the guest is free to fully elaborate upon their opinions, which can often lead to a more stimulating interview.

 

That said, there are several drawbacks to this approach, the most obvious of which is that the quality of the interview is almost entirely dependent upon the interviewee. Whereas Melvyn Bragg has three interviewees and so is able to cut off any particularly unengaging guests without any real difficulty, the team at History Extra do not have this luxury, and the results can be stupefying at best, disastrous at worst.

 

This is not helped by the fact that there appears to be little to no editing done of the interviews themselves, a statement which is based on two observations. Firstly, the length of the interviews within each podcast vary wildly; and secondly because the podcasts themselves do not seem to have a set or even approximate running time. For example, whilst the 14th November edition lasted thirty nine minutes, the next week it was almost an hour long, and whilst it is commendable that History Extra try and ensure the podcast version of the interview is as true to the original as possible, it does result in several interviews which run for far longer than they probably needed to.

 

The other problem with a one-on-one interview is that you are only hearing the opinions of one person. Again, whilst only one topic is discussed on In Our Time, there are three people discussing it, and as a result it is not uncommon for spontaneous debates and arguments to break out amongst the guests. In the case of History Extra, this cannot happen, and whilst the interviewers do often highlight research which contradicts the guests’ point of view, at the end of the day they can respond safe in the knowledge that the only person who can challenge them is the interviewer. Similarly, the fact that there is only one interviewer means the line of questioning is somewhat limited, both by the interviewer’s knowledge and by their biases.

 

I think the remedy to this problem lies not in increasing the number of guests, but in increasing the number of presenters. Instead of having two or three one-on-one interviews (each of which are currently conducted by different presenters), have one longer interview of roughly half an hour, with three presenters interviewing one guest. As such, whilst each guest would have the opportunity to explain their ideas in detail, they would also be subject to greater scrutiny than if it were a one-on-one interview; and the increased number of interviewers would also create a more varied line of questioning.

 

There are a host of other reasons why I love the History Extra podcast. For one, they often broadcast interviews from the field rather than from a studio, which gives the show a greater variety than similar offerings; and they also provide information on a wide variety of history related events and programming. However, what I appreciate most is that, more often than not, the interviewers try and establish how and why the historical issues being discussed are relevant to present day discussions and events. For at the end of the day it is the historian’s job to show how the past and present are not just related but symbiotic, and it is one that I feel the History Extra podcast does rather well.