Do you read a lot of poetry? Neither do I. However, despite my general apathy towards the art form as a whole I do have a few favourite poems, one of them being (as you may have guessed from the title) Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem which warns of the futility of trying to preserve one’s legacy. At first, this may seem to be an odd choice for a historian: after all, if all attempts to preserve the past are doomed to fail from the get go, what ramifications does this have for the discipline of history and the much vaunted ‘heritage industry’?
However, rather than being a critique of preservation in general, I see Ozymandias as a critique of a particular type of preservation, namely the sort of top-down, establishment-driven history which, until fairly recently, was seen as the norm by professional historians, and indeed the population in general. It is this topic which I’ll be discussing discuss in this week’s post, but before I do, permit me a tangent and let me tell you a story about my home village, and the events which changed it forever…
I live in a small, Cheshire village called Cuddington. It is, for the most part, unremarkable, and until recently its only real distinguishing feature was the Round Tower Lodge, a sandstone tower which was the only remnant of a gate lodge to Vale Royal Abbey. I say ‘until recently’, because earlier this year a motorist crashed into it, and it had to be torn down.
Now, this is where you’d probably expect the story to end. As sad as it was to lose a local landmark, and one which ties into a pretty interesting period of English history, it’s only real value was aesthetic. That, and it was a handy way to tell people new to the area where they should turn off the A556. But, overall, the destruction of the Round Tower was hardly an earth shattering event, and in the grand scheme of things it would have been entirely understandable if, after the initial shock, everyone had moved on.
What actually happened was an immediate campaign to rebuild the Round Tower and, from what I understand at the time of writing, I’m glad to say that the Tower is being rebuilt. Yes, it wasn’t a particularly useful feature of the village; yes there are probably similar and better examples of that style of architecture elsewhere in the country; and yes it is easier to see at the A556 junction now it’s gone.
But whichever way you cut it, the Round Tower was an important part of the village’s identity. It’s the crest of one of the local primary schools, the village newsletter is named after it, and, as I said before, it’s the first thing most people see when they come to Cuddington. As such, failing to rebuild the Round Tower would have been to take away the village’s cultural heritage, and whilst it might not be on the same scale as destroying the Great Wall of China, it is still inexcusable.
To return to my original point, this is the sort of heritage and history I don’t think Ozymandias is criticising. Heritage which is driven by grassroots activism, and which is a genuine expression of local culture and sentiments, is (for the most part) a good thing, as unlike the statue in Shelley’s poem, the Round Tower and the hundreds of similar buildings and monuments across the country, actually have a meaning and identity outside of the legacy they are supposed to represent and commemorate. One of the reasons I chose to read public history, and not just history, at master’s level is I believe historians need to see the public as their partners, rather than an audience to be lectured; and that any historical account should focus on the experiences people who have lived through it, and the interpretations of the people who continue to live with the legacy of the past, rather than have the historian force their own interpretation on them.
For too long a certain group of historians were allowed to force their (very narrow) interpretation of history on the people, and it is this attitude towards commemoration I believe Shelley was attacking in Ozymandias. For years, the idea that only ‘Great Men’ mattered in history was allowed to rule, and as I said in a previous post those ‘Great Men’ tended to be white, middle class, heterosexuals, just like the people who were writing the history.
However, this situation is beginning to change, and I think it has less to do with the social and cultural revolutions of the 60s, and more to do with the fact that, at their core, all these historical accounts are entirely hollow. Not hollow in the sense that they had no factual basis. As much as I disagree with ‘grand narrative’ historians I’d never say they made up their interpretations. What I mean is that, aside from the ideology these accounts are meant to reinforce, they have no meaning, as they aren’t genuine expressions of a lived experience.
Rather, they are what an elite want the rest of the population to think the past was like. Whilst you can fool all the people for some of the time, eventually people will start to ask questions, and when they do they will soon see through the paper thin veneer of ‘historical objectivity’ surrounding these accounts and see them for what they are: highly subjective accounts written from a privileged point of view and which reinforce a particular set of cultural and social norms, rather than one which reflects anything close to a historical reality.
Certainly there are situations where local sentiment is not necessarily the best guide to what should and shouldn’t be persevered, and there is a case to be made for professionals ignoring popular opinion. However, if historians want to create an account of history which will truly stand the test of time, we need to see the public as active partners rather than a passive audience, and use their experiences and interpretations of the past as the basis of their accounts. Otherwise, people will simply stop listening, and our interpretations will be left to fall apart like so many statues in the desert.