Between fact and fiction

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of History Today.

What does it mean to write history today? What claims can historians make about their work? These are just two of the questions that sprang to mind after listening to Niall Ferguson tussle with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on Radio 4’s Start the Week in October.

Ferguson was attempting to clarify the distinction between historians and writers of historical fiction. ‘What happened and how it felt are not separate things’, he said:

Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is, we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations. People who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in [Jane’s] case early 21st century ideas. 

Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch professor of history, has long been a proponent of the counterfactual, which – whatever its virtues and vices – is at heart an imaginative project. Indeed, Ferguson edited one of the leading books on the subject, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997).

Yet how do historians justify what they do? Certainly they can no longer pretend to Olympian distance and uninterested authority. We are all a product of the times we live in, fed by the oxygen of our experiences, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. We live in a multi-channel, multi-vocal era, which is sceptical of singularity and authority, but paradoxically attracted to narrow certainties and averse to self-doubt. How should historians adapt their practice to reflect these competing tensions? Doubt is central to intellectual enquiry, but by the time a work arrives in print, doubts have usually been effaced. The goal of historical research is to work our way out of doubt towards authority; perhaps work that articulates explicitly that process would better represent to the wider public what historians actually do.

Likewise, do historians challenge themselves enough to find an appropriate form for their ideas? They strive for originality of research and analysis, but how often do they strive for originality or inventiveness of form? The book or long-form essay may still be the best format historians have for sustained and rigorous argument. But do they default to it out of admiration, laziness, or cultural deference? After all, today’s cultural and technological fragmentation and diversity offers enormous opportunities for generically – and therefore intellectually – satisfying creativity to those with the requisite talent, ambition and desire.

To take two examples in different media: Ruth Scurr’s My Own Life (2015) might best be described as an autobiographical biography of John Aubrey, piecing the great antiquarian’s life together out of the voluminous chaos of his published and unpublished writings. Elsewhere, and largely unmarked in the press, BBC television’s Footballers United, an innovative historical drama, recently won a Prix Italia for Best Digital Storytelling. It used its medium to create a touching and thoughtful narrative illuminated by archive materials actually embedded in it. Rather than a drama-documentary, it was a new thing: a documented drama.

To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.

Certainly, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is more porous than we like to think. Perhaps an approach to non-fiction historical writing that was more comfortable in acknowledging its subjectivity, its contingency and its intellectual frailties would challenge readers to think more deeply about the nature of history and its place in our culture.

Safe spaces and comfort zones

This piece first appeared in the July 2015 issue of History Today. While I still think this makes some good points, on the whole it feels a good deal more ancien regime than I intended it to be, and fails to address some important aspects of the debate. Rachel Moss wrote a blog post in response which I think is a much better – more thoughtful, nuanced and perceptive – take than mine.

The Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at New York’s Columbia University recently recommended trigger warnings be placed on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and implicitly other classic texts in the western canon – because it contains material that is difficult for ‘a [rape] survivor, a person of colour, or a student from a low-income background’.

For those who do not know, a ‘trigger warning’ is akin to the descriptive notes that accompany DVD classification ratings. So, for instance, my copy of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is described as containing ‘intense scenes of verbal and physical abuse’.

The immediate cause of this pronouncement was a female student who had been sexually assaulted finding a discussion of the Persephone and Daphne myths traumatic in the classroom environment, which is entirely understandable.

Yet it is not to demean her pain when questioning whether the anxiety and distress she felt is sufficient reason to remodel the course for all students; or whether, more generally, we have the right to go through life without encountering texts, opinions and experiences that we find too emotionally difficult to deal with. As individuals we are surely entitled to evade distress. Whether we are entitled to demand society remodel itself around our trauma, to expect absolute public obeisance to the private tyrannies of our hurt is much less certain.

It is only a matter of time before such sensibilities are brought to the study of history, where we do not have the comfort of fiction or the consolations of literary aesthetics with which to distance us from the darkness.

The advisory board at Columbia was well intentioned, but to avoid discussion of sexual violence, racism and oppression is not to fight such evils; it is to pretend that there are public spaces in which they cannot exist. To live in a prison of your own design does not make you any less of a prisoner.

Is this not contrary to what the study of literature and history is about? Surely both are at least in part concerned with understanding how and why horror rises in the human heart, about the ebb and flow of power and resistance, of humanity against inhumanity, the moral and political struggles of individuals and societies, the fight of hope and faith against hunger, fear and death? Are not both subjects ultimately about the infinitely complex varieties of experience flowering endlessly into events, patterned yet unique, as we all are?

This desire to dissociate from reality is not a problem unique to education. It seems endemic in society, from the section of the US population which turns to Fox News or the Drudge Report for information, to the echo chambers of the bourgeois political elite which led the UK Labour party to its worst electoral defeat since the war. No party has a monopoly on moral squalor. It is a human characteristic, not a political one.

Characteristic of the mindset is the othering of your opponents, delegitimising contrary and challenging opinions by demonising those who hold them. There seems to me little intellectual difference between those who consider Barack Obama a socialist dictator because he believes in the efficacy and virtue of government and those who privilege the most reactionary elements of Salafi Islamic thought over women’s rights because opposition to any aspect of Islam is de facto Islamophobic. How far are we from declaring parts of literature or history hate speech? Not far enough.

It is the historian’s duty as much as the novelist’s or poet’s to understand what people think and why. We must resist anything that pushes us towards the comfortable and the familiar rather than challenges us with the arbitrary and exceptional.

Neither serenity nor strength come from avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings. Experience inures us; only by accepting reality can we begin to change it. Safe spaces and comfort zones, whether emotional or intellectual, may be invaluable for dealing with personal trauma, but they diminish us all if they do not equip us for the multiplicity of the world as it is.

Humanities without humanity

This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of History Today.

The British government’s vision for university funding – as outlined by Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science – seems both promising and alarming. That it seeks to elevate teaching to the same level of importance as research is to be welcomed. But to do so via a model based on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), as promised in the Conservative party manifesto, would seem to exacerbate many of the problems the government wants to address.

A great deal of university funding in the humanities is based on the REF, most recently undertaken in 2014. It is officially said to cost £250m, but it has been estimated by some critics to come in at four times that figure, or much if not more than is spent annually on all the humanities.

I turned to it – and in particular to the report from the 2014 History Sub-Committee – for a sense of clarity and intellectual rigour with regard to university finance and the reward of excellence. I did not find it. If there are measurable criteria that can be used to judge the quality of research in the humanities, they are not readily apparent. Rather, one forms the impression that, in the absence of such criteria, proxies and ersatz benchmarks have had to be found.

According to the latest REF, 31 per cent of the submissions in the UK’s history departments are ‘world-leading’, which is defined as:

1. A primary or essential point of reference.
2. Of profound influence.
3. Instrumental in developing new thinking, practices, paradigms, policies or audiences.
4. A major expansion of the range and depth of the research and its application.
5. Outstandingly novel, innovative and creative.

Points 1, 2 and 3 are self-evidently not measurable in anything like the time frame within which REF operates.

More generally, these are large claims that are being made. Is there anyone who thinks nearly a third of all work in UK history faculties reaches such an exalted level?

This is not a criticism of the work itself, merely of the absurd process by which individual excellence is distilled, refined, sieved, ground and otherwise reduced to a heap of lifeless data by the very funding body which should, in fact, be nourishing it.

I doubt whether many History Today subscribers have read the REF report. I cannot encourage you to do so. Take this sentence, picked at random:

In the case of impact and environment, the same materials were used in both the sub-panel and the main panel calibrations to ensure that sub-panels calibrated material from across the main panel UOAs [units of assessment] as part of the calibration exercise for impact and environment.

Possibly the report was outsourced to Google Translate, but it is hard to respect the judgment of anyone who could write – or sign off on – that kind of sentence.

Our higher education institutions are bureaucratised to an absurd degree. Managerialism and corporatisation are rampant. The quality of both education and research in the humanities is being seriously undermined as a result. The REF is fond of outputs, impacts, calibrations and other wildly inappropriate nomenclature. Yet this is not the language of the humanities. It is as if some benighted administrator has stumbled across the Dummies Guide to Mechanical Engineering and energetically rifled its index to gussy up his or her vocabulary. It is, in short, pseudo-science of the highest order, the intellectual equivalent of the spray-on tan.

All of which leads me to wonder whether the future of the humanities in Britain is in the public sector at all. Perhaps smaller, student-centred institutions modelled on the kind of liberal arts colleges found in the United States are the next stage in the evolution of higher education in the UK. If the sector is not soon radically restructured, it is very hard to see it being capable of fulfilling any meaningful purpose whatsoever.

The future is ours to write: some thoughts on Britain after Brexit

Like most of my friends, I was heartbroken by the vote on Thursday. Heartbroken but not wholly surprised.

Let’s leave aside the dishonesty of the campaign.

This was a vote that has been brewing since the crash of 2007/08 when across the developed world governments supported the financial and political elites who created the conditions that allowed the crash to happen – and then demanded that the wider populace pick up the tab.

Elites can only command respect when their expertise and ability work for the common good. When they so clearly and catastrophically fail, and are not called to account in any way, if is not unreasonable for people to become cynical and distrustful.

The EU is an elite entity. It is not the Europe we are broken-hearted at being cast out of. That Europe exists as long as we want it to, as long as we are prepared to fight for it.

But for many, I think the EU – as with governments generally across the West – represented a failed and broken compact. One which looked after its own in the financial sector and punished the people of Greece and Italy and Spain rather than let the failures in the system be felt by those who designed and profited from it.

People feel powerless and a vote against the status quo is a way of expressing that. But it isn’t the EU that robs them of agency, far from it. It is globalisation.

At a local level, change is generational. Globally, by which I mean among the global financial elites, change is technological, and fast.

Globalisation inevitably means that skilled and non-skilled labour will be contracted out to the lowest bidder. The working class of the West will be – and are – the biggest losers.

A vote to “take back control” was a vote against that : against a no-opportunity economy, with low security jobs for now and worse on the horizon, against hollowed out communities starved of resources and starved of attention, which cannot compete with migrant workers in a race to the bottom.

These communities feel voiceless, their concerns unmet in parliament and scorned by many to whom they look for support and representation.

Anti-immigrant sentiment derives in large part from communities which are fearful, insecure and impoverished by forces which benefit the middle and upper classes but strip them of all protection.

Yes some leave voters are racist. Yes most of them were lied to – despicably – by the politicians. And yes, many will find that the EU – flawed as it is – was a bulwark against globalisation, not part of its vanguard. And yes, vote Leave was an emotional decision not a rational one.

But so was Remain. Europe is an idea that transcends the EU. We are still European. The future is far from decided yet. If we want England / Britain to be an open, outward-looking, tolerant force for good in the world, then it is still in our power to make it so.

Some Leave voters may be hateful. But many if not most voted out of fear, fear of a now that offers them little and a future that offers them less.

It is down to us to build the future that we want. It is our future. It is not about institutions and models of government. It is about habits of heart and mind, the generosity and kindness we bring to debate, the hope we believe in and enact.

Fuck what the nation voted one rainy day in June. If we want to pass on the nation that we grew up in to our children, we can still do so. We do not need the EU for that. We need each other.

We can do it – but not by despising those who made the wrong choice on Thursday. But by keeping in our hearts the values that are dear to us, and that we believe are worth fighting for.

The future is unwritten. Europe is a powerful idea of which the EU is a very poor expression – just ask the people of Greece. Let’s write a better future than either the old status quo or this new reality can offer.

Venceremos, my friends. Onwards into the dawn.

Heart of darkness: from the time-honoured barbarity of the Tudors in Ireland to Islamic State

The leader of a small military force – perhaps 500 strong – is determined to subdue a province, and to do so quickly. Terror is his explicit policy. Every inroad he makes into enemy territory is followed by indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. Every man, woman and child is killed. Houses, churches, crops – everything is burned and despoiled.

Each night, the heads of all those who have been killed are lain in a path to the commander’s tent so “the people . . . see the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they come to speak with the colonel”.

If this sounds like the barbarity that Isis has made commonplace in the news in the last couple of years, think again. It is not Isis. It is the English in Ireland in 1569 and the leader in question is Humphrey Gilbert. He was knighted for his efforts within months; the following year he became an MP.

Drawing analogies between events at different times in history is always fraught; circumstances change. But where there are echoes we do well to heed them, because what resonates with the past can inform our understanding of the present. And while there is little in English history per se to match Isis, our record in Ireland is a different matter. It is there that we succumbed most deeply to the poisonous cocktail of religious self-righteousness and nascent nationalism that so intoxicates Isis. Protestantism and Wahhabism are closer cousins than we care to think.

Five years after Gilbert, the Earl of Essex at the head of the English army in Ireland hunted down and butchered 400 women and children of the M’Donnell clan at Rathlin Island off the northern coast of Antrim. A few made it down to the caves by the sea but Essex’s men followed them and smoked them out, cutting them down on the shore as they ran choking from their hiding places.

At Smerwick on the west coast of Ireland in November 1580, a group of 600 or so Spanish soldiers surrendered a small fort to an English force under Lord Grey of Wilton. Grey sent in a number of men under the captaincy of the young Walter Raleigh. Once disarmed, the Spanish were all put to the sword; there were too many bodies in the fort for the English to count. Pregnant women were hanged. Three men were dragged off to the local blacksmith where their joints and bones were smashed with a hammer on the anvil. They too were hanged. The English used their bodies for target practice as they hung on the gallows, literally shooting them to pieces.

Elizabeth I was delighted. Her handwritten note of thanks to Grey said, “You have been chosen the instrument of God’s glory”.

As for the kind of destruction practised by Isis at Nimrud and elsewhere, the remains of Protestant iconoclasm – Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” – still litter our landscape. To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned.

Some buildings were destroyed more thoroughly than others. Thomas Cromwell, who personally took possession of the great Cluniac priory at Lewes, employed an Italian military engineer to raze the building to the ground.

There were over 800 religious houses before the Dissolution. The extent of the loss across the country is hard to underestimate. And there were other, more subtle, but no less catastrophic, destructions. The religious houses looked after the poor, the sick, the elderly, the infirm. There was no national health service back then, but the religious orders came close. They were the country’s principal education providers too.

In many parishes, church treasures were hidden among the parishioners. They were being vigorously hunted out and destroyed for decades. As late as August 1578, Elizabeth I’s progress through East Anglia brought her to the house of a Catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood. His house was searched and an image of the Lady Mary discovered in a hay rick. It was “such an image . . . as for greatness, as for gayness, and workmanship, I never did see such a match”, reported Richard Topcliffe, later infamous as the government’s principal torturer.

Elizabeth ordered the image to be burned in sight of everyone that evening.

That Isis is depraved is beyond question. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the human talent for depravity does not belong to one people or one faith or one era. All evil is banal, repetitive in its cruelties.

The question shouldn’t be why Isis behaves this way, but what conditions enable or encourage any human to behave like that. The line from Gilbert to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – by way of Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz – is a short one, and surely too short for our moral comfort.

NOTE: This piece was first published by the New Statesman online.

History Today column: Charlie Hebdo and the judgement of history

As I write this, millions of people are on the streets of France to protest about the murders of eight writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, of four Jewish patrons of a kosher food store, and of three police officers.

Much comment in the media has identified the slaughter in Manichean terms, reflecting a battle between religious sensibilities and free speech, between the forces of reaction and modernity, between Islam and the West – and so on.

We, as historians, have to judge such claims – both in the present and where they arise in the past. Discerning motive – or finding a way to calibrate the balance of motives in individual acts – is perhaps the hardest task we face. It is an intellectual challenge of course; but it is also a narrative challenge. How far to use the individual act to explain wider societal, cultural and intellectual forces; how far to claim those forces diminish the role of the individual actor, diminish the extent to which his or her uniquely personal experiences shaped and defined their choices.

It is curious that journalists and politicians on both left and right have been much happier discussing the murders in Paris in terms of sweeping cultural wars than in terms of individual actors. For some, they arose out of racism, ‘Islamophobia’ and various kinds of economic and political imperialism. For others, they were another bloody skirmish in the West’s war with ‘Islamofascism’.

It might be glib to suggest the attraction of such responses lay in their simplicity and neatness. Glib, but not necessarily untrue. Few people like to let events redefine their worldviews; editorial writers and politicians like it less than most. Historians, I like to think, are made of sterner – if more supple – stuff.

One of my first thoughts on hearing of the killings at Charlie Hebdo was Milton’s dictum in Areopagitica: “as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, the image of God”. Milton’s language as the passage extends is emotive, powerful: massacre, homicide, martyrdom. Censorship is a kind of murder. The concept of murder itself – and the threat of murder – as a kind of censorship does not seem to be in his vocabulary.

Not that Milton would have approved of Charlie Hebdo, of course. Far from it. His lines

“Licence they mean when they cry Liberty;
For who loves that must first be wise and good:
But from that mark how far they rove we see,
For all this waste of wealth and loss of blood.”

could almost have been written with the recent events in Paris in mind. For Milton – as for some of those who would import rigid Islamic standards of blasphemy into European society – a free press was intended to enable God’s Englishmen and women to find a truer path to revealed wisdom. He did not understand why the people, in their wisdom, had thought to use it otherwise.

There have always been people like those at Charlie Hebdo who, wherever the boundaries of free speech are, can be found pushing against them. Causing offence is almost a raison d’etre for it, and the magazine’s savage glee at doing so places it somewhere in the arc between South Park and Jonathan Swift.

But, given the magazine’s many provocations, were the forces of history such that the killings were inevitable? Or should we allow more for the role of contingency and chance in what happens – in the present as much as in the past?

As historians, we try to make patterns out of encounters and events, to sift for meaning beyond the oddities and quirks of each human actor. But surely we must resist the temptation to fit each of us wholly and neatly into a wider ideology or identity, to make coherent rational wholes of humans who are rarely less than contradictory and impulsive at the best of times.

Arguably, perhaps, the true definition of civilisation is the absence of a demand for too much intellectual clarity and precision in each other. As individuals and as societies, perhaps the more tolerant we are of both our own contradictions and those of our fellow humans, the more civilised we shall be.

 

The death of Anne Boleyn: a correspondent writes to Elizabeth I

Anne Boleyn (there are no authenticated contemporary portraits of Anne)

It is impossible to know what Elizabeth I thought or felt about the fact that her father, Henry VIII, had executed her mother, Anne Boleyn, on charges of adultery with, among others, Elizabeth’s uncle and Anne’s brother. It is entirely possible, given that she was not yet three when her mother died, that she had no real memory of Anne at all. But it is hard to conceive that such a family history would not be the cause of at least a little emotional unquiet.

There would of course have been many around Elizabeth who could have attested to her infant relationship with Anne Boleyn and described to her many maternal intimacies and acts of tenderness and care that we might imagine, from our own experiences as parents and children, but which we cannot recreate from the evidence that now survives.

In fact, the only meaningful description of Anne Boleyn together with her daughter that we have comes from a letter written to Elizabeth I after her accession in 1559.

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