Nov 04

History is about People

By Robin Lamplough
Whenever those with an interest in history gather, there is the likelihood that before long the conversation will turn to the nature of the discipline for which they share an enthusiasm. And there are probably as many opinions as there are participants in the colloquy. But one thing is impossible to ignore Whatever other connection there may be, history is always about people.
The late Henry Ford famously missed this vital ingredient when he said that history is "one damned thing after another". That sounds suspiciously like a comment that might have been made by any of his highly paid workers after a day of turning out Tin Lizzies on the production line. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Ford reached the conclusion that "history is bunk." Similarly, I can think of a large number of young persons of school-going age (I can never remember the latest newspeak for pupil) who would, for much the same reason, give unqualified endorsement to the words of Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce's anti-hero: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." If you have missed the vital people factor, you have missed the essence of the discipline, as well as much of its fascination. Nobody has expressed the nub of the matter as succinctly as the inimitable Edmund Clerihew Bentley. He made the point that while geography is inescapably about maps, "history is about chaps." The English novelist and playwright, Somerset Maugham, once offered the opinion that popular interest in literature is always directed towards the lives of the social class that holds political power at the time. Something very similar, I believe, can be said about history and this is borne out by changing trends in the writing and reading of history. In the 1800s, most historical writing was centred in the exploits of captains and kings. As the century of the common man unfolded, however, so interest came to focus first on the middle class and later on the experiences of the rank and file: the soldiers in the trenches, the workers on factory floor, the revolutionaries on the barricades. This trend has reached its logical conclusion with the relatively recent development of social history. Here the emphasis lies on the lives of ordinary folk: how they lived, what they ate, what work they did, how they spent their leisure time and how their remains were disposed of when it was all over. HISTORY AS A POWER TOOL. Politicians, of course, are always interested in the people factor. They tend, however, to see history as a power tool, to be used to gain or retain influence. Margaret Thatcher wanted schools to revert to the history lessons of her girlhood, when Britannia's jolly tars ruled the waves. In South Africa, important information from Mapungubwe was given limited publicity because it did not fit the official view of the country's past. For similar reasons, the Rhodesian Front government sought to suppress the clear understanding among archaeologists that Great Zimbabwe was the work of Bantu-speaking people. Still closer to home, I remember hearing a prominent Inkatha speaker (this was before the birth of the IFP) observing (quite correctly) that there was at that time no mention of Zulu losses or achievements at Isandlwana. He went on, however, to wax eloquent on his belief that there was, on the battlefield, a monument to Shepstone's horse. He had not understood that the monument was erected in memory of a group of people, soldiers from an irregular colonial mounted infantry unit, not in honour of Somtseu's charger. But even if you have a tendency to misuse history, you can't escape the people factor. If history is about people, however, it is also for people. And if it is for people, then it must be accessible to them. It seems to me that writing history calls for a variety of skills. It requires thorough investigation and perceptive interpretation. But it also calls for at least clarity and preferably the bonus of some elegance of expression in the finished product. One of the disturbing features of much modern history writing is that it dead boring, written in tortuous prose that discourages even the most committed enthusiast from reading too far. In short, we have to make history user-friendly without dumbing it down. And that means that those who write about it must develop not just the analytical skills of the investigator but also the wordsmith's craft. Good history has always a blend of these two often conflicting skills. In their forays into the unfolding of the past, the glossy magazines, committed to easy reading, tend towards glibness and facile leaping to insupportable conclusions. Many trained historians, on the other hand, produce tortuous prose that is frequently incomprehensible even to a reader who is willing to grapple with complexity. If those who have an interest in the subject do not make a special effort to clothe their careful research and reasoned conclusions in language that ordinary intelligent people can enjoy reading, then history will lose what little credibility remains to it. So there's a challenge to the younger generation!

1 comment

  1. ~Ed

    Once again, allow me to extend my warm thanks to you Robin, I found this article quite superlative and immensely enjoyed reading it.
    As far as an essential understanding of the nature of History is concerned, you have said it all! Spot on! Keep it up, your contributions are invaluable!

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