Discussion time again, if you would all be so kind. There’s a lot of toys flying around the sandpit at the moment regarding ‘readings of history’ in ‘Broken Britain’ (gah!). It was to be expected with a change of government (not much of a change, but there we are). Historians are suddenly labelled right-wing or left-wing, some are even creating a ‘socialist reading’ of history. I find all this tiresome, and I think it puts people off history itself. It’s fine as a discussion for a university tutorial/tedious high-brow dinner party, but when coupled with the current discussions on history’s place in the National Curriculum, I wonder. I really do.
Historiography (essentially the-study-of-the-study-of history) now leans more towards social history than political history. I tend to avoid a political reading of history on the blog because I deal largely with individuals and their personal circumstances. Part of my work is buildings, and they aren’t usually terribly political either. I am as likely to regard some of William Pitt the Younger’s decisions as influenced by a port hangover than right-minded political thinking. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the political readings of my part of history, and don’t find them useful because I do, as my library card will testify. They are used to inform my own view. I make no case for my readings of history being better than that of anyone else (or even as good as, quite frankly), but I try and keep it as human as possible.
In studying the history of London’s minority groups, I come across a great deal of fairly heavy agendas. From those imposing modern ‘queer culture’ onto the homosexual individuals of 18thC London, to racial and gender issues, some readings are so alarming in their determination to ‘see’ history in a certain light, there is a danger of losing sight of the basic facts and the humanity of the subjects involved (it’s a sorry pass when people start being wholly-defined by being gay, Black, French, Muslim, Jewish and so on). Earlier this week I was lucky enough to meet up with two of my favourite historians over a drink and we fell into the above discussion. One summed it up beautifully, if rather simply: ‘All these historians talk about power-brokers and so on, as if these guys had some great master-plan, but mostly they didn’t. They’re just like everybody else – doing the best they can with what they’ve got’.
Of course, this debate is infinite, but also infinite in its potential for confusion. For instance, does being a right-wing historian not only mean emphasis is placed upon the importance of right-wing thinkers and decision-makers, but perhaps also that something like the importance of the immigrant contribution to Britain might be under-played? See? Oy vey.
So lovelies, opinions please: should we strive for a particular reading of history, or for objectivity? Or is our view of history as wholly individual as each of us, as subjective as our food or clothing preferences? Is there a place in this modern world for heavily-slanted readings of history, or will they be more dangerous than ever as Britain’s diversity grows? I should very much like to hear what you think. After all, it’s our legacy, innit.
- From Handel to Hendrix: A Coloured History
- Billy Ponsonby, Earl of Besborough-