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Past is another country.

Any enquiry must have a motive or it could not be carried on at all, and all motives belong to our emotional life.

John Macmurray, Reason and Emotion (1935)

As historians get older, their pronouncements get heavier. Sir Llewellyn (E.L.) Woodward ended his reflections on the subject of British Historians (1943) with the reminder that the history of the world of man is very short compared with that of the astronomers and the geologists: "It is therefore not remarkable that a satisfactory clue has yet to be found to the meaning of the strange acts of the strangest of living creatures." This ethereal clue remains, by definition, elusive. And the acts and the actors still astonish.

Listen now to two historians of my generation, slightly my senior. Lawrence Stone states that our race and class and culture make us subject to bias and prejudice. He could have included our humanity. But he's on ground more dubious when he asks, "What are we to make of a work that has not even a mention of Foucault or Derrida?" -- for some think no news is good news. Readers of history, Stone advised, "should examine the background of the historian." Well, yes: but don't wager on what you find there. A British historian might have a bishop for a father, a brother who's an admiral, and a Savile Row or Chanel tailor, and still be radically hostile to the establishment. Contrariness, like all spirits, "bloweth where it listeth." The Victorian satirist W. S. Gilbert made a career out of the paradoxes that ensued:

Hearts just as pure and fair

May beat in Belgrave Square

As in the lowly air

Of Seven Dials.

But readers nudged into background-research are more likely to complain that they don't have time or it's not their thing; or, calming down, they may decide that since argument is circular, endless, and distributes more heat than light, it might be better, more prudent, to recognize that in history, "in the last analysis," there is no last analysis.

Eric Hobsbawm tells how he used to believe that "the profession of history -- unlike that, say, of nuclear physics -- could do no harm. Now I know it can." He doesn't explain; but, a veteran of the Marxist wars, he knew of what he spoke.

Much of "Good Old History" presented itself as though it were an authorless, self-generated chronicle: "what really happened." Its veracity and authenticity were often questioned; but, as France's Premier Georges Clemenceau rasped at Versailles in 1919, at least history would not record that Belgium invaded Germany in 1914. Narrative looks easy but isn't. The authority it aspires to is difficult to maintain under a barrage from critics happily tallying its errors. Sociological theory, in contrast, goes freely about the world. Unencumbered by the past, saddled with no authorized versions to revise and diminish, it is never really wrong: its misinterpretations are merely fanciful. The scenario is familiar: "I explain: you have misunderstood: he is off the wall."

But there are as many thinkers as thoughts (about whom it is relevant to enquire, who brings the ruminant his lunch?) Perhaps because this is so, the past as much as the present remains a place of conjecture, its map containing as many mysteries. If we don't know what the people around us are thinking, how can we tell what was in the mind of the marquis as he handed Louis XIV the royal chemise?

The historical profession has long thought that personal recollections of the past -- "I was there!" -- have face-value only. The net supporting everyone's memory rapidly frays out. The older self thinks it accurately recalls the younger self's motives and feelings; but who else knows which self, if either, gets its approximations approximately right? Historians are sure they can find a better perspective which throws new light on "aspects" of the past that have hitherto attracted too much, or not enough, scholarly attention.

One review of a book with the deconstructed title The Rise and Fall of the French Revolution (edited by T.C.W. Blanning, University of Chicago Press, 1996) notes how this compilation emits "not a whiff of bread-prices, peasants, or even of noble revolt." Clearly, these are outmoded anaesthetics. Mr Sherlock Holmes would often instruct Dr Watson never to theorize without data; easy enough for Holmes to say, for he found data, hard facts, wherever he went. One of Winston Churchill's most notable assertions in his History of the Second World War is that "facts are better than dreams." It's also a fact that the facts presented in this great work illuminate the biography of that great man more than they do the history of that great war. The young Churchill told Violet Asquith at a dinner-table, "We are all worms; but I think I am a glow-worm." He was, of course, right.

Another of that species, in his time casting as high-powered a beam, is Benjamin Disraeli, whose major achievement was his own career. Like Churchill, he was a successful survivor of battles both secret and known. His advice was: "Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory." Disraeli was clear, as Churchill was not, about the difference between romance and reality. He believed it was the interplay of the two, their "due admixture, that best carried a man through life." Yet both were politicians who knew that spades were spades: Churchill, for instance, announced at once that Dunkirk 1940 was a shattering disaster. Disraeli would also have seen it that way; but, living his life without theory, he would not have been capable of proclaiming a place for it within "Britain's finest hour."

Grading the hour, producing the rhetorical flourish, and juggling the cloudy symbols of a high romance have never been considered the business of politico-military history. Its assured tone and style prove that other matters matter more to its historians. Unlike biographers, these are not committed to making a case for or against. They do not deal in mysteries. They hold their truths to be self-evident. They discuss power, not people. They hand down judgement from the bench. The opening paragraph of Sir John Seeley's long-lived guide to The Expansion of England (1883) flatly decrees that history's business is to concentrate on affairs of State. Accordingly, such countries as Holland and Sweden, sometime empires both, "might pardonably regard their history as in a manner wound up."

Social history works with people, not power. Its historians hand down judgement from the heart. They empathize with the emotions which motivate pleas from the jail, uproar in the streets, civil strife in the home. They don't issue pardons or believe that the people's history can ever in any manner whatever be wound up. (To Orlando Figes the Russian Revolution of 1917 is A People's Tragedy.) Social history emphasizes that neither the principles nor the practices of State law and government are engraved on tablets of stone, worthy of worship. No: including Magna Carta itself, they were concocted by men who had self-regarding purposes, not always clear but not hard to uncover, in mind. Its books treat power-politics as a disembodied natural force, working against the interests of the people.

Already the new Oxford History of the Twentieth Century (1999) has come under reviewers' fire for a) focusing on affairs of State; and b) for being very short both of social historians and of women. The basis of this criticism is that the historian as advocate, as the alumnus/a of a new, improved school, should be seen to fulfil his or her social duty: working pro bono. The jokes that constitute 1930's 1066 And All That still circulate, because all good jokes tell the truth; but more and more people are wanting to know why "all that" wasn't something else.

MY title here is adapted from the first sentence in L.P. Hartley's remarkable novel The Go-Between (1953). An elder tells the story how his elders carelessly trashed not only his youth but his life. "The past is a foreign country," he warns; "they do things differently there."

Things are done differently there because the things themselves belong to a different context. But it's not a foreign country: we need no visa to enter it. What the past is, is a colony. The colonial period of childhood, which is part of everyone's private sector, is there in its place and time -- the time before it was time to get up and out from under. Like every other colonial property, the past owns its deceptive depths. But we own the title<leeds to its surface. We hoist a flag to certify the legitimacy of our protective presence in that territory. Our historians range at will over it,; facts and its fields. They are our agents, commissioned to survey and classify here a feudal system, there an Age of Enlightenment, behind our backs a Cold War, its fears forgotten. No freedom-fighters oppose us, for everyone in that country is a ghost. One day we too shall be ghosts, but here and now we can impose our standards, in advance of "the verdict of history." So we borrow the gold braid and the goosefeathers from the colonial Governor's hat. So, who's in charge of the past? We are.

For now, that is. Not, from this moment on. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four Big Brother decrees: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Even for Big Brother, that's wishful thinking.

Yet the language spoken in that other country is our own. We aren't blundering around among incomprehensible strangers. We are not, as L. P. Hartley's storyteller describes himself, "a foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of the language but compelled to listen to it." We may only half-hear it, but we understand what these people are saying; it's what they're thinking which troubles us, how they converted thought into action How, we both want and fear to know, could these sane and civilized people have done, or allowed to be done, those short-sighted, those unforgivable things?

A sense of wonder is an asset to the historian. A state of bewilderment is not. And "the enormous condescension of posterity" (E.P. Thompson's phrase) does positive harm. Oscar Wilde told us that "any fool can make history; it takes a genius to write it." (He nominated no one.) His senior by six years, who out-lived him by thirty, was the politician-philosopher Arthur James Balfour, (d. 1930) who had his own angle on folly. In July 1920, bending a kindly gaze on a distinguished assembly of political scientists, Balfour as Britain's Foreign Secretary is inaugurating the Royal Institute of International Affairs, headquartered in Chatham House. He tells them:

There are people so cool and so indifferent in their political outlook that they are quite ready to study [politics] without a trace of passion or a trace of sympathy for the actors. They treat politicians as though they were beetles, and great communities as though they were bees.

They do indeed -- in the style which Thomas Carlyle, himself in passionate sympathy with such phenomena as Oliver Cromwell or the French Revolution, contemptuously labelled "dry-as-dust." Historians so inclined track after the travellers of the high imperial era, who reported with eyebrows raised on the customs they had discovered in the darker areas of Queen Victoria's "horrid abroad." These were, however, men who kept their sense of humour, itself keeping company not only with balance but with compassion.

The historical profession, like others, has a bias nobody lists as such: a bias towards order itself. Only when the elements of something have been arranged can anything be said to make sense. Zoologists tell us it's very hard to describe the behaviour of anything if you don't know what it is.

History's business, then, is to discover the way things were, and explain why. It's not a science, of course: how wrong those dwellers in the past, including their historians, could be! We, their condescending posterity, are both better organized and much more perceptive. So -- we proceed to set our own traps to fall into.

The routines of beetles and bees, being instinctive, are beyond criticism. And, surely, men plan better than mice. For we choose our routines. We may join a religious order, or (with friends at court) be nominated a member of the Order of the Bath. Error and surprise, constants in human history, are admitted to exist but never figure on anyone's agenda. To put them there would contradict our conviction (or is it only a hope?) that there is a rational explanation for everything under the sun. Pertinacity will triumph: see, for example, how the books seeking to explain Hitler already outnumber the books that explain Napoleon. That high priest of reason and common sense, the philosopher William James, warned against the lure of systems that are "all-inclusive, yet simple; noble, clean, luminous, stable, vigorous, true: what more ideal refuge could there be?" But no one can reach this paradise unless and until the real order of the world -- those random happenstances which James called "a collateral contemporaneity" -- are dispelled. "While I talk and the flies buzz," he says, "a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness, a man sneezes in Germany, a horse dies in Tartary, and twins are born in France. And what does that mean? It means that "it is an order with which we have nothing to do but to get away from it as fast as possible." And how do we do that? Why, says James, we do what we've always done: "We break that real order; we break it into histories, we break it into arts, we break it into sciences; and then we begin to feel at home."

SO, it is at home, then, no place like it, that all causes and effects form their patterns. In a quiet room somewhere, a writer can decide to fashion a history, a logical proposition, or a heartfelt sonnet -- although "Joy as it flies" will always bypass the manuals. Literature, Northrop Frye told us, belongs to a world that man constructs, not to the world he sees. Is history, then, merely a buttress for that structure? Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1959) recall how she learned history at school "as unquestionably as I did geography, without ever dreaming there could be more than one view of past events." Does she speak for many?

The reason why 99 per cent of what happens in the world never gets into the books at all is because no one had a motive to put them there, no case to argue concerning them. The subjective element -- from a schoolboy's essay on "What I Did in the Summer Holidays" to Edward Gibbon's view of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- is inescapable.

Along with 145 colleague, I have been pondering that element recently because the Oxford University Press has just published what it hopes, of course vainly, will be the final analysis of and the last word on the British Empire. That world-encompassing phenomenon is now, in the slang term, "history" -- or, as the next generation has it, "toast." Yet no sooner does a monument fall, or a Berlin Wall collapse, than seers and sages hitherto mute arrive to assure us they saw it coming. But this light is at best the yellow light of "proceed with caution." The wizard Merlin, you may recall, would immure himself for decades within a spider's web, or be last seen in the company of nubile witches, before emerging to utter his standard wisdom: "It is not as they have told you."

A contrary school of thought is disinclined to tell you anything at all, on the grounds that all statements about anything at all are invalid, and probably nonsensical, if they can't be verified. That's a bleak judgement, ruling out faith and hope and charity and much of history too. "At any given moment," A.J. Ayer decreed, "the truth or falsehood about an earlier event depends entirely on the evidence that may thenceforward be discoverable. Of course," he adds, "there are canons of historical evidence"; but he doesn't say he's sure what these are; and I'm not sure what he means.

Two things are certain about the past. We can't be there to verify it; and our perspective on it lengthens every day, indeed, even as we cross the room. That room expands; three generations have to share it. That there's a gap between them, sometimes a crevasse, is notorious. They inhabit separate psychological universes, and have different hindsights accordingly.

BUT sometimes, when the way things were is also the way things are -- like the way of an eagle in the air or of a man with a maid -- the gaps between the generations close, and hindsight serves no purpose. Here for example is William Howard Russell, in 1862 the foreign correspondent of The Times of London, underlining one such continuity on which we can rely as time goes by. He is reporting on the politico-military and the social dimensions of the American Civil War in his My Diary, North and South. "I am not aware," says he,

That any foreigner ever visited the United States who was injudicious enough to write one single line derogatory to their claims to be the first of created beings, who was not assailed with the most viperous malignity and rancour.

Across all gaps humour and common sense provide a better bridge than these.

Hindsight doesn't necessarily twin with insight. It depends on how well the historian has thought things through. Consensus on the imperial record is therefore rare. When power and weakness are linked by mutual incomprehension, what impact do they make? The publicized prospectus, based on the controllers' illusion of permanence, was always debatable at best. And the thoughts of the controlled, who had neither role to play nor script to follow, were and are still anyone's guess.

Social history goes to work on another terrain just as fogbound. Its verifiable dimensions are therefore also few. Power when in action at least makes it clear who's doing what to whom -- thus answering Lenin's question about the key to any political situation. And other questions arise. Are social historians too often afflicted with what David Thomson has called "under-doggery"? Do they obsess too much about "politically conscious minorities at moments of agitation"? Are male professionals sincere when they proclaim their profession's welcome for women -- that non-minority, that other half of the human race now doubling the available job-market? Is Gertrude Himmelfarb right to say history from below "threatens the survival of our intellectual inheritance by exalting the commonplace and demeaning the exceptional"? And even if she is, ought she to say it? We mustn't encourages elitism: yes, no? George Orwell thought the English people "a family with the wrong people in charge." Should we refurbish the family's history accordingly? Appease the past and its inhabitants by being contrite about their destinies? (Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has officially apologized for the origins, the administration, and the consequences of the Irish Famine of the 1840s). Then feel much better afterwards, and hope for full marks from posterity?

Each generation as it arrives to exercise its natural right to take the past in charge excavates new viewpoints and produces new questions. Finding new answers they produce new histories. Accordingly the historian's work, because it is "a venture of the personality," is never done. It's a matter of the proper awareness, the suitable perception, the correct stance. The three generations that are alive at any one time share space, but not context; and no context can long survive those who made it.

Providence now and then bestows its gifts on unregarded persons who send signals which soar beyond all gaps, becoming flares in the heavens of the future. In the 1840s both Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Engels, aware they were thought of as professional soreheads, diagnosed from different angles that cash payment was threatening to become the sole nexus of man with man -- Engels exclaiming at "the truly extraordinary conception of society" promoted by the English middle classes: "they really believe that human beings have a real existence only if they make money or help to make money!" And sixty years later even the imperialists were having third thoughts about their long-standing rose-coloured prospectus for the future.

England in the Edwardian era was governed by an establishment already ill-at-ease about their own and their nation's social and political security. Their trumpeter Rudyard Kipling had already startled the imperialist fraternity with the prophecy in his 1897 Diamond Jubilee poem Recessional that the British Empire's fate might one day be that of Nineveh and Tyre. (Kipling of course pulled himself together later, urging "Get you the sons your fathers got, and God will save the Queen.") A Blue-Water Dreadnought Admiral, no less, remarks that the superiority of Manchester and Birmingham soft-goods and hardwares "should not be accepted as a perpetual guarantee for Britain's permanent monopoly of the manufactures of the world under conditions of general disarmament." Lord Haldane, probing national education (a mandatory exercise each generation) insists that much more science is needed "if the close of the twentieth century is to find us still occupying the position which we now hold." For Leo Amery, "the very touchstone of Imperialism [capital letter]" is the defence of Canada. If we in England weren't prepared to defend Canada, "to put our last man into the field and spend our last shilling, all our professions of belief in a United Empire are mere verbiage." The shilling is spent, the Empire is gone ...

Meanwhile back at the Empire Club in Toronto in 1908, the Principal of McGill is thankfully noting that the Grand Trunk Pacific railroad, then nearing completion, "was sufficiently remote from the American frontier to render relatively small the risk of its being cut." He grieves a) that cheap American literature is flooding the Canadian market; and b), that French-Canadians, not being Anglo-Saxons, may never sincerely support the Empire. The journalist J. L. Garvin asks, "Will the Empire survive the twentieth century?" and decides he doubts it. We owned a quarter of the world, "but we are not more numerous than Americans or Germans, and we cannot safely believe we are more efficient." Disraeli's first biographer, W.F. Monypenny, ponders that the Empire might be "only a political organism in a certain state of decomposition." Still, it was hard to believe "that the long and splendid history of England was to end in purposelessness and disaster." Wasn't it?

Alfred Lord Milner, England's foremost imperialist, had emerged from post-mortems on the Boer War sure that the Empire could never flourish as it should while that dire and dragging condition-of-England question stayed unanswered - for didn't greatness and power ultimately rest upon the welfare and contentment of the people? The British population could not increase without declining in quality. (As Sir Kingsley Amis used to snarl, more means worse.) On a Canadian tour in 1908 Milner told Vancouver's Canadian Club that the last thing the Empire inspired in him was any desire to boast, wave the flag, or shout Rule Britannia. He was much more inclined to go by himself into a corner and pray.

Prophets need to be dead before they receive their due or their title; and all prophecy is, I suppose, a form of alchemy, born of imagination. Yet if this magic mixture could calm nervous imperialists in the immediate difficult past, perhaps it can still serve historians adrift in the indescribable present- whatever territory they survey, however churned its ground. That schoolboy, whose account of his summer holidays so signally fails to grip, need not despair; the proper prescription may still be obtainable. The fact that analysis is a continuum is no reason to prevent anyone from improving it.

I BEGAN by quoting two seniors of my generation who did just that. I end with another, who took a commanding, indeed a convulsive, grip on what ever he tackled. The late S.E. Finer -- "Sammy" to his host of colleagues and friends -- left behind a monumental three-volume 1,700-page opus, The History of Government from the Earliest Times (Oxford, 1997). Constitutional history is normally reckoned as a field too dry and too dusty to be irrigated by compassion, imagination, and wit; but Sammy Finer, one of life's originals, puts this poltroonery to flight by providing posterity with a vast map of the machinations that governed the past. There blows from that far country not only A.E. Housman's "air that kills" -- and there are plenty of those -- but a confident wind that stirs us first to chart and then to colonize the future as best we can, as our forebears did. For there's one thing about the future we can safely wager on: there, among our own kind, the sun will rise and shine upon no motivation that is new. Hear Finer as he instructs that

The best way to understand the way Stalin worked is in no wise to go to Sidney and Beatrice Webb's Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation [with or without the question mark], but to re-read Shakespeare's Richard III.

That's a bright lantern, shining equally upon all the paths which take all of us about our business. Call it insight. And -- as the examiners say -- discuss.
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Author:Thornton, A.P.
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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