Category Archives: history

02 Jan

How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?

“Do you need to be told that what has been can still be?” asked T.S. Eliot in his Choruses from the Rock (1934).

It seems a daft question which we answer emphatically, “Of course it can!” Not if you’re a Marxist though, for whom historical events are “inevitable.” So the communist revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the punishment of the capitalists will all happen necessarily, as if decreed by the laws of the Medes and the Persians.

There, I’ve gone and done it and mentioned the Persians and so the mind turns to thoughts of Iran. Could it be that Iran is about to present us with one of those historical surprises which Karl Marx said do not and indeed cannot happen? And, if so, might this happening be a bit of good news – perhaps even a lot of good news – for a change?

For six days, Iranians have been protesting in the streets of towns and cities right across the country and so far at least twenty-one people have been killed in these disturbances. It’s hardly surprising that the population is discontented and unhappy. The cost of living has more than doubled in a decade. Unemployment stands at 12.6% and, crucially, 29.2% among young people. The average wage is about £60 per week and the minimum wage £4 per week.

Censorship of the press is ubiquitous and strictly enforced in Iran – one of the worst countries in the world to practise as a journalist. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance decrees what music the people are allowed to listen to and which plays and other entertainments they can enjoy. Discos and nightclubs are illegal and when their location is discovered by the religious police, they are closed down. Women are jailed for campaigning for the ordinary liberties which are taken for granted in the West.

It didn’t use to be so thoroughly oppressive. In the days of the Shah, before the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iranians enjoyed a lively and varied cultural existence. The government spent lavishly on the arts. There was music and dancing with wine and beer in the cafes.

Then arose the puritanical totalitarian Ayatollah Khomenei to breathe Islamic fundamentalism. And the land grew grey from his breath.

After 1979, everything looked set and fixed, as nicely and as inevitably as any Marxist could wish for. But, just as 16th century Europe was revolutionised by the invention of the printing press, so today’s world has been radically transformed by the Internet and social media. Of course, the mullahs in that Ministry of Islamic Guidance try to control this new media.

But they can’t. And a new question arises in succession that the one asked by T.S. Eliot. And the new question is the one asked in the (probably banned) popular song: “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm now that they’ve seen Paree?” Thanks to the new media, the Iranians – particularly the 70% under thirty – have glimpsed something like Paree and they will not go back into the shadows of sharia.

So, as we see, nothing is inevitable – not even the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism.

No doubt the Israelis and the Americans are making all efforts to encourage the Iranians who have seen the possibility of a change for the better.

I do hope that our man in the foreign office, Boris Johnson, will lend all his weight to this cause.

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15 Jun

Hilary is bunk

You don’t need much in the way of wits to see through the phenomenon Hilary Mantel.

Her biographical novel Wolf Hall is a book only literal-minded and forensic. Its author tells us that every smallest movement of the plot was first checked against what could be discovered as the most accurate historical account. The result is not a novel but artifice, the literary equivalent of painting-by-numbers – a technique which surely pre-empted any reluctance on the part of the literal-minded judges to award Mantel the Man-Booker Prize. Mantel regards Cromwell, the plunderer of the monasteries, as a principled man and an idealist – but then her original idea of what constitutes a man of principle must be set beside her description to Sir Thomas More as “a fanatic.”

And now here comes the Great Dame again to give us the Reith Lectures on the relationship between history and fiction. She does not betray the reputation for fatuity which she first revealed in Wolf Hall. In fact she exceeds it, particularly when she begins with an astonishing remark concerning historical persons: “We can know what they did but not what they thought.”

If this were the case, we could know what Nelson had for breakfast on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar but we could never know that his battle tactics were dictated by his earlier thought: “I will sail my fleet in a straight course directly through the middle of the enemy’s lines of ships.”

But that thought is precisely what we do know. We can infer Nelson’s thoughts from his deeds. What we may be conflicted about is whether he had one egg that day or two.

Or again: we know what the Roman commanders were thinking before they sailed to invade us. They were thinking, “We can succeed in this operation.” Or they wouldn’t have come!

Nearer home, we can know that Dame Hilary Mantel gave the Reith Lectures because we have recordings of her giving them. We can also know that, some time before the lectures began, she thought, “I will agree to give this series of lectures.” And if we ourselves, give the matter more attention, we can come to know in more detail her train of thoughts as she was making up her mind to give the lectures, what she would entitle them and what she would say; and even why she would say what she did say.

We can learn the meaning of historical study from R.G. Collingwood who wrote: “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.”

There is a widespread and foolish notion that what we call history is the past in, as it were, a long stream of events going right back to earliest beginnings. This is delusional thinking for there is no such past. It exists only in the minds of present day historians as they think about the past.

Dame Hilary takes the forensic view of the past and forms of it a kind of museum culture. This too is delusional.

Collingwood again: “Nothing capable of being learnt by heart, nothing capable of being memorised, is history.”

Rather, history is our present thoughts about the doings of our predecessors. 

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