Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Out of the frying pan into the fire

Most of my working life has been spent in the City of London, a place steeped in history. To clarify what I mean by the City of London it’s what known as ‘The Square Mile’ the original City of London not the sprawling mass it has become today. The City of London or as it is known ‘The City’ is today one of the leading financial centres in the world not surprising given that for many centuries it was a thriving and important commercial and trading centre; even the Hanseatic League had a base there at one time.

My association with the City goes back to the time I was born my late father also having worked in the City and there’s not a street, the origins of whose name I couldn’t tell you about, like the fact that that Cannon Street has nothing to do with artillery but candles. I do feel it a shame at times given the hustle and bustle that so many in the City seemed to be unaware of the history that faces them at every street corner.

Not that my working life had anything to do with history more to do with the future my second career following a short spell of domesticity being global financial intelligence which I came by quite by accident, a former colleague of my late husband had set up in GFI and was looking for someone with language skills; yep I’m one of those Brits who speak more than English, eight if you include Latin. Not that languages are all you need but they are a very big +; what are essential are a rhino-like hide, gritty determination, ability to work unsocial hours and under intense pressure, patience and if possible overwhelming curiosity. It’s a real cut-throat business; one has to be accurate and current if one doesn’t want the financial gorillas on one‘s back and better and quicker than one’s rivals. It was a bit of a grind at first but then the Internet came along and with more and more organisations setting up websites the data became easier and quicker to obtain.

From the start I was hooked; for me it was like Santa Claus turning up in June. Internet junkie c’est moi but coupled with lingual ability and that curiosity it helped me considerably. Not that I forgot my passion for history, my best subject at school, but working to tight deadlines and sometimes up to 12 hours a day and weekends left me little time for anything else.

Then came the day as it comes for all of us when one logs off permanently and a few months ago I became a lady of leisure and able to move into history full-time. I thought with all the work experience I had that it would be a piece of cake. How wrong I was!

Friday, 4 September 2009

History is Bunk (2)

The foray into Google produced a number of articles with ‘History is bunk ‘ as their theme, all of them warning about relying on tradition and historical inaccuracies particularly in the matter of old grievances and resentment that has festered for years, maybe centuries.

One case where resentment is high is Armenia formerly one of the USSR republics and a fraction of the size it was a century ago, having lost much of its territory to its western neighbour Turkey, also held responsible for the great Armenian genocide that took place during the First World War. It doesn’t get on at all well with its eastern neighbour Azerbaijan either, the two having warred on and off over territory for quite some time. I know all about it from a former colleague who is Armenian.

Another case where centuries-long pent-up resentment finally burst is Serbia following the break-up of Yugoslavia, a good case or should that be a bad case of how past grievances are used as the causa belli. The Serbs who are of the Orthodox faith have for historical reasons not much time for either Muslims or Croats (Catholics) given the brutal regime of the Ottomans to whom they lost out in the battle of Kosovo (1387) and then in the Second World War to those Croats who collaborated with the Nazis. No surprise then when the break-up began the Serbs decided to get in first and settle some old scores and the rest as they say is history. As one commentator summed it up as ‘ So let’s treat history as it is - the past. It’s gone forever unless you reject the linearity of time. Let the dead bury their dead. Even tragic history should be a matter of quiet meditation but never used for a vendetta’.

The Serbian vendetta also features in another article on the same theme, which looks at falsification of history and the rewriting thereof following the current trend for political correctness. ‘History as bunk is bad enough but history as lies is dangerous. History is not bunk but it should also not be inaccurate, misleading and over-selective in viewpoint and presentation’.

The dangers are obvious: left unchallenged long enough and people will begin to believe what they read or see on the screen and in time become fodder for those who wish to foment trouble, have axes to grind or ‘grievances’ to exploit for their own ends. Historians, therefore, have a duty to behave responsibly bearing in mind the comment of American historian Henry Adams ‘ The historian must not try to know what the truth is if he values his honesty; for if he cares for his truths he is certain to falsify the facts.’ Tell me about it!

I don’t know which historian irks me more, the biased or the prejudiced. Suffice it to say I care for neither. I don’t care either for those who get so caught up in their grievance that it turns into a vendetta. There’s enough of that flitting across our screens as it is.

So here’s my quote for what it’s worth ‘A good historian should be like a good detective able to assemble the facts without taking sides or becoming emotionally involved.’

Thursday, 3 September 2009

History is bunk (1)

As Henry T Ford once said ’History is bunk’. Like Voltaire that’s not what he actually said, what he actually said was ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition and we don’t want tradition’.

I really am beginning to tire of the inaccuracies and false reporting but I’m not sorry I checked up on the quotation itself because it led me to discover others on the subject of ‘History is bunk’ and four in particular that sum up my current feelings if not towards history then historians and authors of historical fiction.

But first let’s start with Henry who added to his comment with a somewhat plaintive cri de coeur ‘As a young man I was very interested in people’s lives, how they got from place to place, light their homes and cooked their meals. So I went to the history books. I could find out all about kings and presidents but nothing of their everyday lives. So I decided that history is bunk’. He’d be a happy man now with so many TV programmes and books galore devoted to social history but not so some historians who complain that the pendulum has swung too much the other way.

It would seem HTF had a point about tradition; tradition or traditional tales can be dangerous if we believe them to be the truth. One of the great heroes of the UK is Robin Hood, about whom there has been films and TV programmes a-plenty and his heroic fight against the rich and powerful but very little evidence to prove that he actually existed. Try telling that to the people of Nottingham. Or Yorkshire where many claim our Robin were a Yorkshire lad. And no doubt as one philosopher might have said. ‘ If he didn’t exist, we’d have had to invent him’.

Whichever version one chooses it’s a good rollicking yarn about the put-upon young man determined to bring justice to those in a time – according to the tale – when even Magna Carta did not exist. ‘Feared by the bad, loved by the good’ as one TV series had it. Robin the good guy. Robin the people’s hero. Robin the guy who stands up to the bad guys, the oppressor, the foreign invader. Every country it seems has its own Robin Hood or variant thereof, the folk hero; such people can be found even in religious or semi-religious texts like the Bible or the Ramayana.

And yet all is not as it seems. Real medieval outlaws were seldom the good guys either and they could hardly be described as ‘merry men’ either having to live on their wits and life a hard battle for survival; being merciful was not an option. The earliest records speaking of ‘Robin Hood’ or ‘Robert Hood’ are in fact Court records and the earliest tales were oral which change or adapt or get added to or embellished as they pass down the generations. At the moment there’s not much danger with the tradition of Robin but what it if were to be hijacked as the ‘causa belli’ (the reason for war) in order to settle a grievance?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Coming next

'History is bunk' How the historians got it wrong even about Henry T Ford

Out of the frying pan into the fire or from one minefield to the next

Voltaire and the right to disagree

‘I may disagree with what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it’

There’s some disagreement as to whether Voltaire actually said that but there does exist a letter he sent to a French cleric that he particularly detested expressing something very similar. Whatever it’s a sentiment that we would all do well to bear in mind in a world where day in day out the right to disagree or express an alternative or contrary view is trampled on, be it by governments, be it by authorities, be it by organisations, be it by an individual and the right to protest also seems to be suffering the same fate. Time and time again passions have been so aroused that the disagreeing of the right to disagree has erupted into violence.

I don’t care much about abortion or hunting and the jury’s still out on animal testing but I don’t see how I could even pretend to hold the high moral ground if I were to subject those with whom I disagreed to physical or psychological abuse. Is injuring a hunter, his hound or his horse or killing a doctor who carries out abortions or harrying those who have them really the right way to express one’s disagreement? Whatever happened to civilised debate and discussion?

Those who govern us should be setting an example but every time I watch Prime Minister’s Questions I despair. In the matter of politics it seems point-scoring is the order of the day and what worries me even more is how the UK government (and others) are using the war on terror to curtail or even stifle protest. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who think that publicly embarrassing the authorities by publicity stunts of one kind or another is the right way to go about it; little do they seem to realise how much they play into authorities’ hands and endanger those freedoms that took centuries to secure.

My grandfather once told my mother. “If you want to keep your friends, never discuss politics or religion’ – for obvious reasons I steer clear of both, though I have to concede there are times when even I get really angry particularly when I feel the disagreements are petty yet there are demands for censorship. No one has any right to impose his/her beliefs on anyone else directly or indirectly or scream blue murder – and sometimes it doesn’t stop at screaming - when others take a contrary stance.

Politics and religion, global warming and going green, protests aimed at seeing one or other injustice resolved, all accompanied by propaganda and claptrap, are all obvious minefields but who would have thought that about history?

Monday, 3 August 2009

Face to face with the Daughter of Time

Why do we humans have such an angst about the truth? Why would we rather do the three monkeys' act than gracefully accept ' It's a fair cop Guv ' or in this case 'Ma'am'? Why rather than face up to DOT would we rather bury our heads in the sand or worse cover up? Why is truth always the first casualty of a war?

OK OK so none of us like to lose face and the higher up it goes, the worse it gets but when are we going to realise that our refusal to accept that we got and can get it wrong is going to be or could be to the detriment of our fellow human beings?

Some years ago, partly because of a Catholic education and partly because of having to wade through 'Paradise Lost' at school it suddenly struck me that the real root of all evil is love of power. After all the rebellion in Heaven was about power not money and I feel that the mistake about money is perhaps due to the failure to realise that extreme wealth is one of the ways of exercising power and still is. Moreover those who wield it so hate to find themselves caught out; there seems to be this thought that losing face equates to losing power.

These days it's the financial corporations that exercise the financial muscle and don 't care for anybody that dares to rain on their parade as I know only too well having taken them on not only of behalf of myself but others as well and time and time again have been caught out by what I term 'the corporate lying' and who have learnt the hard way not to treat those who provide for their upkeep as complete morons.

Same applies to ideologists/idealogists when it comes to being confronted with those considered 'heretics' or 'apostates' Sorry but I don't agree that the best way to save one's beliefs is by savaging those who disagree or in any way take a critical stance and how does attacking dissidents help to hold the moral high ground assuming one is holding it in the first place? Over to you Monsieur Voltaire.

Friday, 31 July 2009

There are those who look but do not see.

There are those who hear but do not listen.