Tuesday 16 September 2008

History- It's You

We think of history as being an exact science.

And I suppose in some ways, it can be. Archaeology is an exact science.

But the past itself, the way we generally look at it, is through the resonance of human experience.

I just got back from visiting my grandmother in the home. I find it relatively easy to converse with my grandmother. She's an open minded person in a way, perhaps, my own parents aren't. And I think that's mainly because she realises something that they haven't realised.

The gulf of history. The gulf of time and experience. She knows that the life I grew up with, the life that has been my everyday experience is one she does not share. She doesn't expect there to be shared values.

Modern life means that it is easier for myself and a Malaysian to see things from a similar angle than it is for our parents to find common ground with us. It's not culture that provides the real difference any more, it's time. The generation gap. Our parents have not realised how great the gulf is that separates us from them, greater even than that which separates them from their own parents. Our grandparents have, and they try to understand.

The pace of change. It ties you almost to your decade of birth.

My grandmother's teenage world was incomprehensible to us. No Nirvana, no furtive teenage sex, no cider, no pot.

My grandmother was born in 1922, nine days before the Dail ratified the Anglo-Irish treaty.
She grew up in a world where children really did walk the streets of Athlone barefoot. Where the average household kept guns, where rival paramilitary groups paraded with them in the street, where she was the eldest of seven children, and only five made it to adulthood and they weren't even a poor family.

Where girls who even kissed the boys were liable to be carted off to the Magdalen homes to be reformed.

Even the radio only came in 1936. De Valera's waspish tones on a handful of receivers, but even Dublin was a far off place, reached in a crock of rusty old iron, puffing its way past fields where farmers and their horsedrawn ploughs lived a life barely improved upon that of the survivors of the famine the island could never forget.

A world dominated by the power of the church and the shadow of the gun.

My grandmother remembers 1936. When the boys in their shiny shirts paraded through Athlone, rifles on their shoulders, off to fight for freedom and Holy Catholic Ireland. And they were cheered. They were cheered.
Athlone was a Blueshirt town.

She could not know then, no one could, that they day would come when Athlone kept quiet about the contribution it had made to the Spanish civil war.

Because history would frown on the choice it had made.

That is her Ireland. She lived Irish history. Angela's Ashes, that was her Ireland.

And her youth, her days of courting? The Blitz, wounded airmen, the relative freedom of even wartime blackout England as against the rigid censorship of the homeland. Dancing, alcohol, parties, meeting soldiers at dances- all so very innocent, we say.

But that's why I like my Gran. She's no fool. She doesn't think it was all that innocent, not really. She understands that we're the same people now that we were then. She understands, in a way our parents don't yet, that growing up in a different history, is like growing up in a different culture. She doesn't understand the world of today, she's a foreigner in it, but that doesn't mean she despises it. And that's admirable, I think.

Because my Gran doesn't even really remember Elvis. Certainly hasn't a clue who the Beatles were. She'd stopped keeping up with the times by then.

Fifties Britain, there weren't the mod cons. Washing clothes, meant washing clothes, not sticking them in machines. No supermarket, so doing a weeks shopping was a mission in its own right.
Life was less convenient. You had your fun, then got married in your late twenties and settled down to grey drudgery.

The politicians she remembers are Anthony Eden and Nye Bevan.

And those to me are historical characters.

But it makes me think.

Because when I talk to someone even seven years younger than me, there is still a slight generation gap.

When I watched Bond films as a child, there WAS an 'evil empire'. Say Romania to me, I still think of secret police and people disappearing at 3AM. Because when I first asked what the Iron curtain was, I was told about all these funny sounding places where life was lived in a constant state of fear.

Margaret Thatcher to me isn't a figure of history, until I was twelve she was the only PM I knew. When I was a child the royal family was still the model family.

None of these things are so for a twenty three year old. Hungary is just the country next to Austria. They don't look at the map and see where the Iron curtain used to be, as I do. To them, divorce and scandal are normal where the royal family is concerned.

And music. To me there is still a certain distinguishing line between the music that used to play in your head as a child, the music that existed in the todays of your past and the music which was always past to you. John Lennon is someone I discovered, but I can remember actually seeing Toyah on Top of the Pops.

And the other things you forget. You look back at eighties TV and think how DIFFERENT it all was. You forget that you were alive then, this is history you lived in.

And yet it seems as far off to someone just that little bit younger, as far off as those things you firmly consign to history, because you don't remember them.
Like the Vietnam war.

But I remember how hard it was as a child to dial a phone number- I had to be taught how to use that complex, irritating device that was the rotary phone.
Can someone of twenty three really understand that at age seven, it took me about five minutes to dial my mother?

That little items we take for granted, weren't the norm.

We had a fridge, but no freezer. No dish washer.

And it amuses me to look back at all those things my Dad swore blind we'd never get. Things that were a waste of time- things that turned people into the living dead. The video recorder, the home computer. TV was bad enough, actually just going and getting films without waiting for them to come on, that was a slippery slope. And computer games, really, he had no time for them.

I wonder if he remembers, as he plays Desert Storm on his wall sized plasma screen TV, standing next to the shelves and shelves of DVDs.

I doubt he does.

Someone seven years younger than me cannot remember that it's not so very long ago you could turn on the TV at 3AM and just get a blank screen on two out of the only four channels available. And the other two just had education programmes for schools.

That even when I was at uni, hardly anyone had a mobile phone.

Social shifts too. I was a teenager when they were pushing through the change in legislation to lower the age of homosexual consent from 21 to 18. And as a teenager, I thought the idea disgusting. I never thought that one day not only would there be an equal age of consent, but how much homosexuality would have moved into the mainstream- and that I myself would approve.

I went to school in a class where it was still whispered 'Her parents are divorced' never mind if they weren't even married. Admittedly, I went to a Catholic school so it perhaps wasn't representative, but I imagine that today, even in a Catholic primary school, these things don't matter.

The sum of your experience does make a huge difference. I don't actually believe time speeds up as you get older- it's just that each year itself becomes a smaller and smaller fraction of your total memory. It creates an illusion. In time your total experience grows so individual parts get less and less. Time was when President of America could only really meant Ronald Reagan. Now I've lived through three others, and a fourth is about to join my memory.

The day to day experience of a schoolchild is becoming something further and further from my comprehension; soon, school-life will be something culturally inaccessible to me. It probably already is. How can I understand a school life where kids have mobile phones and I pods?

I bounced around Class One singing 'Cry just a little bit' by Shaking Stevens. I played with Transformers. I played Granny's Garden on the school's ONLY BBC Micro.

I watched the fall of the Berlin wall on TV, but still couldn't grasp the idea of a united Germany. United Germanys were things we went to war against. The two Germanies were, and always had been different countries- to me.

I was a voter myself before I ever saw a Labour government voted in.

I can remember the early days of Dance Music and the E-revolution.

I bought Music for a Jilted Generation the day it came out.

Yet I don't remember John Lennon's death, or the Falklands war.

It's history. It's the experiences you lived through, the shared societal experiences that shaped your values.

Our parents don't quite get us, because they don't see we were born when the social changes they lived through; the sixties, the ending of segregation in America, the sexual revolution, it was already history when we came to be.

And they look in horror at our equivalents.
And we'll misunderstand our children too.

Because though our generation don't think gay people should be discriminated against, we remember that they were. Our children won't. They'll know it once happened, once. But they won't remember it.

And they will challenge barriers in our tolerance, will accept changes which will shock us.

The internet will be something that always existed. The Soviet Union as historical as Hitler, perhaps the War on Terror looked back on by them as our generation see Vietnam.

It is the generation gap now, the gap in memory and experience.

When race, gender and sexuality have gone as divisive barriers between us, the pace of social change now erects a new one.

The barriers of comprehension. The new identifier; What do you remember? What experiences shaped you?

Because it no longer matters your creed, or your colour, or your gender, the things that unite us far exceed what divides us.

But our memories, that's what now divides us.

Because all those other things, we now discover, matter far less when we thought.
But when you were born, that does.

We are not divided into nations, but generations.


Anonymous said...

The older I get the faster time passes.

It passes so fast that nothing ever seems to change and it seems as though there isn't time enough to change anything.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Crushed, but I don't think you ca generalise on what divides us: for some it is nationality, for others it is age, and for others it is language in the Ionesco sense.

Anonymous said...

:) aware that I am sometimes considered cruel - especially when I am writing:
Yes. I do not always agree with you, sometimes I'd find you too 'preachy' (which is why I would not comment very often), but this one - this post is/was a remarkable one.
Welshcakes is, 'of course', right, but I think in this very post nothing has been generalised. One cannot mention everything in one post, hm? :)
Therefore, here's the second hat I am lifting: Chapeau.

The peace of the night.

Anonymous said...

Gran sounds awesome. What a great source to absorb history from. I've long mourned the marginalization of the elderly in my society and the terrible absence of the passing down of stories. When I read historical writings I know damn well that almost nothing bears reliable objectivity but these perspectives, even if flawed, bear useful global ideas and evidence regarding human nature so there is still much I can take away from them. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Great post Crushed. I'm in one of those thinking moods too....

I love history from lots of different eras. I think I find the one's that most resonate with me ( something about a person or their writing or a picture or image and I read all I can for a while about that one period in history)

I always remember this saying though:

people are people are people.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

This reminds me I should go visit my grandmother. When she goes she takes an incredible wealth of knowledge with her. She says she is writing it all down for us now, which is reassuring. She's a genius.

History is also told by the winners, which skews our knowledge severely. I just read a great book called 'We Were Not the Savages' by a Mi'kmaq writer named Daniel Paul, giving a very different take on European contact with Chebucto, now Nova Scotia. Next on my reading list is a book called 1491, another look at what life in the Americas was like before columbusity, as Neil Postman put it.

Anonymous said...

Bunny- I think it is an illusion. It's just we have more of it sitting in our memory banks. Kind of like inflation.

I was thinking the other day how I see the UK consituencies.
The first election I followed properly was 92. So in my head the 92 result stays in my head as the normal result.
Everything else is a 'change'. And what things were before 92, is history.

And that does affect my perspective. For example, in the Scottish elections the one result that kind of staggered me was that the Tories won Roxburgh and Berwickshire. why is that shocking? Because in my mind I see the electoral map of 1992. Since then, the Tories have lost seats from that map and sometimes regained them. That was the first time they'd won one that wasn't blue on that map.

Crewe and Nantwich is the second case.

I can't escape from seeing the 92 result as being the 'normal' election result and the holders of each seat then as being the natural holders of the seat.

Welshcakes- But I don't think those divisions matter as much. We;ve lived in the same time frame, if from different perspectives.

Take a simple thing. The Moon. How you see the Moon doesn't on any factor other than whether when you were little the idea of people landing on it was way out there over the top science fiction, or whether it happened long before you were born.

Did you go the Cinema and hear the National antem being played as earnest silted newsreaders talked of the 'Empah', or were your earliset memories of the news showing you stealth bombers?

And even the most tolerant 60 year old still sees people of other colours as essentially belonging to other parts of the world. They remember when it changed, so they can never escape that.

Our children may never stop to ask. Many of them will grow up perhaps not realising that there was a day when diffrent coloured people actually lived in different places.

Sean- I can be prone to be preachy, I guess.
I think people often find it unusual that I have some rather extreme views on social issues, but at the same time I guess I can often adopt a holier than thou attitide with regard to some positions.

At least I can se it myself and put my hands up to it :)

This subject hs kind of been on my mind though as we face the possibility of the pace of social change accelerating further and the numbr of living generations increasing. A three generation society is now becoming a four- five even- generation society.

FWG- My Gran isn't always objective. It's only my own knowledge of Irish history allowed me to correct some of her (subconscious perhaps) alterations.

For example, in my Gran's version, the soldiers were off to fight for the Republicans. But she desribes the uniforms of the Blueshirts. Which of course, makes more sense.

Likewise, in her memory the family hero, the Great Unk, as he was called, took the Anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil war.
He didn't, I'm sure. Looking at what she says between the lines, he wore the green uniform of the Irish Free State.

Which also explains why he was sidelined in the thirties.

Kate- I guess I do, but I find some periods more interesting than others. I find most Irish History interesting, but most especially the two 'troubleses'. 19-22, and the last days of Stormont.

Like yourself, I tend to do topics to death- once they excite my interest I'm stuck in them for ages. Anglo Saxon england and the Byzantine Empire were two that facinated me for a very long time indeed.

Projectivist- Cheers! :)

Benjibooper- Interesting point, actually.

I once thought of doing a post on the Chimu.

Who the Chimu, you say?

Well this is the point. The Chimu ruled a vast empire in the Andes until conquered by the short lived Inca Empire in about 1370.

The Inca Empire really was short lived. Just luckily for its chances of surviving into our consciousness it was the one that was there when the Spaniards showed up.

The Chimu are forgotten because they weren't around when the Spaniards came.

Its worth noting as well that Europeans brough Smallpox with them which it is suggested kiled off about 80% of the native population of the Americas betwen 1500 and 1600.

This had most notable effect in the Eastern regions of what is now the USA, it killed off native cultures and actually caused their societies to decline.

The evidence suggests that in 1600 the Cherokess actually lived in cities as advanced as the Aztecs did.

But by the time Europeans found them again, they were what we now remembr them as.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you think too much, lol.

I think you might have been trying to use the wrong feed (easy to do as there are a number of them on my page). The proper one is underneath the butterfly on the lower right of the page.

But anyway, to the post. History isn't a science really. For example, scientists work on the basis of being able to reproduce events and so forth under certain conditions, whereas historical events can never be reproduced nor even proven. They have to be judged as genuine or not on a balance of probabilities. For example, how can we prove the Battle of Waterloo took place? We can't, but we know of the enormous witness testimony, the archaeological remains at the site of the battle, and the subsequent effect it had upon European history which wouldn't have occurred otherwise. So, on a balance of probabilities we accept it as true.

Same with archaeology. That isn't a science either. They gave up trying to establish it as one back in the early 90s when they decided the there could be no such thing as a law of cultural development, and which was the only thing that would have drawn archaeology into the fields of science. Although you can get a degree in science with archaeology it is more to do with the scientific subjects being studied alongside it e.g. chemical analysis, carbon- dating, spectrum analysis, and all sort of other things from the field of physics, chemistry, and biomolecular science.

Incidentally, psychologists [we are so too a science so there] are looking for the law of cultural behaviour. Cultural behaviour and cultural development are two sides of the same coin, can't have one without the other. One day psychologists might actually admit it isn't a science, and I live in hope, lol.

Your post reminded me of one of my great aunts who only died four years ago at the age of 103. What a life she'd had. The eldest of seven children she and her sisters used to wander the streets carrying a bucket between them looking for lumps of coal to take home for the fire. Their parents died when they were all still young and they ended up in the workhouse (workhouses didn't end with the Victorians). As an adult she went into service, worked in Switzerland for years, and was paid the grand sum 13 shillings and 8 pence a month, lol. About 65p in todays money.

Anonymous said...

I love this post :-)

Also sorry I am not keeping up with my comments very well, just so busy and tired!

Anonymous said...

I have been rather busy this week and somehow missed this post and the one about Miles.

This is one of your best posts ever in my opinion. I just wish it could be seen by a wider audience. I was going to use your US presidential post for the BP roundup but now I have seen this one I am changing it.

As Sean said, hats off to you, but don't go getting big headed from the praise.:-)

Anonymous said...

Ginro- Hm. Still couln't find it. Never mind, as long as the list of blogs I need to remember aren't there is tiny, it doesn't pose a problem. It's just I've become a convert to being able to log on and have the modern equivalent of the papers delivered :)

I don't know about History being a science. In a sense, yes it can be, because although- as with natural- history evolotion doesn't necessarily move upwards, human culture DOES evolve following certain laws, in other words something is only possible due to its contect in time.

I had this argument with someone once on which bwas the real history, what actually happened, or what we believe happened.

For example, it is not true that a grandson of Aeneas founded a city called Troia Novant on the banks of the Thames in 1123BC. Nor did a line of Kings stretching across a thousand years including Lear and Cymbline rule over this island.

But at one time, it was accepted as true. The effect that false history had on culture cannot be underestimated- after all at one time the model British ruler, the greatest we ever had, apparantly, was one who may never have existed- King Arthur.

And of course the present Swedish King is Carl XVI, though Swedes probably like to forget that Carls 1-VI never existed at all.

Psychology as a Science...

Probably not at this stage. I find some of it's concepts a little wooly to the say the least. Some seem to verge almost on supersition.
Jung, for example.

And when they start talking of the unconscious mind. By definition, the concept is misleading- a mind that has no mental properties- why nort call it what it is, the organic processes that underpin thought, but are not in fact, thought?
Or is that going too far in accepting that the mind isn't a mystical entity but a set of nerve ending and chemical fluids?

It made me think when that French woman died- what was ashe 125?

It got me thinking, I'm sure she was born in the last days of the Franc-Prussian war. So she would have been past her youth when the Great war broke out.

Now say that when she was young she'd known an equally old woman...

That woman would remember the French revolution and Napoleon.

It really does reinforce to you thow we all are part of history.

CherryPie- It happens :)

Don't work yourself into the ground!

jmb- I think it's been a week for variety..:)

I think it's a theme of touched on before, certain;y its a concept that interests me, expecially with the pace of change.

If it wasn't for the fact that the generation gap will essentially always be (one presumes) a continuum rather than discrete, than one could see it becoming the key divisor.

Then again of course, it's possinle that if in the far future reproduction ever did become 'Brave New World' style, than that would change.

Glad you liked it anyway :)

I guess the Presidential one might sem a little partisan for some members- don't get me wrong, but I have a sneaking suspician that if BP was a state, it would vote for McCain...

Anonymous said...

Actually, you are right, BP is definitely a Republican "state" on the whole, but since I am a "Democrat" myself I have chosen posts about the US election which do not support McCain.

It has been an interesting week here and you got the hats off gold seal of approval from one who rarely bestows it and this post definitely resonated with your commenters.

It is sad to see someone give up trying to keep up. I saw it happen with my mother who could not even figure out her new iron when she had to buy one. Now with technology so advanced many more are forced to do give up and don't enjoy the wonderful advances we have.

I bought a new iTouch the other day and it came with a tiny get started manual. Now I have had an iPod for a few years but did not realize what a jump this one was. A younger person would have just played with it and explored but for me a manual was essential so I had to find and download the 120 page online one and peruse it laboriously and then I was away. How long will I be able to keep up before I find it just too much effort? I'm not looking forward to that day.

Anonymous said...

BP is DEFINITELY a Republican state...:)

I think I'm just less stressed these days. Better able to think in straight lines.
There was a time when most thought processes ended in a tortured wince...

Especially vis a vis writing posts.

My Gran has adapted to the times in funny ways.

Here's an example.
When I was a late teen, I often used to move in with my Gran, life being a lot easier there.

I remembr once she asked me 'Do you smoke Marijuana in this house?'
I said 'No, not in the house.'

She asked me again'Do you roll your funny stuff in your bedroom and smoke them in the garden?'

I said 'Yes.'

She said 'Ok, I thought so. As long as I know.'

Liberal, you'd think.

But not when it came to girls staying the night...
She really did think the neighbours cared.
I used to do it as a fait accompli, sneak them in and then Gran would find them joining us for a fry up the following morning.
But she didn't like it, not at all 'People can see her car her leave. it's obvious she's spent the night. It's just not DECENT.'

I found it interesting, even then.