Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: http://viewfromtheside.wordpress.com/
My dog only has one direction, and that is forwards.
This is merciful; for when we are passing any of his sworn enemies I only have to shepherd him past them so that there is a clear road ahead, and he’s off. He simply never looks back: simple being the operative word. His rather binary approach to life serves him admirably.
Perhaps that’s why we get on so well, because I, too, tend to look ahead without bothering to archive or document the past. Its a habit which exasperates My Husband The Historian. He has a filing cabinet somewhere in his head which holds dates which stretch back to the day we met. His past is an intricate lacework labrynth of dates and detail. Mine is a blur, an impressionistic daubing with the occasional moment of vivid clarity.
I remember what I consider the important things. The landmark events, of course, but also the small details; what I wore; some boorish character who made me laugh; a chance happening which touched my life momentarily and left a strong impression.
I’m not sure my choice of archive material is objective. It is built on perception: how I was, that day, whenever it was, long ago.
Documenters of the past always have their own way of looking at things. A prism through which history is refracted.
Shakespeare wrote a series of wild propagandist fantasies about our cultural bogeyman, Richard III. He reinvented his appearance as a grotesque hunchback when contemporaries simply noted one shoulder higher than the other; he confirmed Richard a heinous murderer when contemporary accounts tell a very different story.
Yes: the Princes disappeared from the tower on his watch. Dominic Mancini, who left London in mid-July 1483, said the boys “were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper and day by day began to be seen more and more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether”.
But while they disappeared, no-one knows how or why.
Yet our picture of Richard is fixed: because the greatest English wordsmith was also an astute and politic player under a Tudor Monarch. He wasn’t about to uphold anyone who could pose a problem for the Tudor succession.
So Shakespeare daubed a view of history with the brightest colours, and no-one dared question him during Elizabeth’s reign.
He has fashioned a version of accepted truth.
Which is what, with ribald irreverence, two gentlemen undertook to do within the pages of that hallowed publication, Punch, in the years running up to 1930.
Oxford graduates Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman wrote an outrageous little work of comic genius called ‘1066 and All That’.
Parodying popular history books of the time, it is a laugh a sentence, a collection of comic pearls of great price. It shows how one can get history wrong with such engaging flamboyance that Middle England – including me – will flock to read it.
I will never be able to look at our ancient barrows in the same way after this:”The Ancient Britons were by no means savages before the Conquest, and had already made great strides in civilization, e.g. they buried each other in long round wheelbarrows (agriculture) and burnt each other alive (religion) under the guidance of even older Britons called Druids or Eisteddfods, who worshipped the Middletoe in the famous Druidical churchyard at Stoke Penge.
“The Roman Conquest, was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time.”
We are no nearer the truth with this parody than under the influence of Shakespeare’s expert quill. But by choosing the outrageous its authors gently test our understanding of how our history has been told.
When a writer, who has the ears of a nation, says it is thus: hordes of readers follow without question. This we have already established.
It falls to our friend Mr Orwell to take this to its extreme conclusion.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the state corners the market in writing.
‘Thoughtcrime’ is one of the greatest felonies. The faceless state chooses to assert its philosophy with three slogans: War Is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.
And because it is the only one with a voice, the State creates an obscene new truth. It is so, because everyone complies with this version. It seems it would be simple to brainwash an entire kingdom.
With the right voice – engaging like Shakespeare or strident as Orwell’s state – one can lead people to believe a lot of outrageous things.
Supposition and even falsehood can be enshrined in the layers of time: and all because we are not on our guard.
Orwell warns us how -when we take down our natural guard – truth is falsehood.
And ignorance is strength.