The Allure of the New

Everyone seems to want to make their mark. Every generation moves away in some form from the previous generation in fashion, in music, in social mores. It is a tragedy when art moves with fashion into fashion, when writers are published who have nothing to say except to their own generation; when artists are passing; sculpture destined for a future scrap-heap; the past belittled.

I hear now a scholar in Germany is saying 290+ years of the early Middle Ages are pure invention by a Pope and 2 Kings and the events in them actually never happened. It’s a beautifully conceited and stupid idea that supposes that kings have power over time. That personal memory accounts for nothing and family traditions throughout Europe could have been traduced to such a deceit.

The world is filled with people who want to rewrite history. With young people who want to make history. With people too shallow to think it worth studying.

We are all moving forward in time, that cannot be helped, but that does not mean we are moving forward in civil society. You can drive hundreds of miles in the UK and end up in a house that looks exactly like the one you left hours before. The history we don’t always want may be our futures if we don’t change the nature of our minds.

Everyone Has A Past

Though there is so much we cannot share. We read history and within a few hundred pages are fifty, sixty, seventy or more years. How long is the read? A week? How can our minds live so many years in so few days and understand each and every hour others spent living. The thoughts, the wasted time, the eating, the running, the learning and the working?

History has more facets than human character.  Can we see the skin tremble in a soldier, smell the salt in the hair of the sailors, feel bullets rip through our friends, conceive of the unbearable indignity of slavery, do we understand betrayal because we can read about it? And in all the charts we steer through past events we know what happened, we know how it turned out, we are not living it forward, nor for the first time, our perceptions are not those of the unknowing, unsure or untested.

Even our own pasts have huge gaps, that’s the way memory works. We can reconstruct events from what we do recall and what we know never happened, but we can reconstruct them in real time. We can even make things up and believe they happened.

But we can never know what it was like to be young before we were young, to be old before we were born, to die before we ever saw the night sky or were touched by the sunshine.

Junk History

I have not written a large amount of historical work but the scripts and plays I have done have been guided by my adherence to known history. Having just watched 300 and seen the ludicrous computer generated battles I smiled, but the speeches were next to awful in as far as they made the Spartans out to be fighting for democratic freedom. As the Athenians went to war with Sparta over the issue of Spartan dictatorship I find that stupid, and as Athens then subjugated Greece to their own form of supremacism I find the whole talk of Greece being the cradle of democracy somewhat flawed. In fact Athenian power is closely aligned to the methodologies used by the British to create and maintain their empire. There is democracy there but you have to dig for it.

I understand films are films but we have to remember how many people take their history lessons from films. How many Americans know that with the end of the Civil War and the opening up of the West some 80% of all cowboys were actually black Americans? How many people actually know that without the Russians America and Britain would have had to fight the Germans for another five years; that the D-Day landings would have failed because of the greater number of Nazis in the field?

We are too brash with our use of history to prove a point. And in so doing we prove only one point –  movies can be rubbish.

The Sweep Of History

I was talking to my friend Beverly in the USA today and for some reason began to explain British history from Alfred through to the Civil and the modern day from the point of view of British royalty. Taking in what makes kingship, what it is and the artificiality of the crown. Afterwards, and by no means accepting my interpretations were accurate, it occurred to me that every generation becomes a little more privileged than the last as we have become very good at preserving history and we can actually see trends, trains of thought, development of ideas and the creation of humanity’s society over thousands of years.

One cannot prophesy of course,  but it is interesting to note that early kings with the power of life and death at their command, would never have conceived of abdication in the ‘normal course of events’, but Elizabeth has said if the people request it she would go (not that we think for a second she meant it).

There is a process, and it is not always political though it reveals itself to us through the political system, whereby intellect is slowly evolving into the way in which we run our affairs. It is the difference between allowing the strongest man to run the tribe, to giving equal voice to everyone who wishes to speak. The two things are worlds apart but are conjoined by the threads of history. It is the way in which the natural fascism of society at its beginnings becomes ameliorated by socialist principals, how diktat become discussion.

And discussion becomes teaching.

New Generation, Old Style

It is very true when people say nothing changes. It is almost as if the great changes are so fundamental they happened a long time ago and now we are left with cosmetic changes that people think carry vast amounts of significance difference, which they do not. So the difference between the wheeled cart and an airplane is that of speed, not that of the idea that a human being can travel further than they could in one day just walking.

The huge differences, that of a hunter gather to a farmer and of a sudden realisation that scientific method can unravel what for thousands of years has been the unknown, have been taken.  Will space travel, floating cars, dual gills and lungs or other genetic modifications make any difference to who we are in the future?

There is one sphere of research that will make huge differences and no one can guess what they will be, though I am sure some writers are enjoying thinking about it. Brain research. Here we have a field of knowledge barely ploughed, and one that will go to the heart of everything we are. When they begin to make changes to our brains they will be making the first fundamental changes to the human beings since the emergence of settled tribes into countries.

I better get writing.

To Times Found

Every generation believes it is the first to have found love. To know what it is like to breath in and taste the modern world. But as my mother taught me long ago, everyone who has ever lived has been ‘a modern’. On the field of emotions and feelings and experiences nothing is, in fact, new just that we use different technologies to gain a  similar effect.

We can delight that mountaineers can talk to their families from high up on their climbs, but yodeling was invented centuries ago, pan pipes have been in existence for generations and both enable communication when ordinary speech would not suffice. Yes a mobile phone is different, and yet it is somewhat the same.

The feeling of finding out something new, that eureka moment, is the same across continents and eras; the freshness of new clothes is the same despite new materials or designs;  the feeling of attainment does not change whether it is a struggle to buy a trading vessel to cross a sea or a car to cross a continent. So much of what we experience has been experienced before.

That is why to dismiss reading about past generations blinds us, and limits our connectivity to who we actually are. The young boy longing to cross the Mediterranean to visit his father station in a Roman garrison in North Africa, is a longing inside every child for travel, parents and adventure. By seeing what tyranny was three thousand years ago, we can recognise it today. By knowing what moved people into nations five thousand years ago we can see it evolving in front of our eyes today.

No one can fool you, once you have learned from history what a fool is.

Classical Language

There is a tendency amongst scholars to ‘hear’ everyone in the old Empires of Greece and Rome, and even Egypt, speaking in pentameters or making lofty Ciceronian comments on the malaise of the times. A little akin to expecting our present day leaders to all sound like Shakespeare’s Henry Fifth.

Many years ago in Egypt amongst the usual mummified household pets they uncovered a crocodile inside of which had been purposely placed dozens of documents. The one that stands out for me was a letter written by a fifteen year old boy in Rome to his father or Uncle stationed in Egypt. The letter was filled with the enthusiasm of a teenager looking forward to travelling across the Mediterranean sea to see his relative and the fun time he was going to have looking at the sights.

It is wrong to imbue past generations with any greater depth of wisdom, any broader grasp of reason or any wider understanding of the ‘human condition’ and it is a mistake to think they were ‘less’ normal than we are today.  Moods and emotions have never changed and we understand more of the past by understanding ourselves than we do simply from reading about events.

To be able to visualise ourselves  sitting in the open toilet on the Pompeii Street whilst the towns population walked or ran or simply hurried by on their way to work, would make you a better historian than to know the date they all died.

History In A Word

My Latin master (I wasn’t very good) used to love the word magnopere (greatly) which rolled off his whiskey soaked tongue as he said it. Most any writer you choose to talk to, or anyone who works with words, will have their favourite sounds. But the true wordsmith loves dictionaries. They read them for pleasure and high on the list of best dictionaries are those that have the history of the usage of the word, derivation and quotes. These facts about a word, when it was first used, how, who by and from what origins it emerged into the language, are layers of meaning that enrich its usage. To know that a word like ‘simply’ or ‘nice’  is used today in a completely different way to its first sightings in English adds a piquancy to every use you make of it; like your secret language.

In exactly the same way science is teaching us about the language of the Universe and we are seeing things in very different lights to those of our ancestors. The layers of meaning run deep  and far and most exciting of all is that we seem to run with them.

Life is a language, and with every passing day we learn more about her words, their origins and how they came into being along with us. Its a wonderful dictionary to appear in.

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