This is a transcript of my first piece for the Pod Delusion podcast, back in May last year.
Right then class, settle down please.
Now, at the risk of making history unacceptably “relevant” and “accessible” to you all, I'd like to start off this session with a short creative exercise.
If you could travel back to any point in human history, to answer one question, when would you go and what would you want to find out? Personally, I'm as obsessed with the Tudors as the BBC seems to be, so I'd use it to discover what Queen Elizabeth I was really like and, in particular, ask what she thought of the possibility of using artificial insemination to produce future heirs to the throne. But I wouldn't - in fact couldn't - use it to complete my PhD in history any quicker. Not just because I work on Nazi Germany, and the risk assessment form for that trip would take months to complete.
There are many straightforward questions that we could answer with a time machine. We could find out for sure who or what killed the princes in the tower. With some very careful positioning we could establish if there really was a female Pope. We could park it on the grassy knoll and learn very little indeed about the assassination of President Kennedy. These questions are intriguing and engaging but they are not the sort of concerns that are central to academic history. Establishing “what really happened” is only a tiny part of what historical research is about. What really motivates the discipline is why things happened, and what effects this had. The gathering of facts can only take us so far in this. The real work lies in the interpretation of source material, and in writing this up as a coherent account which people can actually use.
When it comes to those really big events that every schoolchild (and all of you) should know about – the French Revolution, for example – sending a historian to observe things as they unfold would not produce a definitive, completely accurate history. One person can only do so much and what particular aspects they recorded would depend on who we sent back and what they thought was most important. The result would be just one more biased eyewitness account; more useful for learning about the historian's own mindset and priorities than those of eighteenth-century French citizens.
What really drives history are factors that can't easily be observed from the ground, and only emerge with hindsight: tensions between different groups in society, the ways that people measure success in their lives, generational conflict, the extent to which people trust authority; all of these have an impact on events, arguably more so that the “great men of history”. This, incidentally, is why I wouldn't use my turn at time travel to kill Hitler, or even send a robot assassin after his mum; you can pull down a lightning rod but it won't make the storm go away.
So maybe my future career as a historian is more under threat from time-travelling social scientists?
I'm still not worried, and not for boring, practical reasons such as the fact that time travel is, sadly, impossible. No, the final, crucial task of the historian, the task which is currently making me tear my hair out and discover new, innovative methods of procrastination, is the task of actually writing a history. Take something we have a lot of information on: the riots that took place in London in 2011. We could, from CCTV, camera phone and news footage, figure out pretty much the exact movements of everyone involved, and we could also interview them later about their motives. But how would we synthesise this mass of data into a manageable, useful account? Which parts are open to other interpretations? What's the actual story here? Does it lie in the events themselves or in people's reactions to them? What bearing might this have on future events, and what does all of this tell us about our society and how much or little we've progressed since the “olden days”? This is what the process of history research and writing is all about, and, as I've hopefully made clear, every resulting work of history has its own omissions and biases, and opens up a world of questions for the next wave of researchers.
And so class, that brings me on to your homework. If you could put together a time capsule to tell people hundreds of years from now about the London riots, what would you include? Would you go for camera footage, rolling news reports, police reports, witness accounts, or testimony from the resulting trials? Would you consider the reactions of people not directly involved to be at all relevant? Would you include newspaper opinion pieces from the weeks afterwards, or maybe from the one year anniversary? Would you go back to before August 2011 and include information on social tensions, race relations or maybe on modern consumer culture? Think through this properly and you'll have a better understanding of what's involved in the research and writing of good history than many of those responsible for the survival of the discipline.