Giving thanks today again for my ‘first love’, and for the wonderful fellow devotees and mentors who shared with me her joy and pain and subversive power of transformation. I am challenged too to return to the task.
Is there a ‘history gene’? There are days when I wonder: when I meet people who have little or no sense of the past, of the human story, of the beauty and siren song of Clio, the muse of history. Like someone who is musically, artistically, or religiously deaf or blind, they can function, sometimes much better than I. Perhaps they are indeed in some way fortunate, immune from Clio’s mischief and agonies. Yet they lack the ecstasy of her communion. They have little or no ex-stasis – no place to stand – outside the purely immediate, the merely commonplace, the simplistic assumptions of the present, so deeply shaped though these are by the past and its perspectives. They seem hidebound, for they are timebound. For history may indeed have created walls in which we humans are imprisoned. Yet the study of history can be a door to our release. Like a wondrous Tardis, we are whisked away within it to other places and other people, to the possibilities of fresh perspectives and to passionate, patient, peacemaking. As C. S. Lewis once wrote:
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion… the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age...
If there is a ‘history gene’, then historians are born as such and not just made. Perhaps that explains why my first memories of books are of history books, full of pictures and re-creations of the past. Some children collected stamps, or dolls, or postcards. My most heartfelt collection, alongside a stamp of the footballing great Stanley Matthews, was that of the Ladybird history series. The day I completed the set, with Joan of Arc, was like watching England win the World Cup all over again (yes children, believe it or not, that too was once historical reality and still the dream of repeat lingers on, somewhere). I dread to think now what white, male, Anglo-Saxon-centric emphases were therein contained, but it matters not. Like Biggles and Enid Blyton, they stimulated my imagination and led me into new worlds and perspectives far from their own.
Historians are however made as well as born. For there is no such thing as a ‘self-made man’ (or woman) in history as in anything else. In the study of history, we truly stand on the shoulders of giants, and we belong to a community, with all its rogues and clowns. Without our fellow historians, our mentors and our foes, we are nothing. So I honour the great ancient historians, and the chroniclers before them, on whose mighty frames we climb: from the Hindu sage Valmiki (‘father of all the historians in the world’), through Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, and of course, the Venerable Bede. I praise, for all their manifold faults and idiosyncracies, Gibbon, Macaulay and De Tocqueville, my first term Oxford companions. I give profound thanks for Voltaire, von Ranke, G. W. Trevelyan, R. W. Southern, G. W. Elton, (what was it with initials for English historians of a certain generation?) and all those who shaped the ground for my own feeble contributions. Even more I give thanks for those pioneers who challenged, and continue to challenge, the way we approach history, helping to transform our world in the process: men and women like Marx and Engels, Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon, E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, Gerda Lerner and Mary Ritter Beard, Henry Reynolds and Howard Zinn. History/herstory is always being made and re-made and the victors must never have the last word. For such as Blackadder’s creators I therefore also give thanks, for bringing history alive again in popular form, entertaining and yet disturbing, and leaving us with such pathos as that final Blackadder battlefield scene.
Above all, I give thanks for my teachers and mentors: for Bob Speck who taught me to love history as a struggle for freedom and our shared inheritance; for Mal Jones who helped me see history as all of humanity come alive; to Julie, Ken and Andrew, who so enchanted and encouraged; for Kenneth Morgan and for my Merton tutors, even for John Roberts in clouds of cigar smoke; for my friends Paul and Clive; for Ann and Sheridan; and for my greatest historian heroes of all, A. J. P. Taylor and Eric Hobsbawm. To Eric, I have to leave, almost, the last word. He reminds me again of the importance of history as vital to truth and life, and that all people have histories, even the poorest and most maligned. Indeed, in dis-membering our inherited assumptions, and in re-membering the poorest and most maligned, may lie our salvation. For why else, at the heart of the Christian faith and liturgy, do we renew the ‘subversive memory’ of an executed outcast in a far-off time? Eric above all challenges me to return to the task. For, as he wrote of the point of historians, speaking beyond the ‘history wars’, of why ‘Identity History is Not Enough’, whether on the right or on the left:
the major danger lies, not in the temptation to lie, which, after all, cannot easily survive the scrutiny of other historians in a free scholarly community… (but) in the temptation to isolate the history of one part of humanity – the historian’s own, by birth and choice – from its wider context… Unfortunately, as the situation in large parts of the world demonstrates, bad history is not harmless history. It is dangerous. The sentences typed on apparently innocuous keyboards may be sentences of death.
‘What is Truth?’ said Eric’s fellow radical Jew: that which ‘will set you free.’
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.