The following is the substance of a talk given at the Oxford Storytelling Festival, August 2018.
What is history? We often think of it as the past but more correctly it is a record of the past. It is what we are taught about the past in school and it gives us the known facts, the wheres and the whens. The Battle of Hastings was in 1066. For most of us, that is where history begins, but as we grew older we began to learn that stuff happened before 1066 and we perhaps went back as far as the Roman Invasion of AD43.
History is the work of literate societies. The Romans were literate; they wrote geography, biography, philosophy, drama, recipes – and history. They wrote the history of themselves.
The Britons on the other hand were illiterate and so we know nothing about them, other than what the Romans said, and that probably wasn’t true. As a novelist writing about the Romans invading Britain, I had libraries of material for one side and an almost completely blank canvas on the other. I didn’t even know the names for most of my British characters.
Britain was a prehistoric society. That is what comes before history, isn’t it? Pre-history? In fact prehistory and history overlap. Here in Britain they overlapped by hundreds of years: we don’t have the history of Romano-Britain or anything before the Anglo-Saxons began their chronicles.
There is a tendency in most of us, I think, to believe that, if it is written it is true. But is it? Those Roman biographies and autobiographies (such as Caesar’s Wars) – how true are they? Take social media as an example: the world divides between those hanging on by their fingertips and wishing to share their pain, and those who live a relentlessly idyllic life and demonstrate it with photos of restaurant meals, the darling child, the new horse. We all do it: project what we want others to see of us. We create our own image. As did those writerly Romans.
Even if you could get to the man himself (and twas almost always a man in them days), even if you could interview him, or interrogate him, does he even know the truth about himself? I suspect none of us do.
History, therefore, when it goes beyond the wheres and whens, is perhaps more will o’ the wisp than we might suppose.
Let’s go back to those illiterate Britons, our ancestors. Illiterate because they were stupid? No. They were illiterate by choice. The Druids ran memory schools and declared that writing would bring about the death of memory. We declare the same today, as we put our own memory on to sticks and hard-drives and, in my experience, it is indeed wrecking what powers of memory I have left. The memory schools of the Druidic bards held the history of the tribes, the genealogies, the deeds of heroes, the lists of kings, the wisdom of the elders told in stories. And some of those stories were very long indeed.
Given that I had such a blank canvas for them, I explored other cultures, some of which have come through from the Iron Age and beyond more or less unchanged. The strongest is the Vedic culture of India, and I came to understand the daily life of Druids by reading about the Brahmins and the holy men of the Himalayas. Something still practised in that culture today is the art of memory. A family will inherit the duty to memorise, say, an Upanishad. Each member will have a few verses for daily practice; at intervals, they come together to chant the whole Upanishad; annually they attend festivals where they meet others protecting the same scripture and check themselves against each other for any error of addition or omission. I think we can safely assume that most if not all the worlds great epics began as stories in the oral tradition.
As human beings, we have remarkable powers of memory which most of us have traded in for the easy life, leaving it to technology to do the memorising for us. And perhaps the technology will outlast us, as writing has outlasted the Romans. This tempts us to presume that history is a better record of our past than prehistory. But wait a minute…
Written history is not only biassed, it is prone to adulteration. It can be re-visioned, rewritten, to reflect the views of historians and the times we live in. We can even attempt to write something like the Holocaust out of history, as very many other genocides before it have been erased. The Armenians, who lost one and a half million people in 1915, are still fighting for the event to be recognised as having happened.
History is mortal. It will die. The young will turn away from it. The books will crumble to dust and blow away on the wind. After the Romans left Britain, we had a couple of hundred years of Dark Ages, so called because no history was written. They will come again.
I have always thought – in so far as I have thought about it at all – that prehistory gets forgotten while history forms our memory. I now realise I was wrong. It is the memory of the soul, folk memory as it is called, that lives longest and carries the wisdom of the ages. We are all a mongrel people. Those who actually know their roots tend to be amongst those newly arrived in these lands while those who have been here generations have a sense of mixed and moving lineages. We are all a bit of this and a bit of that. But occasionally we feel the pull of the past and cock an ear to an ancient song.
At the Oxford Storytelling Festival I went to a talk which, I thought, was going to be a tale about Mother Earth but the speaker, Mac Macartney, founder of Embercombe, began by saying, ‘There is a story about our past that is all but forgotten. It is the story of the genocide of AD60.’ The very story I am writing about, that I thought I was working on in isolation! I realised, listening to him, that it is a story now pushing to be told, and I am one of the tellers.
This is ‘prehistory’ still working today, and we know it when we learn to hear and obey our intuitions. History is like evergreen shrubs: it can be clipped into a desired shape, is vulnerable to changes in fashion and eventually will be grubbed up. Prehistory is the herbaceous border that dies down in the winter, giving the illusion of death. But then it comes again, and as you yourself emerge out of the ground, you look around and see your tribe, all coming up at the same time, pushing through to the light.
True memory is eternal. It lives, it dies, it lives again. Listen to its song in your soul.