When I was at school, history was taught alongside Maths as an absolute: ‘Two and two make four, and Merry England won the war.’
(Sorry America. Sorry Russia.)
For much of my life since my schooldays, I’ve made my living writing epic adventure stories based in the past. What it has taught me is that there is absolutely no such thing as history.
In fact, read ten different authors writing about the same event and you’ll find ten different versions of history and none of them will be right. None of them will be wrong either.
When I wrote a book called Aztec, it caused something of a furore in Mexico because it challenged the conventional history of the conquest. My critics didn’t dispute the facts, they just didn’t like how I interpreted them.
Was I wrong? Was I right? No one can ever know.
Because history is like smoke. It’s there, but you can’t hold it and anyway it keeps changing its shape. History is just a point of view. We all have differing views on current events so how can we all possibly agree on what happened in the past?
The events of these last few weeks have certainly demonstrated this.
It’s not just statues coming down. Gone with the Wind has disappeared from HBO Max. HBO said the movie was a product of its time and depicted ‘racial prejudices that were wrong then and wrong today.’ People didn’t see anything wrong with it back in the day; in 1939, it won 10 Oscars and people queued round the block to watch it.
History hasn’t changed. The present has.
In my own country some pubs have now banned a very fine beer called Colonial Ale, because of its name. In the UK, an episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’, was taken down by UKTV because of its racist undertones (even though the show was actually poking fun at racism).
Human instinct is to erase a painful past. But does that also mean we actually learn from past mistakes?
There’s lots of things I wish I could erase from my own past, like the time I helped a mate of mine shin up the school flagpole, take down the Union Jack and replace it with a bra. We thought it was hysterical at the time.
Now it’s just mortifying.
Later on, in my twenties, I used to tell jokes that I thought were absolutely hilarious: now I’m horrified I even found them funny in the first place.
I cannot deny I did certain things that I’m not proud of, but hopefully, I learned from them. I guess it’s called growing up.
The human race is just a whole bunch of people, like you and me, growing up.
That process never ends. I bet you sometimes make the mistake, as I do, of thinking of yourself as the finished product. You are just you -aren’t you?
Not really. The truth is, you probably won’t even recognize yourself ten years from now.
When I was a teenager, I thought I knew everything. It comes with the territory. Now, I cannot believe how naïve I was. Because it’s hard to understand the past – even our own, never mind someone else’s.
I once wrote a book – The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane – that incorporated the experiences of my mother and grandmother when they were young. I literally heard the stories in that novel at my mother’s knee. An Amazon reader lambasted one of the female characters – essentially my grandmother – for being ‘weak’. She was unable to see the character in context, could only judge her by her own contemporary values.
She forgot there once was an entire generation of women who were not fortunate enough to have the choices she now has.
Full disclosure: I am myself not a historian, I am a storyteller. Primarily, I write to entertain. My epics of the Ottoman empire and the Silk Road and the ancient Aztecs aim to sweep people up in the tide of romance and great adventure.
But whenever I sit down to write a novel, I always remind myself that the people in the past didn’t go around thinking: isn’t this rubbish, living in the thirteenth century? Wow! I wish I lived in 2020, when things get a lot better!
They thought of their society as the finished product, that their values were solid and timeless and irrefutable.
Which is how it is, isn’t it? How else could decent Bible-reading people in nineteenth century America have thought owning slaves was okay? What were they thinking?
There’s an equally good chance that future generations will look back at us and think: How could they have burned down the Amazon? Why did they destroy their own climate? What were they thinking?
The past is the past. History is just the lens through which we see it. It is not a constant. As societies change, so history changes.
These shifting sands throw up endless stories that reflect our past and our present. And those are the stories I love.