Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

In full panoply

I am quite touchy about my vocabulary. Possibly that’s because I haven’t got much else to preen myself on. So it is with reluctance that I admit, I had to look panoply up. I had a vague feeling that it meant a vast and rather splendid array of things, which it does. What I didn’t appreciate was that panoply also refers to a full suit of armour.

I have only ever seen one suit of armour, in the flesh – if armour can be said to have flesh – as opposed to on TV, and that was Henry VIII’s armour at Leeds Castle. It was impossible to imagine that this metal object before your eyes actually once contained the living and breathing body of Britain’s most famous or infamous king.

A couple of things flashed through my mind when I saw it. The first – you’ve guessed it – was how on earth did he do number twos in a get-up like that? But presumably he took care to number two before he put it on. And the second was, how short he was. You tend to think of kings, especially loud scary kings, as huge great beasts, but this armour was almost as broad as it was high. He must have been, well, Fred Flintstone-shaped. I wonder whether he would have impressed the ladies quite so much if he hadn’t had been really rich, with the power to chop off their heads on a whim? At least he didn’t comb his hair over the bald patch.

It seems he liked Leeds Castle, and often visited it with his first wife Catherine of Aragon. He added an upper floor and decorated fireplaces with the royal arms and Spanish motifs, since Catherine was Spanish. He visited in 1520 with a huge retinue of 5,000 people (5,000!) and spent the night at the castle before going on to France for a ceremonial meeting with Francis I of France. This meeting later became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold because of the magnificence of all the tents. To impress the French (never easily impressed by anything British) he took with him venison from the Leeds estate, and butter from its dairies.

Well, all that from looking up a word!




…was a different kettle of fish. My father, unlike my mother, did not throw novels away in disgust: he simply refused to read them. An intelligent man, he read the daily papers from front page to back, including the financial columns, and would often read aloud (rather too lengthy) passages that he thought would interest us all. He watched the News on TV every evening. He wrote editorials and articles for a cycling club magazine which he and my mother between them manufactured using an electric typewriter, my mother’s precise cut-and-paste/handwritten captioning, and the battered second-hand photocopier that took up most of the spare bedroom. Later he wrote his ‘memoirs’ which succeeded in telling me a lot, and almost nothing. For a working man he had an advanced vocabulary, apart from one time when he asked me what ‘priapic’ meant. Difficult to know which of us was the most embarrassed or amused by my stumbling, circuitous attempts to define this word, which he had read in the newspaper. What was priapic doing in a newspaper anyway?

Yet he abhorred fiction. In fact it went deeper than that – he abhorred history. More than that, I would say he was a History Denier. It never happened, any of it, he used to say. It’s all lies. Once or twice as a teenager I tried arguing it out with him, applying my own immature logic to the situation. With parents, particularly with fathers, it’s never a good idea.

But something must have happened in the past. It can’t just be a blank before we were born. How did we get here at all?

All lies!

When we visited Leeds Castle we mostly stuck to the gardens where there was more than enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours – places to sit down and look at swans on lakes, places to drink tea and eat sandwiches; but every once in a while Mum and I liked to go inside the castle, take another look at Henry VIII’s suit of armour, Lady Baille’s languorous and strangely elongated portrait, her magnificent 1930s shoe collection or – my favourite – the lonely little fountain in the central courtyard. Dad, meanwhile, would sit on the wall outside reading his newspaper. Inside did not exist.

I used to think something had happened to him during the War, aside from driving military trucks across India (steering-wheel so hot it would burn your hands if you weren’t careful) and getting a bad case 0f malaria in Burma (stand by your beds when the Top Brass come round, whether or not you are dying). He showed us a few sepia photographs of himself out there. It was difficult to tell him apart from various other young men in khaki shirts and shorts, hands shading their eyes, squinting into the lens.

The only other thing he ever said when the subject of non-existent history came up was this: when he was at school they had showed him the Atlas, and most of the Atlas was coloured pink. The pink areas, he was told, belonged to the Glorious British Empire. But then when he got to India it wasn’t true. The Atlas – or maybe his teachers – had lied.

Did he mean they lied because the Empire wasn’t glorious? Was no longer an Empire? Because the Indian people he met disliked rather than revered their British occupiers? Because the British were not behaving gloriously? I never got to understand why he told this half-a-story. I am not sure he knew why either but it was obviously connected in some way. Those ideas – it’s all lies… history never happened… at school they showed me the Atlas – always came up together. It was like a kind of short circuit, a closed loop. Was he pointing out that history is written by the victors? But we all know that, don’t we? We can still believe  that some sort of history happened.

My own instinct is that something, or maybe a series of somethings, happened to my father in India. There’s this feeling of betrayal, and rage. The Atlas story must be true – I’m sure schoolchildren were propagandised in this way – but it’s only one element. I get a ‘background’ of real encounters with real people – real situations – real humiliations – maybe real cruelty, his or someone else’s. Neither I nor my mother succeeded in fighting our way through that particular thorny thicket, and now my father has packed up his mysteries in his old kit bag and gone, gone, gone, leaving us none the wiser.

* http://www.leeds-castle.com/home