Why History?

by Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA

9 May 2017

Ahead of this evening's Why History debate at Newcastle University, Revd. Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, shares his insight into the significance of history.

I suspect that I am not the only ageing Oxford don who still treasures my childhood teddy bear. This is not because I’m trying to conform to some tourist expectation of Brideshead Revisited eccentricity, but it represents a more complex and layered grasping of my own past. The bear is called Rupert, for reasons obvious to anyone of a certain age. My mother was an excellent needlewoman, and she made Rupert an appropriate set of clothes carefully copied from the Daily Express comic strip: red jersey and yellow check trousers and scarf. There exists a studio photograph of myself and Rupert, not greatly different in size, and both looking very solemn.

As the years passed, and I grew to surly teenager’s estate, I left behind my memories of Rupert, but my mother did not. She kept Rupert carefully, and there he was in her bedroom when she died at a great age, and I took home treasures from her retirement flat. So now Rupert is back in my bedroom, a slightly battered old bear seven decades on, but still immaculately dressed as his illustrator Alfred Bestall would have wished.

As Rupert sits in splendour, what does he signify? The deepest layers of significance in early childhood may be among the most important. Inevitably they are vague, but they are a constant and useful reminder to my present self-importance that once the most important thing in my life was Rupert Bear. (There may be another inescapable theme: that mothers, in many not straightforward and often irritating ways, know best.) From such memories as these we construct our sense of ourselves, and it is only through honest probing of those memories that we make self-identity a source of sanity and balance. There is nothing wrong in taking pleasure in heaping up good memories: there will be time enough for a rueful stock-taking of downsides. This pleasure is equally right for institutions, societies, nations and civilisations; in fact, it is a duty. Without memories, and the chance to dwell on them and sift them affectionately but sensibly, we lose our true sense of ourselves, and we go collectively insane.

In Oxford University we’re still brooding over the rights and wrongs of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, to remove a bust of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. The objectives of the campaigners stand in an ethical spectrum which demands a range of graduated conclusions, but I’d say that this particular campaign came to the wrong conclusion: wrong because it took a single object, a bust of Cecil Rhodes, and chose to freight it with only one meaning out of the many which the object possesses, and not necessarily the most important. As it seizes on this one meaning – Rhodes was a racist and imperialist – it refuses to recognise the complexity even of those two labels, and it chooses not to tolerate the object to stand for thoughtful or rueful reflection, as if the reality of the history would go away by removing the symbol. Even less judicious is the parallel campaign elsewhere to get rid of statues of Queen Victoria, on the grounds that they are symbols of Empire. On that criterion, Rome would demolish the Colosseum and Trajan’s Column. There not just madness lies, but self-styled Islamic State.

Oriel College decided to opt for complexity and reflection in its refusal to remove the bust of Rhodes. Jesus College, Cambridge, with equal due reflection made a different choice, and I think rightly, in the case of a splendid Benin bronze cockerel which since its looting by the British in the 1890s, stood in a prominent place to represent the College’s fifteenth-century heraldic emblem, derived from its founder Bishop Alcock. Jesus removed the bronze from its public setting and is, I believe, considering what should happen to it. The choice at Jesus is precisely between the different value of competing memories: the sacred character of the bronze in its original setting versus its casual appropriation for an honoured symbol which has plenty of other possible expressions in a Cambridge college. The decision is at a different place on the ethical spectrum to that of Oriel on Rhodes.

That is the point of a sensible use of memory. We make grown-up choices, and we can generally, with thought, come to constructive decisions about the most appropriate way to remember and express what has shaped our lives. At one extreme end of the spectrum of ethical choices on commemoration, it was obviously right in 1945 to rename the hundreds of streets through Europe called Adolf Hitler Strasse. In 1961, few mourned the passing of Stalinallee in Berlin, though now its present name is the subject of further lively discussion. I remember an enjoyable visit in 2000 to the significantly-named Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest, created after 1989 as a retirement home for a great number of heroic Socialist Realist sculptures wished on the Hungarian capital in the years of Communism. It was far better, I thought, to line them up here in a spirit of gentle satire than to indulge in an orgy of vengeful destruction; that would have been the Stalinist way. Accordingly in the gift-shop, I bought a candle which was a bust of Lenin. I wonder what the present authoritarian government of Hungary makes of this delicate mockery of dictatorship. Dictators may be completely opposed to each other in ideology, but no dictator likes the sound of sniggering at authority.

When I abandoned Rupert Bear many years ago, the trade I chose was that of the historian, so my business is precisely memory and its delights. I am always conscious of the historian’s power, which is to shape the future by describing the past; it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly, and it needs a sturdy independence of mind. 1800 years ago, Lucian wrote the historian’s job description which our profession must always follow (apologies for his Roman gender-specificity): ‘The most important thing by far is that he should be a free spirit, fear nobody, and expect nothing … determined … to call figs figs and a tub a tub.’

When we write history, our business is not rejoicing. We must not toady either to dictators or stridently well-meaning mobs. And there is nothing wrong in having a little fun as we historians pursue our noble task of saving the world’s sanity.

For further information on the Why History event, please visit: http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/why-history



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