‘Can these bones live?’

Gordon Marsden, MP, addresses the question of the use of the study of history.


For some years now, The National Canine Defence League has promoted itself with the slogan ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’. Perhaps that perspective is a good starting point for also defending the value of history. The traditional utility argument is that a three-year history course, with perhaps postgraduate work afterwards, hones a set of skills for the employment afterlife. But the ability to digest and assimilate stages of information quickly to extract the important and present it crisply and successfully, to evaluate key issues and present evidence for or against a proposition – these only take you so far and arguably a law or journalism course could deliver similar gifts. Utilitarianism has its limits – even in a market place where history and heritage offer commercial openings they would not have thirty years ago. Conrad Russell – one of our leading historians who is also a distinguished and eloquent member of the House of Lords – records a current historian being drawn into conversation by a banker who asked him how he could justify spending so much of his life in the study of things which are dead and gone. ‘Finally after a long series of exchanges he fell back on the reply: “because there’s a market for it”. This reply reduced the banker to silence.’

Gordon Marsden, MP
Gordon Marsden, MP

As someone who spent twelve very happy years profiting from that market as editor of History Today, I would be the last person to disparage it. But, like Conrad Russell, I recognise that history’s value must go beyond either being a bouchée on the CV or an employment skills compendium. Like the NCDL’s dog, its skills are for life, not just for the next job. These past few months have brought me back to Oxford as a visiting Parliamentary Fellow at St Antony’s, charged with helping set up a series of seminars on current international affairs issues. We started with ‘What are British interests now?’ If I say the other subjects have included ‘When is foreign military intervention justified?’, ‘Iraq and her neighbours’, ‘National migration: pluses and minuses’, and ‘EU and NATO: cousins or rivals?’ I hope we cannot be accused of missing out on the zeitgeist. But what is startling, listening to politicians, policy- makers, journalists and academics making their several contributions, is how time and time again, history creeps in, sometimes as reference-point, sometimes as whipping-boy, but always there.

In the first session on Britishness both Douglas Hurd and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown called on their very different personal histories – the one as a young diplomat at the time of Suez, the other as an East African refugee coming here in the 1970s, to illustrate differing perspectives on Britain and its interests in the post 9/11 world. And criss-crossing between Oxford and Westminster, hearing debate and arguments about the Middle East and the response to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that past-present dialogue keeps cropping up – even in a political environment where ‘Year Zero’ mentalities are alleged often to be dominant. Munich, Suez, the Crusades, Vietnam – all these reference points may be deployed with varying degrees of justification – the fact is that there is potency in their deployment, as politicians struggle to take momentous decisions which will dramatically determine the future course of things.

When I was at History Today we had a marketing slogan ‘What Happened Then Matters Now’. Thinking of how Iraq is a made-up state from post-WW1 history (we Brits made it up) recalls for us Abraham Lincoln’s elevated words: ‘Fellow citizens we cannot escape history– the fiery trials through which we pass will light us down to honour or dishonour to the latest generation’.

But history goes beyond being a politician’s aide-mémoire or health warning. It has become an anchor of understanding and meaning for millions upon millions of people more atomised and alienated in a post-modern world from the traditional bedrocks of place, society and family than ever before. The Lord Chancellor’s Department (for which I work as a Parliamentary Private Secretary) has among its responsibilities the Public Record Office which put recently the 1901 Census records on to a website – which crashed (though now it is happily restored) within days under the weight of tens of millions of initial enquiries from the public. Beyond mere genealogical curiosity or searching for past family heroes or villains, history has increasingly validated a sense of worth of minority groups which also teaches all of us that History’s inheritances come in the plural – national, racial, social, and sexual. At its best, this gets us away from the sentimental anecdotes of patriotic history towards a recognition, as the eighteenth-century historian J. C. D. Clark has reminded us ‘that we are part of our past, inhabitants not tourists’. In a multi-ethnic Britain and a globalized world, the lessons for living together that can teach will be crucial – one reason why history must be a central part of any citizenship initiatives.

There is perhaps a final reason why history remains in the bloodstream for life, and not just for Christmas. In Soviet-bloc society there was a sardonic saying ‘the past is always changing – only the future is certain’ – but it was recovering this past from the vast totalitarian archives of Nazism and Stalinism that both validated the victims and allowed the transformation of their societies into evolving liberal societies post-1989. Sense of place and time combined with true record are among the values that history can sharpen – something I have felt a number of times visiting the former Soviet-bloc countries both as a magazine editor and as a Parliamentarian. In Riga last year for example, I walked across the square where independence demonstrators were shot down in 1991 with the BBC’s Bridget Kendall who had monitored those events, looked round the museum there which showed how Latvia was one of the first Nazi testing-grounds for the Holocaust, and stood in front of the house where Isaiah Berlin was born, a symbol of the remnant that remained and has so enriched British cultural and intellectual life.

In a twenty-first century menu-driven world where technology enables us to manipulate image and text, this narrative history can give solid joys and lasting treasure. It is the true likeness – the vere ikon – which has informed some of the most striking creative endeavours of the last few years – whether with W. G. Sebald in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz recovering the identity of his eponymous Anglicised hero from a Kinder Transport childhood obliterated by the Holocaust or Simon Schama in his ‘History of Britain’ TV series showing the paths of history through points of entry such as the human dramas of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, George Orwell and Winston Churchill. If as Wilfred Owen avers the poetry is in the pity – then such history is in the poetry, which enables us to see life in 3D not 2D, in colour and not black and white. It has the power of recovering and healing, as Orwell implied when he wrote about Winston Smith’s quest in 1984 and as Roy Bradbury saw in his science fiction work Fahrenheit 451 where people are literally books, brands saved from the burning. In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel sees a field of bones and is asked, ‘can these bones live?’ History at its best answers this question in the affirmative – and that’s not a bad guide for life in the uncertain and spun world which we all now inhabit.

Gordon Marsden (New College 1973) 

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