Saturday, 28 February 2015

Is History the Art of Making Things Up?

I recently read a very interesting article entitled "History is the art of making things up. Why pretend otherwise?" by Carola Binney. Below is a summary of the argument.

In a recent interview, the celebrity historian and Tudor expert David Starkey described Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’. The novel, he said, is ‘a magnificent, wonderful fiction’. The author of the article argues that using 'historical imagination' is the way to succeed as a historian. She cites essays she's written where she argued that Martin Luther was a fraud, Second Wave American feminists were profoundly sexist and that King Alfred the Great was a historical irrelevance. She's also argued that the Counter-Reformation was a success because the Catholics were so flexible, tolerant and easy-going — not mentioning the Inquisition at all. Saying it was ‘completely wrong, but a delight to read’, her tutor gave it a First.

The list of historians who’ve been led by their imaginations as much as their sources is distinguished. In the 1960s, John Prebble’s reconstructions of the great disasters of Scottish history were blood-soaked bestsellers. His vivid narratives brought to life first the rainy, desolate moor that staged the Battle of Culloden, then the betrayal, disease and starvation of the Highland Clearances. Prebble was described by the current chair of history at Glasgow University as the man who ‘had interested more people than anyone this century in Scottish history’. But he’s still dismissed by most academics as a glorified historical novelist.

The young Niall Ferguson was the inspiration for Irwin, the provocative history teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. He taught his pupils to make tutors sit up and take notice by arguing (to use one of Ferguson’s real-life examples) that Britain should have sat out the first world war and left the Germans to battle it out. At the end of Bennett’s play, one of Irwin’s less able students recounts the arguments that got him through his Oxford interview: that ‘Stalin was a sweetie and Wilfred Owen was a wuss’.

Most bestselling history books tend to be one parts fact to two parts fiction, and that may be more because that's what historians have to work with than anything else. Starkey considers himself to be ‘someone who actually knows what happened’ in Henry VIII’s court, but he doesn't. No one does. A scrupulously honest historian has to leave gaps and this does not make for a bestselling history book.

There is a difference between 'historial imagination' and 'historical sins', Binney argues. To speculate is one thing, but to deliberately lie is quite another. Creatively joining the few dots of knowledge we have about the past is the historian’s craft, and it takes skill. Writing something you know to be untrue because it fits your story takes no skill, and is the point where history becomes fiction.

Binney finishes with a quote from Alan Bennett, ‘History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.’

My own opinion on this subject can be found on previous blogs I've done, such as 'Is Historical Fiction More Truthful Than Historical Fact', so please have a look at them if you're interested in my own opinions. 


Friday, 13 February 2015

The Wright Brothers

Orville Wright, in 1901, at the right end of an upended glider.

Wilbur, after an unsuccessful trial, on December 14, 1903.

Over 111 years ago, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright, with the help of his brother Wilbur, piloted the first airplane. The brothers, who began experimenting with flight, in 1896, at their bicycle shop, had experimented with gliders and kites, but only achieved sustained flight once they added a small engine to their machines. (Their first trip lasted just twelve seconds and travelled a hundred and twenty feet.) While many of their competitors focussed on engine strength, the Wright brothers put their efforts into developing three-axis control, a reliable method of piloting that gave them a competitive edge.

Have a look at the link below to see more photographs. These photographs—which the Wright brothers’ estate donated to the Library of Congress after Orville’s death in 1948 (Wilbur died in 1912)—are glass-plate negatives taken mostly by the brothers themselves, who were careful to document their experiments in order to preserve a record for future patent claims. The photograph of their first flight was taken by John T. Daniels, a member of the Kitty Hawk Life-Saving Station, who was recruited by Orville and had never before seen a camera in his life.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Can Economists Learn from History?

Many economists are predicting a huge loss of jobs as humans are increasingly replaced by robots who can perform the same tasks at less cost. This process is already under way. Since 2001, jobs such as clerks, sales assistants, library workers, secretaries and travel agents have fallen by 40 per cent. Increasingly, machines performing tasks it was assumed only humans could do: driving cars, diagnosing illness, processing insurance claims. Robots are replacing postmen, care workers and security guards. China is now the world’s largest buyer of industrial robots.

Jobs requiring judgment, common sense, creativity, adaptability or detection are, for now, safe. The sports trainer, actor, priest, social worker, fireman and MP are unlikely to be replaced any time soon. Robotic journalists may come sooner: last March the Los Angeles Times published the first automatic breaking news story, using an algorithm that writes up a short article when an earthquake occurs.

Few economists dispute that this revolution is under way but they disagree on its implications. Some predict mass unemployment and social dislocation, a strange new world in which machines run themselves. But others point to history as proof that the advance of technology is always a long-term economic blessing, that economies are already adapting and that robots will create more jobs than they destroy.

In 1779 Ned Ludd smashed two stocking frames and became the enduring poster boy for protest against labour-reducing machinery. But the Luddites were wrong: the Industrial Revolution vastly increased productivity, created many more jobs and increased real wages across all classes. The same may be true of the robotic revolution if it prioritises new jobs that value human ingenuity and imagination over monotonous rote work. If robots increase productivity, the reduced costs and increased profits will feed back into the wider economy, benefiting all.

This suggests that it is impossible to predict the outcome of change, economic or otherwise. And whilst history can give us a good indication, it can never provide a definite answer.