Friday, January 29, 2016

When is the Past History

I recently finished reading The English and Their History by Robert Tombs. If you are interested in English history it is well worth a look, but it does, I think, go wrong by going too far. By which I mean that by taking his narrative to 2014, in a history book published in 2015, Tombs has gone beyond what I would consider ‘history’.

Now, I think we would agree that while the paragraph above was typed in the past that action or the thought behind it is not history. It is something like a present-past. And I would argue that when the subject is a people and a nation, history, as a distinct mode of thought and inquiry ends and journalism begins well before we get to two years ago.

Walter Bagehot argued that it took a generation to evaluate a reform. If anything, I’d say Bagehot was an optimist. If we consider what is currently going on in our colleges—dominated as they are by sixties activists and influences-- it strikes me that we can, at best, only make a tentative statement about that decade. Nor is the historian considering that period likely to have anything like the detachment that one would wish for as it is still too ‘present’.

I don’t have an answer or even know if the above is on the right track. But in reading Tombs’ history I noted a certain arc. To start there wasn’t enough material or enough complexity in the activity to make it fully engrossing, the book got better as both those conditions became less of an issue, but then at some point it starts to decline again as the present starts to take over and what is truly ‘historical’ in the past begins to recede.

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