Thanks for tuning into this first episode of the the ‘History’s Ink’ podcast.
According to a less well known quote from Mark Twain:
‘The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.’
(Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Other Tales)
This phrase is perhaps a little obscure, but in short it means that what we choose to put down — and to represent — as history is the product of our own prejudices, whoever we might be. It is fluid, it is in motion, it becomes something in the process of being written down.
I came upon this phrase as I was planning this new history based podcast. It sums up much of what interests me about history. We see in history our own prejudices, our ideas, our present. It concurs with the idea of history as fictions, as things we see in the past reflect on our present.
For me, the study of history is in many ways a mapping of the present — what some call ‘cartographies of the present’ — mapping out and understanding what went before, so we can see more clearly what is in front of us.
When we talk about the past, we cannot help using what we see as a mirror on what we are living in the present. Either to contrast with the present day (very often in a sense of how much more barbarous things were in past days) or otherwise to help us to understand the many things that have brought to us to where we currently are. This is what fascinates me in history, how so many things we take for granted are indeed historical — they came into being at a particular time and usually through particular forces, much of which we tend to forget.
In many ways, history is a form of tourism. It takes us to places beyond our normal lives. It has been said that the past is a foreign country, even ‘our’ past — the history of our own society. People were different back in the day, they spoke in ways that we would not find familiar, and often took for granted things that surprise us now.
History also is very often appealing because of its drama — through historical accounts we can relive the lives of others, as we do in movies and TV dramas. It does not have to be through the medium of historical fiction — very often it is the historical biography itself that takes us to the person, in all its truth. Of course, so often history is about the powerful and wealthy, which gives us a sense of vicarious personal empowerment through such historical figures.
History is about narrative — it tells us stories. It is the story within history.
In many ways, the stories are both a help and hindrance in our pursuit of understanding (or even just knowing about) the past. A good story has its own power. We will believe it and engage with it. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we like to think, the power of the story will bury and obscure the ‘truth’, what actually happened.
So, how do you want your history — as a tale well told or as it was? Even better if we try to prevent either getting in the way of the other.
It is said that one of the golden rules of studying history is to always remember the particularity of the historical period. That is, at any particular time, people behaved and thought in particular ways on the basis of what they then knew.
Few people in the British colonies of America in 1700 would have expected the place to become the independent United States. Likewise, things we now take for granted (instant communication, fast travel, electronic entertainment) were all unthinkable (or purely fictional imagination) a century ago.
Just because we now have the benefit of knowing that the American and French revolutions happened, that slavery was abolished, that the British empire expanded and then collapsed — knowing with hindsight that all of these things would transpire is quite different from the mindset of those who were caught within the histories before they happened.
Each person in history shares that sense of how we ourselves look to the future — who knows what the world will look like in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, or a hundred years. Likewise for the person living in 1780 or 1560, or 1850.
For me, though, it is the connectedness of history that I find so interesting, together with the amnesia that occurs so much as the years go by. Each generation tends to lose sight of its most immediate past.
In the second decade of the twenty first century it now seems that the 1950s and 60s are a long time ago. So much has happened in the intervening decades that it can appear that the whole world has turned upside down during that time. Of course, the further back we go, the more different it appears — now the world of the 1910s/1920s seems so remote and distant from the present day that historical TV dramas are made about it, such as Downton Abbey.
But when we break down the time that has past, there are real connections to be made. I do not consider myself old, but I came into the world during the 1960s — that world helped to shape me, it was certainly the world that I knew in my early years. And the distance between the 1960s and today (around 50 years) is the same distance as that between the 1910s and the 1960s. That is, the world of the 1960s had a similar relation to the era of the Great War and Downton Abbey as we have today with the 1960s.
Each of these periods of history are not distinct islands, separate from each other. They build on each other, they are connected by the lives of the individuals who lived across them and were shaped by the changes and developments that happened around them. I did not live through the Great War (even though my children might think I am old enough to remember the dinosaurs), but I have lived through each decade from the 1960s until now, and my grandparents lived through the decades from the Great War until the late twentieth century.
That is what history is made of. People living in their times, and across their times — each passing on the baton to later generations.
If only we could be a Methuselah or have had a philosopher’s stone (such as Nicholas Flamel) that has enabled us to live all the ages of time, one by one. We could have great wisdom, learning again and again the lessons of history, or otherwise great weariness at the longevity of time.
Thus history is a way of convincing ourselves almost that we are cheating death — are able to know and to remember, through gaining knowledge and learning about what went before (we were about). To do so, we have to stand on the shoulders of others, who were themselves standing on others’ shoulders, and on and on. In reality, as we look backwards (or downwards from the top) there is simply too much to take in.
What we have instead are impressions, trends, bits and pieces. What is there simply fluid prejudices — the things we see, and look at through our own lenses, based on our interests, or expectations, or engagement with what has been and gone before.
None of us are free from prejudices. We all paint things in our own particular colours. What we can do, at least, is try to keep that in our perspective — if we can. To recognise our background, who we are, and the influences on us largely feed into and influence where we stand and what we think and write.
Fluid prejudice is not (so much of) a problem when we recognise that is what we are looking at. If we assume that the ink of history is dry and sealed — untouchable and immutable — then we fail to see our fluid prejudices within the flow of knowledge and understanding.
So what am I going to be doing in this podcast series?
Well, my aim is to explore different bits and pieces of history. I am not a trained historian — I am an academic, with a background in the contemporary (social anthropology) rather than history. But I have a fascination in and love of history and of understanding the contemporary through history.
Thus my aim is to bring out the contemporary in what I talk about — sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so. In some ways, the relevance of the history will be more in terms of the cumulative rather than the particular. To help with this, I have various broad themes that most of my podcasts will cluster under. These will most likely grow and develop as I get going, but they start as:
- History of Empire and Encounter — Colonialism and the European ‘encounter’
- Exploring the Reformation — (the religious, social, and political changes of the sixteenth century)
- Europe and Islam
- Slavery: the Indelible Stain
- History of Scotland
- Perth in History
As we go through the podcasts, these will inevitably overlap at times. For example, I am interested in the connections in Scotland with the slave trade, and the particularities of the Scottish Protestant reformation.
Some podcasts will therefore focus on one theme alone, whilst many will engage across two or more themes.
I will speak in more detail about each of these themes in the first few episodes of this podcast series, to start us off on a long voyage of exploration into the past, that will lead us continually back to the present.
As you will see, although these themes are broad and take us in many directions, there will be common elements and a core of interest running through it all. My interest in the varieties of British histories, in particular — as a united nation, and in its parts, with relation to colonialism, expansion and empire building, and the encounters and levels of knowledge that have come to us through that filter are probably most central to the ‘fluid prejudices’ that I bring to my selection of this material.
And one of the general core issues from the themes will also be directly related to this idea of ‘fluid prejudice’. As an academic I have a keen interest in diversity — I was for a number of years a professor of multiculturalism (for whatever that means).
For me the study of history is about the encounter with diversity, with difference. Not only on the basis of the past being different from today (as a ‘foreign country’), but also by the differences and challenges of diversity fuelling the changes that have brought us through history to where we are today. And how such differences were encountered and understood in the past has itself a bearing on these issues in today’s world.
In that sense, the ink of history as fluid prejudice has been about changing prejudices, changing views of difference that may sometimes shock or surprise us. The colonial encounter is a large part of this, as of course is the long history of encounter and engagement (as well as conflict) between Europe and Islam and Muslims.
Not only do our own prejudices shape how we ourselves engage with that past, we also should learn about the fluid prejudices within history.
And to conclude, it did occur to me that is was a little misleading perhaps to name a podcast in relation to the ‘Ink of History’. In many ways, a podcast is the opposite of ink, it relies on different (sound based) technologies of communication rather than literacy and printing. But I see this podcast as part of the long long process of spilling the ink of history, in its own particular way.
And even as I write this down, the ‘ink of history’ that you are reading on the screen is a virtual ink.
And, of course, the other part of this is the emphasis on history — the story of history (both his story and her story, the narratives of the great and less great women and men of the past). This story has been told in ink and by word of mouth. And this is my humble contribution to that retelling of the stories of history, through the flow of my own thoughts, ideas, and prejudices.
I hope you enjoy being part of the telling.
And if you are interested in this further, have a look at website to with this podcast, that is historys-ink.com.
For more details about me, you can also visit malorynye.com
That’s it for now, see you next time.
About the History's Ink Podcast
This is a podcast about history, the way in which we tell history and how we understand it.