Thursday, January 11, 2024


Revisiting Sybille Bedford’s A Visit To Don Otavio this morning I came across this one sentence summary of Mexican history: “Everything happened , and little was changed.”

It seems pithy, but there’s actually a lot of wisdom there.  One can start by pondering how each country’s fundamental attitude to the study and comprehension of history varies according to how much happened and how much changed. 

Whereas Mexico focuses on the individuals who made stuff happen, in Guatemala history is change. Rather less happened than up in Mexico for sure. There’s Independence awkward couple of decades after WWII and that’s really it.

We Brits used to be proud of our history and rather good at History. 

Much happened, even in the supposedly uneventful Middle Ages and nearly everything changed. Live past the age of 40 and you can map your personal memories onto this process fairly successfully.

Something Milei said the other day about Malthus and technological improvement reminded me of pretty much the very first lecture I attended at university. It was given by Geoffrey Elton the senior professor in the faculty, though then outgoing.

It was our duty, he perorated, to be different from social scientists. History was not an arena for cherry-picking facts which might support prefabricated theoretical approaches or worse, ideological doctrines. On the contrary, it was the arena where all theories went to die, horribly. A place of gruesome debunkings.

At the time much of what he said was probably not internalised in the way he intended. This was in part because he was essentially positioning himself against an antagonist who was less a straw man than a dead man: E.H. Carr, whose notion that facts exist (or can be made up) primarily to serve the interests of the ideologues and their designated constituents, the oppressed, the people etc. seemed to be some nonsense that our parents’ generation had seen off rather successfully and unlikely to be resurrected during our lifetimes. This, it turns out, was wishful thinking.

Unfortunately we are now being encouraged to primarily treat our past as a crime scene. Facts are important clues, but guilt has already been assigned. 


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