It’s been a tumultuous last few weeks here in the UK.
From attacks targeting kids and Saturday night revelers to a political about-face and rebuff of Prime Minister May’s political party to a tragedy based on nothing more than human negligence and greed – we felt history being made. Yet, typically, history is viewed as something that exists in the distance, far away from the here and now, separate from the events of everyday life.
So when does history begin? Is there a clear line between past events and current affairs, even when those affairs are of obvious historic significance?
I’ve asked this before, in the context of projects that I might pursue with my team. We’d like to do a Time Traveler Tour of Berlin during the Cold War, for example, but history as defined by copyright law – 70 years – makes it too recent to license the use of period images at an affordable cost.
Some scholars say, "History requires a certain distance between event and analysis if the latter is to assess the former in terms of significance and consequence”.* By this definition, historical scholarship requires the gathering of all possible relevant information, which can take years, decades even, to pull together. The true consequence of current affairs, the same people argue, is not knowable until such documents are available. And when memory, not reaction, informs testimony.
Other scholars contend there is no single cut-off point for when history stops and current affairs begin. They maintain that as long as you have enough sources to critically interpret the past, you can write history.
Writers of historical fiction suggest that history predates your own lived experience. Most people think that events cross into history after ten years have passed. Journalists consider their interpretations of current events to be “the first drafts of history.”