I was reminded beautifully of the complexity of trying to write about the past by a book I picked up last week as part of my research: The Age of Extremes by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, an account of the years 1914-1991. In his book, which is of necessity a partly 'autobiographical endeavour' (he was born in 1917), Hobsbawm has many things to say about how we write about the recent past. Our perspectives, he warns, may be fundamentally different depending on our moment of birth. For historians of his generation:
'We are part of this century. It is part of us. Readers who belong to another era, for instance the student entering university at the time this is written, for whom even the Vietnam War is prehistory, should not forget this.'
It's an important caution that there is a trap the young may fall into, the trap of looking at the recent past as 'prehistory', when for other generations it is part of their very reality. Not having inhabited the past, knowing it only from a jumbled series of names and dates picked up during childhood, we risk becoming seriously muddled about its significance. Hobsbawm talks about an excellent university student he encountered, who asked him whether the name Second World War meant that there had been a first one. Similarly, I have been asked the following questions at various times by my school students: whether Shakespeare was a Victorian or modern; whether the Second World War was in the 1980s; and (while reading a book at least a hundred years old) whether I also used to be scared by the constant risk of being hit with a cane or ruler when I was at school. None of these questions were jokes, and the students who asked them were successful and conscientious ones; it's not a matter of intelligence or common sense, but of an understandable confusion. To these students, most of the past is a sort of indeterminate swamp, something whose causality is difficult to get a handle on, probably because they don't know enough about it yet to be clear on how it relates to their immediate present, if at all. It's certainly hard to make a coherent narrative of the past that we haven't experienced and know very little about: all its events become the same and, worse, risk looking completely irrelevant.
Hobsbawm movingly describes the way the past cannot be forgotten so easily by those who have lived it:
'For historians of my generation and background, the past is indestructible... because public events are part of the texture of our lives. They are not merely markers in our private lives, but what has formed our lives, private and public. For this author the 30 January 1933 is not simply an otherwise arbitrary date when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but a winter afternoon in Berlin when a fifteen-year-old and his younger sister were on the way home from their neighbouring schools in Wilmersdorf to Halensee and, somewhere along the way, saw the headline. I can see it still, as in a dream.'
I find this very moving. This short paragraph, in an instant, dropped me into that same winter afternoon in Berlin, that same dream of memory which makes the past a living and a personal thing. And, in a way, I - a 'reader who belongs to another era' - can be said to have experienced that past too as part of my own reality, through the force of Hobsbawm's words, his personal story. This account reminds me, too, that if there is one moment of the recent past that the students I've taught have never seen as 'prehistory', that moment, for some reason, is the Second World War. The students have no difficulty in seeing the people of Blitzed London or Nazi Germany as real and 'modern', their lives as important (which is probably why the particular boy who asked me about it placed the events somewhere in the '80s, a couple of decades before his own birth, thus underlining its importance in his view of the world and his own life).
Where does this immediacy come from? Perhaps it is a property of the way the time period is taught. In trying to make some kind of sense of the Second World War, teachers often seem to turn to literature and art. So my students have 'witnessed' this particular time not through a series of names and dates but through the words of people like that fifteen-year-old boy Hobsbawm remembers being, people like them, both eyewitnesses (Anne Frank) and characters created by writers from historical accounts (Morris Gleitzman, John Boyne). Similarly, I've seen war poetry and novels about the time succeed in making the First World War real. When students that I've taught, half a generation younger than me, have been given the privilege of witnessing the past through others' eyes, it remains for them urgently alive and, I would argue, becomes part of them too, at least in the sense that it is now a part of their consciousness and understanding of the world. Surely it is this property of the past that is our way into history as writers, the path we must follow when we try to do justice to past lives. The way the small, individual story intertwines with the large events of history, both shaped by them and colouring them, altering the way they are remembered, is the thing that makes the past a reality, and is common to all our lives.
Hobsbawm believes that this sense of the immediacy of the past risks being lost altogether:
'At the end of this century it has for the first time become possible to see what a world would be like in which the past, including the past in the present, has lost its role, in which the old maps and charts which guided human beings, singly and collectively, through life no longer represent the landscape through which we move, the sea on which we sail. In which we do not know where our journey is taking us, or even ought to take us. This is the situation with which a part of humanity must already come to terms at the end of the century, and more will have to in the new millennium. However, by then it may have become clearer where humanity is going than it is today. We can look backward over the road that brought us here, and this is what I have tried to do in this book.'
That last sentence, to me, could be a manifesto for all writers, even those - like me - who began their adult lives in the new millennium. How can the past ever cease to be a part of our present? No reality of our current situation - no financial crisis, no political upheaval, no war - can make sense without the long perspective of the road behind it, and perhaps it is this which sends young writers like me into history, now more than ever, in search of other lives and other voices: it is only with their help that we can make sense of the time we inhabit. To 'look backward over the road that brought us here' could be what we are all trying to do in all our books.