Thursday, 5 January 2017

'We already know what happened...'

Thus Lord Tebbit on the recent decision not to hold a public enquiry into the events at Orgreave Coking Plant on 18 June 1984. Well, what else would he say, you might reasonably ask: we can safely predict with some accuracy that individual's views on most issues, and anyway the past is immutable and fixed, is it not? In this case we even have television footage of the events (the plural is deliberate) in question so what else is there to add to what we can see with our own eyes?

Leaving aside the fact that some creative editing can do wonders for reconfiguring the past as it appears to be preserved in moving visual images, what is perhaps most exasperating about this stunted view of history is that it underestimates just how difficult it is to reconstruct a plausible past using inevitably incomplete sources. Any fool can put together a pre-fabricated version of historic events to serve political ends, but try honestly reconstructing even small incidents from the recent past and see how you get on. You'll soon find that the past is actually riddled with black holes which it sometimes seems that no amount of research can fill.

I have been frequently reminded of this basic truth over the past few months while I've been trying to put together a history of the small allotment association of which I am secretary (don't roll your eyes: the history of land use in London is fascinating and highly relevant - we'll need to be organised if and when the developers come sniffing around the site). The organisation dates from the early 1980s and is still going strong, so yes, we already know what happened, but this seemingly straightforward research task has thrown up some formidable difficulties, many of which are probably insuperable: the people involved are long gone, the local council's records seem to be incomplete and who knows what was lost when the GLC was abolished - an archival retreat from Moscow if ever there was one. In fact, it's a remarkable thing but I've had easier times of it researching events from 200 years ago!
I sometimes think that we'd do well to admit that vast swathes of history - including ostensibly well-documented events - are nigh on irretrievable, but the point is that we shouldn't stop trying: it's what makes the subject exciting.