The Compression of History
Russell Degnan

"Most of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, [...] the other deal old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy"
- George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories", 1936

Reading Orwell is not normally a disconcerting experience. He is very precise with his dates and consistent in how he perceives the changes in English society up the end of the Second World War. His description of events at the start of the 20th Century are written as history, in a style that makes the actual date they were written seem irrelevant. Periodically however, passages like the above jolt you into a realisation that this was definitely not the case. Even though he was exaggerating for effect, 1897 is not a year I can relate to 70 years after the passage was written. 1897 is the time of Queen Victoria, it is a time of long dead politicians, a time before Australia existed as a political entity. Yet, when reading history, it is worth reminding yourself that to Orwell it was nothing of the sort. It was a mere 6 years before he was born.

In our modern society, current history, history to be learnt from, history that everyone knows, history that everyone understands implicitly, seems to begin in 1945. I don't remember a time when people related to times earlier than this, and it is only very recently that it seems to be shifting, moving imperceptibly forwards, presumably to after the last great battleground of popular perception - the 1960s and 1970s. But everything before 1945 is something else, it is history we don't know so well, a time when people thought differently, and most bizarrely, a period where time is compressed.

To us, the 50 years from 1955 to today seem to be in constant flux, a half dozen different periods, each with their own distinctive art, music, culture, politics, and economics. By contrast, the 50 years from 1851 to 1901 -- from self-government to Federation in Australian history -- seem to be one long Victorian blur. The fact that the problems of the goldrush 1850s were vastly different to the depression 1890s, or the booming 1880s is generally lost. Other eras, in other contexts are equally abused, even by otherwise respectable historians, particularly when geography comes up.

"The conquest of Corsica (1091), of Sardinia (1022) and of Sicily (1058-1090) took away from the Saracens the bases of operations which, since the ninth century, had enabled them to keep the west in a state of blockade."
- Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities

"Trade with America developed rapidly after the union of 1707; the tobacco trade built up swiftly after the first boat sailed in 1718. By 1727, in Defoe's account, nearly fifty ships sailed out of Glasgow on the Atlantic run every year [...]. By 1772 the Clyde had 56 per cent of Scottish-owned foreign shipping [...]"
- Peter Hall, Cities in Civilisation

In both cases 70 years, or some three generations of protagonists get compressed into a single statement of generality. As much as it is useful to mark a trend in this way, it washes away all the subtlety, and all the humanity.

But worse still, the perceptions of the people who lived then are melded together as well when they cannot possibly be. We take as our bearing, events up to 50 years ago, but with much greater emphasis on events that occurred much more recently still. Even given the rapid changes that occurred in the early part of the 20th century, why would others be any different?

Historians occasionally, but other writers regularly make two incorrect assumptions about the perceptions of people in times past. Firstly, that they are affected by events in the same proportion to how we are affected by them, many years later. What we make a sweeping statement about, say, the 17th century would be seen very differently from the perspective of someone in 1660. There the events of 1648 are of recent memory, those of 1618 less perceptible, and those of 1555 mere history. Placing them all together as one long stretch of history gives them a coherency that they could not and did not have.

Secondly, it is forgotten that some events that might seem to be mere footnotes in the historical dialogue today, were closer and more memorable to those living then. When the history of late 20th century music is written, the broad sweep will show a progression of styles, different ages, and different influences appearing simultaneously. Yet for those of us living it, one year's music stands in stark contrast to another, new music is anticipated because it is new, and because it is created; not because it is part of an oeuvre, or because it reinterprets works from a generation before. For most artists, interpreting new works as a development to what has gone before will be far more illuminating.

Interpretation becomes harder, but it also becomes more interesting. And if people are to truly appreciate it, it must be more than just a succession of related events.

Passing Fancy 31st July, 2005 19:00:38   [#] 


Perhaps from 1901
I think you're right Russ, apart from I think that in Australia (as separate from other parts of the world) there is a stronger sense of history (albeit for a limited time span) before 1945.

I think that Australian's, partly because of the ANZAC legend, don't compress things as much. For example, I think most Australians would view 1901 - 1945 in 4 or 5 distinct eras:
1901 - 1915 Post federation
1915 - 1919 WW1
1920 - late twenties Post war
Late twenties - mid thirties - Depression
Mid thirties to 1939 Post depression, lead up to WW2

It's a bit of a broad, no specific view, but I think many people would have that broader view, although it will lessen in time as grand parents and great grand parents pass.

Pearcey  1st August, 2005 14:47:50  

The Compression of History
I'm not sure I agree with you regarding other countries. Take your experience in Turkey and Ataturk for example. Other countries less so perhaps - plenty didn't exist as political entities before that period either which makes a difference.

I think your example also serves to illustrate my point though. The period 1901-1945 is almost mythological in Australian history. Even if people can identify its key periods they don't identify with it. People can call John Howard a throwback to the 50s because the 50s bring to mind specific images - helped by television too I think. The pre-war era though is a bit of a mixture. of ANZACs, of Bradman and Pharlap, of the Depression and cruisers putting out to sea, and what else? Does anything else really resonate?
Russ  1st August, 2005 23:46:11