The magic of what might have been

Robert Lacey explains why history is vital for mental and social health - and why it should be fun
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The Independent Culture

'The poetry of history," wrote George Macaulay Trevelyan, "lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passion, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another - gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow."

That's why I love history - for its mortality. There's a belief in some circles, encouraged by those who devise the syllabuses imposed on the long-suffering students in our schools, and on the still more long-suffering teachers who have to cram the "themes" and "issues" into their noddles, that history is a branch of science: that there is some sort of objective truth out there that can be inventoried and assessed by the ultimate guardian of truth, the examination board.

Nonsense. History is poetry, as G M Trevelyan said: magic, illusion, imagination, a whiff of what might-have-been as elusive as wood smoke on an October evening. You can sense it by imbibing a place - the ruined chapel at Jarrow where the young Bede sang out the prayers during the plague months. It can infiltrate as you pore over the scribblings of a document like the Domesday Book. Or you can try telling a good story.

The words "history" and "story" come from the same root, of course. In many languages, they are the very same word: when the French or the Italians read their nation's history, they are reading, by definition, the story of their country. It is our Anglo-Saxon fallacy to glorify history as something more academic and pompous - and to risk missing out on the simplest and most pleasurable way of bringing the past to life.

I tell stories for a living. Every journalist contributing to this newspaper is telling you a story - based, of course, on the facts as accurately as he or she can ascertain them, but spun into a sugar basket of narrative that adds sense and meaning and a good dollop of entertainment to help the medicine go down. It is through stories that we can bring people and events from the past to life, and I believe that we should spend more time in school teaching children to construct accurate and compelling narrative.

Why all this emphasis on "issues"? Why drill a child to learn "the causes of the English Civil War" - 1, 2, 3, 4 - as if preparing for an interrogation by John Humphrys? Why not set the question "Describe the execution of King Charles I and say why you think it happened"? Describe. By inviting children to re-create the scene, we hand them power to breathe their own creativity into the past - to live it imaginatively for themselves.

We are also helping them to develop a valuable skill for life - the technique of ordering words and images into a plausible and accurate narrative. Our brains are wired for narrative, working out what happened first and what happened second. It is how we make sense of the world. Ask someone to tell you about themselves and they will tell you their "story". How do the great religions of the world enshrine themselves? Through inspiring narratives set down in books.

Sorting out what came first and what came next is the basis of history, the tough, unbending essence that formulates the rule: one thing leads to another. When I am writing a biography, I sort the events of my subject's life onto sheets of paper, dated chronologically in a loose-leaf folder, and as I seek to explain the event on the sheet in front of me, I shuffle through the sheets on my left - going backwards to examine the events to this date. Often, the sequence of happenings set out on those sheets provides me with an inexorable explanation of how things came to be and why my subject acted as they did.

But I am not allowed to peek forwards into a future which did not, at that particular moment, exist. One thing leads to another - it is the narrative imperative, and though it may sound obvious, it is a principle that needs proclaiming and defending in the age of the mass media conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory is the direct opposite of history. You don't explain an event by going back into its origins. You leap forward into the future and play with hindsight, asking the question "who came out on top?" You propose, say, that the Royal Family benefitted greatly from the death of Diana. This produces the dramatic assumption that Buckingham Palace engineered the accident, from which point you are free to ignore reality (even princesses die in car crashes) and concentrate on mysteries - surely there's a grassy knoll in there somewhere?

The problem with conspiracy theories is the culture of helplessness and victimhood that they engender: life ruled by conspiracies is a fearful and paranoid experience, a succession of magic events manipulated by sinister forces beyond our control - alibis for surrender and resentful gossip.

Real history, on the other hand, encourages understanding and rational action. At the risk of sounding grandiose, I would claim that it fortifies mental and social health. It teaches us the true cause of things, and what influences human beings to act in the noble and cruel ways that they do. After a lifetime studying the past, I have come to believe that, in the long run, nobility secures more effective outcomes than cruelty, that ideas matter, that change is possible, that knowledge dispels fear - and that good, narrative history both explains and facilitates these things.

Robert Lacey is the author of 'The Battle of the Boyne to DNA, 1690-1953', the third volume in his series 'Great Tales from English History' (Little, Brown £14.99). To order a copy for £13.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897