Why Mavericks are among us …
“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon”NAPOLEON BONAPARTE
As a child growing up in South London in a largely unrepaired bomb-damaged area, I had great physical and emotional freedom in a way that is almost unheard of today. And the history we learned (often reluctantly) was a series of Kings and Queens, Battles, and names of Prime Ministers all placed in the context of maps coloured mostly red.
My mother’s father was a poor boy born in Guernsey who had been a boy soldier in the South African campaign and then fought in the trenches. There was no doubt in his mind, nor that side of the family’s that the Empire was a good and beneficial thing that brought civilisation to people, who rather surprisingly resisted this even at gunpoint.
My father, being an Austrian refugee, had a strong German accent, and we knew first hand that ‘the enemy’ was German and that might include him, even if he had joined the Austrian Brigade and did his bit in the British Army during WW2.
History was about white men fighting battles
My father being an immigrant and naturalised by now, knew more of British history than our neighbours and despite our lack of enthusiasm would make us stand after dinner and recite the Kings of England in order, or the great battles. He was grateful to his new country and was determined to make us model citizens.
As far as I could tell the only women in history were Queens or the occasional mistress of a King. All the battles were fought and won by men – and British men to boot. And all our laws were good laws passed by great and moral men – and every other country would be lucky to have them.
Surprisingly history is the thing that has changed most in my life
Why Mavericks are among us … As a child growing up in South London in a largely unrepaired bomb-damaged area, I had great physical and emotional freedom in a way that is almost unheard of today. And the history we learned (often reluctantly) was a series of Kings and Queens, Battles, and names of Prime Ministers all placed in the context of maps coloured mostly red.
Later I studied ‘herstory’ and economic history and discovered that there were women involved at every stage of the past, making important decisions and contributions to the world. It turned out men did not create Society on their own!
I discovered all sorts of patterns and reasons for events and battles that had nothing at all to do with ‘great men’. Failed harvests, competition for resources, plagues and discovery made sense of an otherwise random series of events.
Like all mavericks (and I had not heard the term then) I looked for patterns to make sense of what was going on and could not easily process the dogma handed down to me as ‘facts of history’.
Later still I spent time on what is now known as ‘Black history’ and discovered that our benevolent empire was not what I had been taught and came to understand that many of our great cities and great country houses had risen on the back of immeasurable suffering. From slavery to the brutal exploitation of the British working class, the charming classical house fronts, hid a dark and frightening tale. I was shocked to discover that the Opium wars we fought with China were over us insisting we could sell Opium to the Chinese! I had not realised we used force to protect drug dealing, as well as trafficked slaves.
Historians interpret in the context of their own culture and assumptions
Then scientists discovered DNA and chromosomes and it became increasingly possible to examine old remains and graves to discover what people died of, what they ate for their last meal, and their gender and ethnicity.
It turned out the Victorian pioneers of archaeology, as we know it today, interpreted their finds in the light of their own understanding of how the world worked. Now it seems that so many warriors were female – buried with the grave goods to show their rank in society and their weapons. And it seems that there were many black soldiers brought over during the Roman occupation, and black people have contributed to our DNA at multiple points in our history, from Roman times, through Tudor times and onwards.
History is the story of who we think we are
The pattern of history has changed constantly throughout my lifetime. Almost as much as the physics I patiently absorbed as a young teenager and quickly had to discard as new scientific advances were made. History comes from the Greek ‘historeo’ to learn through research or enquire and to narrate what is learned. It is quite close in its origins to story.
The story we tell ourselves about who we are, where we come from and why we are, is an important part of our identity. But that narrative shifts over time. What remains constant in historians and maverick thinkers alike is the desire to know and understand. We know that understanding is not set in stone but needs updating and revising as new information is acquired. The history of the world is a narrative that changes just as scientific understanding of the world changes. It can be painful to find that an old belief is being challenged or changed.
I remember being brought up to go to church quite regularly and then after a few decades of absence going to a christening and finding myself offended that they had changed the words to all the hymns. Somehow I wanted the hymns of my childhood to remain unchanged! But a living community moves on and so does the music.
So it is with the history we remember from our youth. We want those teachings (that have mostly untroubled us for decades) to remain the same so that when we go back in our minds to an earlier, simpler time, that history is there to comfort us.
I am no longer the child who learned history between playing amongst the bomb sites. My understanding of the world has changed. I no longer expect the church to sing the hymns of my childhood (just in case I decide to drop by!). And I do not expect that understanding of history to remain unchanged.
This is why Mavericks are among us …
Mavericks are compelled to examined fact and to explore patterns. We cannot help it. It is our unflinching ability to do so, even when it makes us unpopular, that makes us catalysts for change. Just as an ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ – Socrates, we know that we have to examine our history.
This is a great time for examination and reevaluation. The truth comes from the unflinching examination of the evidence and the avoidance of a desire to believe one thing or another. This is why Mavericks are among us.
What are you examining?