I saw a clip on TV this week of the grand culmination of Richard III’s trip from an anonymous urban car park to Leicester Cathedral, and was struck by the way a sizeable crowd of people lining the streets, perhaps six deep, were casting white roses on to the royal coffin. It reminded me of similar scenes during the funeral of the Princess of Wales in 1997. The death of the Princess of Wales was an event that, according to her brother, left the world, “in shock”. I know this because I was in Queenstown, New Zealand, when her car crashed in Paris, and the following day I flew to Little Rock, Arkansas, where I also found a lot of Americans to be “in shock”, glued to the TV, looking for “closure”. The inference to be made is that, in both life and death, many members of the public feel a strong connection with royal personages, and interpret the narrative of their own lives through the prism of those who are perceived to be making, or to have made, history.
So I got out a history book and read about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. I’m woefully ignorant about the Plantagenet dynasty, or, closer to home for that matter, the Stuarts. Perhaps Mr Gove was right, before he left the Education Ministry to become Chief Whip. Maybe I need to learn all these dates to get a sense of chronology. 1066 and all that.
And yet the same thing always happens to me when I delve back into history in this way. First I get confused by the complexities of the intrigues of the nobility; who plotted against whom, who changed sides, who scrambled up the greasy pole to the “slipper toppe”, only to be knocked off and replaced. Then I get sickened. All that gore; all these beheadings. It’s profoundly distasteful, like watching two grown men brawling in the street. And it’s just as bad north of the border, maybe even worse. Up here, I get “scunnered”. Sometimes I think history is just a memoir of the filthy rich vying with one another to get their snouts deeper into the trough. But I wonder if this is really history at all, in any useful or meaningful sense. I have this notion that all these battles, murders, and executions are a kind of “antihistory” and that, alongside this bloody chronology, quietly occupying an almost invisible parallel universe, history is taking place.
This week I’ve been reading a very interesting book about the development of the contraceptive pill. The Birth of the Pill, by Jonathan Eig (MacMillan, 2015). Have you heard of Margaret Sanger, and Gregory Pincus? Many of the people who truly make history seem to pass by unnoticed. If history is anything, it should be a kind of Grand Integral, the sum-total of all the little bits of history that make up the lives of individuals. Inevitably, most of it gets lost. How much of the remainder is misinterpreted and distorted? It’s the caprice of memory. As soon as something happens it becomes murky. It’s as if we lead our lives by walking along the road in a thick mist, with visibility down to a few metres. We can’t see ahead; we look back and everything is receding into the fog.
History has a special meaning in Medicine. The single most important skill of a doctor is the ability to take a history. You say, “What happened?” and then you go into a trance and try to relive it. Of course you are aware that what is offered you is only an approximation of the truth. I once observed the late Henry Walton, Professor of Psychiatry at Edinburgh, take from his patient a history that was a self-serving, sanitised, cosmetic version of reality. Then the Professor undercut it with a single, cripplingly hurtful comment that, for the first time, permitted the patient to confront the truth, and to be free.
It’s very hard to get at the truth. We’re always trying to interpret Chinese whispers. Yet we should try. There is Santayana’s famous remark that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Then there’s Henry Ford: “History is bunk!”
They can’t both be right.