On the whole, it’s acknowledged that there are all sorts of histories, and that what they all have in common is a sort of consensual significance. Histories emerge where there is human life and death or a stride through time that is bigger than both of those things. So we have traced tales of art and war, of discoveries and inventions, of language, politics, places and people. And to keep them as histories and preserve their storylines (which is all that they are) each history must have a pure kernel of its own individual historic-ness, an element that differentiates one tale from the next, and from the present; a hermetic integrity reinforced by symmetries of signs that all show that’s simply how things must be.
If we accept multiple histories we must accept their differences, those parts of them that don’t intersect with other histories. But what we’re advocating, in that case, is a kind of magic. A spontaneous generation of something internally consistent that doesn’t have to answer to the laws of anything else. The story of a human, it seems, is the smallest unit of history it’s possible to have, and biographical stories are particularly magical for that. But in their smallness they reach out for help.
I recently read the unexpectedly touching sort-of biography of Richard Madeley’s father and grandfather, Fathers and Sons. Madeley observes his family’s pattern of living on or near to farms, concluding with the note that he, too, has ended up living opposite some reclaimed farmland.
In fact, what we have there is coincidence roped into literary significance. Honestly, it’s symbolism worthy of Hardy. And I don’t begrudge him it at all – it’s a lovely bit of information. It’s also, I think, an example of the way in which family history reaches for supplements, and, left unchecked, biography bleeds into a shape of literary elegance. But you could read these familiar shapes as kitsch. We need to be aware of them. Individual human lives are the histories with the most interesting and legitimate kernels of spontaneous generation of all, but also the least equipped to acknowledge them.
The histories of our families are compiled from mutually-agreed memories. And although the things that happen to those families, the details of how they live, are shaped on the outside by social forces, the internal family dynamics constitute a history in their own right. The story of a young child in the 1970s is filtered through her personal perspective. It’s a childhood, and it has nothing to do with flares or lava lamps. A parent in the 1890s doesn’t fret they’re parenting in a suitably “Victorian” way, the family’s familyness isn’t historic in a social sense, but this is the story we’re always told. What we understand as a human life is nothing more than an individual, unrepeatable sequence of events recorded in memory, our memory or a consensus of family and friends. Who cares what ‘actually’ happened once all the other forces are recruited in to give their version of events? Even in our technical age, a human memory is sharpest tool a human can work with, and human memories are far more distinct and colourful and subtle than social trends, fashions, or shifts in the political landscape.
Of course, these are difficult things to untangle – too difficult for a quick blog post. But I wanted to make the point because it seems like so many meaningful historical dramas, ostensibly about personal stories, are actually hung up on contextualising via supplementary histories. They’re looking for ways to establish credibility through references that have no clear relevance to our experience of what it means to be a member of a family. Literary nostalgia is a useful shorthand, a trigger for universal memories, and, more purely, feelings. But the broad use of it in novels, even its ersatz form deployment in period drama, only distracts from the story and reminds us it’s our collective memory that’s being appealed to – a memory compiled largely, in fact, from other tokens of nostalgia. The more costume you put in a costume drama, the better the family story will need to be – just as the longer the feedline, the punchier the punchline needs to be. And as with jokes, the best dramatic stories are short on the prosthetic of external context and big on built-in truths.
I’m not advocating a historical fiction that does away with the human story (although that would be interesting) or a family story that fails to even acknowledge it exists in time. I’m advocating a new courage to drop the endless reference-points that desperately situate these stories in a particular time period or social context and, more generally, the mind-tricks of nostalgia that interfere with the signals of true communication. The worst thing about Billy Elliot is the clangingly worthy miner’s strike plotline. The best part is the emotional reality of his challenge in the face of a hostile family dynamic. That is – the most personal thing in this story is the most subjective; each story is a unique cocktail, but that doesn’t matter if it contains all the ingredients we’re most able to relate to. And I don’t mean seventies music.
If we’re going to have many histories, then we have to acknowledge the ways in which they don’t link up just as much as how they do. There’s a sense of comfort and connection in generalising our personal histories through nostalgia but in order to hang onto what we are, we need to allow ourselves to retain our real memories, the ones that don’t quite fit into language, can’t quite be shared. It’s unsettling but true that there is a history within all of us that we can’t tell; that other people can’t understand. A story that’s barely a story at all.
The problem of contextualising historical fiction without nostalgia is just an angle on the greater problem of contextualising fiction at all. I went to The Story conference last Friday, where the question of what constitutes a story was never quite raised explicitly, though to me it felt like the elephant in the Conway Hall. What there was was a great deal of storytelling, a dynamic which transformed us from paying conference-goers into slightly infantilised passive listeners; that pseudo-religious experience of being entertained by a presence on a stage and slipping into a role of tutored acceptance. We found ourselves unwittingly participating in a group memory of being told stories.
There is an assumed right to interactivity online these days, but The Story wasn’t as interactive as you might expect for a conference advertised to the digital circuit. It was mainly theatrical, with fiddling with ‘devices’ firmly frowned upon. But can you have it both ways? Without Twitter and blogs, The Story would have been no story at all. Maybe it was just too big a theme. Had its scope been narrower, say, a conference about a return to interactive storytelling, then a spoken word event wouldn’t have made much sense. But it wasn’t about that. It was about creating a collage of story-reading and it assumed a criteria of enjoyment that strictly procluded ‘theory’. It was then not the beginning of a debate or an idea, but the end of questioning, the answers to the questions it assumed we would’ve asked, had we been allowed. It was the trigger for a group memory of sitting quietly and being told stories at school, or perhaps in church. And, as such, there were laughs and gasps and interesting ideas a-plenty, but the prescribed balance of storytelling <-> storytold remains safely unchallenged. Perhaps there are many histories and each one is a story, but if each story is considered to be webbed in with all others, if the teller’s job becomes more valuable than the tale, we have a neglect on our hands.
For people like me, who don’t read much fiction, some stories are primarily nostalgic and pacifying. They remove the aggression of decision, they are definitively tied to obedience, social exchange, and community. My first problem, of course, is (and always has been) that I have such negligable interest in participating in a community. I just can’t imagine what I’d be able to contribute that would be of value to “everyone in general”. My other problem is the misty-eyed nostalgia of idealised storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with suckling on the milky Starbucks drink of a reassuring story, but it takes something special, something that speaks a truer truth than community memories to tune into individuals and feel really different.
It is interesting that the digital age has brought with it the biggest defenders of the bookyness of books. I sometimes wonder if this has to do with the same impulses – the same retro-contextualising of the present, using objects as lenses to sharpen up our past. But maybe nostalgia only makes itself feel good. The lens of nostalgia brings the past into focus and the sharpening up is satisfying to our weary mind’s eye, but that’s it. Even when objects evoke feelings, the objects themselves are without worth. We’re doing all the work, all the repositioning, moving our memories closer to the lens, changing them slightly to fit. The thing is, nostalgia always comes later; we are most nostalgic for the time when we didn’t need nostalgia. Children are free of lenses and that backward-looking hopefulness.
I’ve said before that I’m very wary of a romantic narrative. Everyone will want it to be true, and it will become true through repetition. It sometimes feels like the walls of inauthenticity can’t be scaled, because a lovely story is so very, very difficult to kill, however disingenuous it is. And nowhere more so than here in the digital city, surrounded by loveliness and proudness of ourselves, gushing a positivity about our output that marches on, arms linked in cuddly communal-mindedness. But our security is in fact just a dead-end – a wall we’ve built across our own path. A community bonded by consensual righteousness logically can’t be challenged from within, and as such we exclude the very possibility of any critiques. But these critiques are the only thing that can challenge this kind of culture, they are the very thing we need to improve.
To finish up, here’s a story about interactivity, communications technology, nostalgia, history and meta stuff. I remember using an upright brown 1970s phone in the hallway of our home. I was probably about four years old and I couldn’t reach the handset without help. But I only remember the phone because of my memory of what I was trying to make it do. I was asking my dad what would happen if I phone our home number. “Try it,” he said. And as I gripped that big plastic receiver and I heard the engaged tone, my mind melted. I was getting an engaged tone that referred to this very call, this call that was giving me an engaged tone. Which came first, the use of the phone or the switchboard response that the phone’s already in use?
And that has stayed with me – a memory about being impressed and about being a child… but only indirectly, irrelevantly, about using a rotary phone. That’s just what we had, you see. What we had, like my pyjamas and my toy dog and the pink bathroom. I don’t have any nostalgia for that phone. It’s just what we had.