Gossip well told! (rant no.3)

So I get fed up with all the focus on celebrities, their lives and all the gossip that goes with it. I’m really not interested who’s with who or not with who, how they dropped two dress sizes or what their friends think of their lives’ latest developments. I hate how much people are caught up in celebrity culture- when Peter Andre came to turn on the Christmas lights at Yate, or whatever it was he was doing, students couldn’t get out of school quickly enough to see him. Admittedly I kept some excited year 9 girls behind, partly because they’d been talking, partly just to see how they’d react to being kept behind when they wanted to rush to see him! I just can’t help but wonder- “Why do we have to be so obsessed with celebrity lives and the latest gossip?”

Then recently I received a postcard that said- “History: Gossip well told”. Now, I’ve never really considered myself a gossip (though others may disagree), but it got me thinking about what History is actually all about- how does something become ‘History’? What even is ‘History’? Is it any more than just the world’s most famous gossip? In our celebrity culture, will what is in Heat today be in the History books tomorrow?

I hope not! I don’t fancy teaching the students of the future to analyse the significance of Jordan & Peter’s split, or Lady Gaga’s fashion sense, but I do wonder- when does an event of the past become one of historical significance? What criteria does it have to meet?

I’ve been reading parts of an admittedly rather heavy-going book by Arthur Marwick called “The Nature of History”, which sheds some light on this. He defines History as:

“The past as we know it (or, if a more cautious phrasing is preferred, ‘what we know of the past’) from the interpretations of historians based on the critical study of the widest possible range of relevant sources, every effort having been made to challenge, and avoid the perpetuation of, myth”. (Marwich, Arthur “The Nature of History”, Macmillan Press Ltd. Third Edition, 1989, p.13)

Admittedly a wordy, but still useful definition. It’s saying that we separate the truth from fiction and the essential from the trivial from the evidence in front of us.

So, effectively- History is “gossip well told”. It’s the passing of knowledge from the eye witnesses to the “hear-sayers”, and from them to the next group, until somewhere it’s written down. Eventually, an historian tries to make sense of it all, working through all the accounts they can to learn the truth from the myth- working out to “tell it well”!

Obviously, gossip on a political level is always going to be considered important, because of the impact of those conversations, negotiations and decisions. Social History perhaps is more interesting, to observe how some cultural traditions have continued whilst others have faded away- does that mean that “heat” is the historical resource of the future I wonder? (That would explain why my wife likes to collect them- obviously she’s thinking of me 😉 )

But it does lead to another question- if History is “gossip well told”, are there some aspects of History that receive too much attention, and some that are not given the time and focus they deserve? A question that will always bring about subjective, bias opinions- but interesting to consider when studying History nonetheless!

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