The History Shop – Part Four – The Full Bottle

When I was a student we were always being told that it was necessary to be ” a full bottle “. This was a buzz phrase used by Australian academics in much the same way that they used ” at this point in time ” instead of saying ” now “. From what I could see a number of them had a close working relationship with full bottles…

Be that as it may, I have since come to regard historians in general in a similar light – though I would not use the term ” bottle “. I think ” vessel ” would be more appropriate, and has a nicer sound – more dignified. You could have ” full vessels “, ” empty vessels “, ” sounding vessels ” etc. I’d further characterise them as storage vessels, or water tanks – filling from the top and emptying from the bottom, with appropriate lids and valves at either end. But rather than water, they contain knowledge. Or shit.

The trick of being a successful academic, historian, or academic historian*, would be in balancing the input of shit with the output of shit. Papers in, papers out – lectures in, lectures out. It would not do to tell more than you know because eventually you would have no more shit to sell. Likewise, if you never let any shit out when it flows in, you would soon be overflowing with it. Many academics are in this situation but there are only a few places left in political life to absorb them. And it’s no good sending them off to other countries – they’d send theirs to us in revenge.

* Becoming a historic academic means outliving the rest of the faculty. Wear an armoured back-plate.



Being A Historian – Part Three – Once Upon A Time…

We’ve all seen the Facebook meme that says those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it – a somber thought. It is only when you look deeper into the matter that you discover there is a parallel Facebook post. It says that those who learn from historians are condemned to listen to them repeat it…in book after book after book.

There are many degrees of history:

  1. The stuff that really happened.
  2. The stuff that didn’t happen.
  3. The stuff that could have happened.
  4. The stuff that couldn’t have happened.
  5. The stuff you can get a doctorate and a series of grants for.
  6. The stuff that you can sell ever after to the right customers.

Note that for the right history salesman, these different departments can all be rolled into one. This is known as the Brothers Grimm school of history and can be very well paid if you and your brother can be grim enough and then get Disney to make an animated cartoon about it. Note: try to get Morgan Freeman to voice over your part. He’s terrific. If you can’t get him try for Judy Dench or Spongebob Squarepants.

History happening is generally a series of horrors, but as it ages it can be converted to something rather sweet. It’s almost like a fermentation process. If you let your re-telling of history sit long enough in a vat, you can get quite an intoxicating brew out of it. Heroes can be manufactured, as well as villains, and it doesn’t really matter which one triumphs in the end as long as you are telling the tale and someone is paying to listen. You can be paid for truth, lies, imagination, or anything in between.

Ask for cash…folding money. Tell ’em you’ll give them a receipt next time you see them and then leg it.

The Past Can Pay – Part Two – Research and Rescue

The Royal Canadian Air Force used to use old Lancaster bombers for search and rescue aircraft. They were chiefly used over water, though you have to remember that anything north of Edmonton is all water anyway…frozen and dotted with moose and missionaries, but that’s another story. The Lancasters were not armed while searching and rescuing, but  we’re not so sure about the moose or the missionaries*.

The history retailer can also use this idea to gain material for sale. The trick is to fly out over the vast frozen wastes of the past and look for SOS signs in the snow. When you spot someone who was in trouble or had a grievance you can fly over to them and circle low until you can see whether there is any sign of life. If anything is moving, there is likely a dollar to be made.

Incidents, individuals, and group occurrences in the last few centuries can be very profitable if there is any echo from then until now. The actual thing that happened will not yield anything…unless it was the discovery of a gold-encrusted tomb of the someone…but if you can find survivors, relatives, acquaintances, or debtors of the dead, you can present a bill  and demand payment. In some cases you’ll need to play to the desires and prejudices of the current generation regarding their ancestors, but as long as the originals are dead and gone, it doesn’t really matter too much what you say now – they rarely rise out of their graves and stalk you.

Beware, however, those descendants. If you say what they consider the wrong thing about great-great-Grandad they’ll fee a lawyer to sue you and then the shoe, sabot, or jackboot may well be on the other foot. It is always safest and most profitable to purvey and pander rather than expose and excoriate.

*  There are reports of planes being lost over Edmonton but this is probably not true. The reputation of the place would have served to warn them off.

Making A Living From The Dead – Part One – Cash And Carry

No, it’s not about embalming or other mortuary subjects – it’s about how to get your eating money by being a purveyor of history. A commodity that you did not make and cannot buy.

Every industry, trade, or occupation needs raw materials to begin with. Farmers need seed, land, sun, and water. Shopkeepers need stock. Coal miners need coal and desperation. Once the various parties secure their kit, they can start to make use of it…eventually turning out food, profits, or contributions to political parties.* The trick to making a success of the thing is to get the starting stuff cheap, economise on the making or handling, and sell the finished product dear. If you can find a market that simply must have what you produce no matter what, you can pinch the margins and raise the prices and do very well indeed.

There is no cheaper raw material than history. It may have cost the people who made it very dearly indeed, but by the time we get it, there is generally no more to pay – particularly if the old stock is well past the date. Time is not the enemy of the history salesman – it is the wonderful unpaid finishing process that coats the dull and disastrous with a golden layer of ” Respect “. If it is recent, the history clerk can flog it as nostalgia and if it is 200 years old it can be sold as heritage. The point of it all is that it can be sold.

The buyers of history are numerous; people who want to push a current political barrow and need some baggage to put in it – the idle rich who need amusement – and the idle poor who need amusement until the next dole cheque arrives – the student who needs something to get their next certificate. They’ll all pay for history, though in many cases they’ll tell you that they forgot their wallet and that they’ll settle up with you next time.

One of the secrets of successful history selling is to give credit where it is due, but never to  customers. Cash now and they can have the receipt next time…

*   I could use a million, Clive. Just sayin’…

The Family History As A Method Of Torture

I spotted it in a trice – on the shelf of the council library. It was a self-published history of a local family. Paper-bound, A4 size, but about a centimetre thick. I’m a bit hazy about the exact family name but I remember it referred to a country town where they lived and styled them as ” Pioneer Nobility “.

That’s a concept you don’t see all that often in an egalitarian society – but it lurks in the heart of every amateur genealogist. If they can assert that their family is noble, and get you to believe it, they can control the universe.

I come from a mother and a father. They, in their turn, came from mothers and fathers. Funnily enough, so does everyone else riding the N0.507 bus to the train station. And so do you. It is the common experience of mankind to be born because of the combination of a mother and father.

The lucky ones get to know who they were. Even better – they might have gotten to see them for some portion of their lives and can treasure this. But there is a catch to the treasure – a curse, if you will…if you try to grasp too much of it, it turns to fire and burns away your happiness. And that fire can consume all the social oxygen and leave everyone around you asphyxiated.

I met today with a relative of my wife – a pleasant man who is the amateur genealogist for her family. He is good at it and has facts and figures of all the extended family at his fingertips. You have only to sit still long enough and you will find out when in 1887 one cousin shifted addresses in Adelaide, and how we know this, and what it means for the Scottish branch of the family in 1934…

It is not polite to sneer or yawn. Neither is it to run and hide in the toilet or fall lifeless to the carpet. One must look bright and attentive. And not scream.

But, just as with the accounting of dreams, so the history of someone else’s distant family connection to even more distant relations who have done no more than breed and move is the saddest and most banal of communications. No-one wants to know.

None of us are remotely interested in the thing, and unless you can prove in court that you are a direct descendant of a liaison between Benjamin Franklin and Cleopatra, we’re not likely to care. Publish all you like, prattle all you will, thrust forward parish records from the 19th century all you may – We. Don’t. Care.

But let me tell you about my uncle Agnes and the time she met the Kaiser in Woolies…

Living Your Own History

I have given up pretending to be other people; I have commenced pretending to be myself. Whether I will be more successful at it remains to be seen, but I know one thing – the clothing bill will be considerably lighter.

Do I have enough life accrued to have a history? And is it notable enough to be worthy of re-enactment? I’m not Dwight Eisenhower or Jim Carrey…so I don’t know whether anyone else will want to see me playing me. But I will still pursue the idea for my own purposes.

What was I? A little kid, then a teenager, than a young man, than a middle-aged man, and now an oldish sort of man. I have never climbed a new mountain, nor discovered a new cure for anything. Equally, I have never murdered people nor stolen money from them. Just an average Joe.

But an average Joe who had a great good time doing several things; taking photographs, reading books, and building scale models. If I re-enact what I did then I will not please or harm anyone else, but I can still please and harm myself…hopefully in equal portions.

This column, and the others I write, are part of the re-enactment I do of success in school. That petered out early, but these WordPress posts are going along nicely.

The Little Studio continues to take dance pictures as well as commercial illustration to the satisfaction of the customers.

The Little Workshop is spooling up to produce more and more scale models that please and delight me. And keep me agile of mind and hand. The activity is totally beneficial.

I may decline to wear the clothing of my childhood – the Howdy Doody vest is a difficult garment to integrate into normal day wear – but I’ve noticed recently that I can rock the flannel shirt and work trousers…and as a retired man I can wear them in more places than you’d think. The white moustache and flat cap help as well.

Reliving The Lives Of Someone Else’s Ancestors…

I used to take a great delight in the re-enactment hobby. I discovered it in the 1980’s as an adjunct to the activities of our local muzzle-loading rifle shooting club.

We’re in Australia, but a section of the country that has little colonial history of note – few battles and none of them famous. Re-enacting colonial times would mainly involve hard work, dirt, and discomfort. It is an unattractive prospect compared to the pageantry and bloodshed of  the United States, Britain, or the European continent. There is little in the way of glamour to it all.

So I reached out – gathering materials to pretend to live in 1860’s America, 1800’s England, and various areas during the Middle ages. There were a lot more things to wear and do when one concentrated on these cultures. At various times you could have seen me as an ACW soldier of either side, a British soldier of 1815 or 1860, a medieval dentist or crossbowman…it was a varied picture. But none of it was a picture of my own life …or of the lives of my ancestors.

Ultimately, this is where the activity failed. It introduced me to like-minded individuals here and now, and I value their friendships….but it had no valid connection to my life.

So what has taken the place of this once all-consuming passion? What fire burns in the grate now? And why is it producing a better heat for me? Read the next post and see.