Writing History for - and of - the Millenium

Article excerpt

* History Today: but what about history tomorrow - or in one thousand or ten thousand years' time?

In the film Big, Tom Hanks played a little boy who, trapped inside a grown man's body, had a brilliant career as a toy designer. One of his inventions was a computer which gave children the power to write and re-write their own versions of a story under a stock strip of vivid images. History has always been like the Big machine, clicking out colliding perceptions of the same events. When I was a child, my favourite book was Pages glorieuses de l'armee francaise because it filled familiar wars with exciting battles of which the writers of my English and Spanish books seemed never to have heard. Even within a single country or culture, the circumstances and needs of the time of writing become as much a part of the story as the episodes narrated and the people described.

Like the machine, history lets you write almost any number of different stories to fit the evidence. More than that, the evidence itself seems to look different to every eye, or even to each eye with every fresh look. History mutates according to a law of relativity. Like time and space measured at high speeds - or like an experiment of which the observer forms part - it shifts as you look at it, according to the angle of approach. It twists and coils into unexpected shapes: suddenly, rapidly, continuously, like a snake darting between stones.

Thanks to a healthy Pyrrhonist revival, this millennium is twitching to a close amid doubts about whether an objectively true version of the past even exists to be recovered. History, after all, happened to people who experienced it variously at the time, registered it mentally in contrasting patterns and recorded it in mutually contradictory ways. Rather than compiling an objective record of events, the historian seems doomed to explore the relationship between events and their observers. Before historical writing disappears as a genre - to be reclassified by librarians alongside other forms of fiction - the approach of the year 2000 creates a useful pretext for trying to devise a new approach.

I have confined my own attempt to the history of the last thousand years. Although our way of counting time is conventional, dates divisible by ten do, in practice, arrest attention and stimulate the imagination. The habit of thinking in terms of decades and centuries induces a self-fulfiling delusion and the way people behave - or, at least, perceive their behaviour - really does tend to change accordingly. Decades and centuries are like the clock-cases inside which the pendulum of history swings. Strictly speaking, a new millennium begins every day and every moment of every day. Yet both the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Rainbow Room on top of New York's Radio City were engaged for New Year's Eve, 1999, twenty-five years in advance. Most of the world's top hotels are already fully booked for the same evening and `the Millenium [sic] Society of London and New York', the Daily Mail reports, `is planning a party at the Pyramids'.

A scramble to re-write world history in time for the party is already under way. I have a vision of some Galactic Museum of the distant future, where Diet-Coke cans will share with coats of chain mail a single small vitrine marked `Planet Earth, 1000-2000, Christian Era'. The last decade of our millennium may be under-represented, because so much of our significant trash will have bio-degraded into oblivion; but material from every period and every part of the world, over the last thousand years, win be seen by visitors as evidence of the same quaint, remote culture: totem poles and Tompion clocks, Netsuke ivories and Nayarit clays, bankers' plastic and Benin bronzes. The distinctions apparent to us, as we look back on the history of our thousand years from just inside it, will be obliterated by the perspective of long time and vast distance. Chronology will fuse, like crystals in a crucible, and our assumptions about the relative importance of events will be clouded or clarified by a terrible length of hindsight. …