‘Public history’ is something of a misnomer. The degree to which history which can influence policy is ‘public’ is a difficult question. E. H. Carr writes in his What Is History? that, when he was working in a junior capacity at the Paris peace conference in 1919, all the diplomats and their staffs took extra care to empty their wastepaper baskets. They were thinking of the discussions surrounding the peace treaty after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the history they used to inform their actions was a titbit of information about that time: that nefarious negotiators spied on their opposite numbers’ plans by going through their waste paper. Carr uses this to illustrate the fallacy of thinking one can ultimately ‘learn from history’ in a way which is total and all-encompassing. Each moment in time presents new and unique challenges. One cannot rely simply on knowing the past to know the present, or indeed to predict the future. Continue reading
Donald Trump’s America may be run erratically, but the United States’ chief executive is still a businessman. He knows, or thinks he knows, the bottom line. Credit and capital are instruments often reached for and keenly used. Continue reading
Day or night, someone is likely to know where we are. Our friends and family, for one, or our colleagues. Someone will have an idea where to find us, if necessary. Continue reading
North Korea is in part fascinating because it is mysterious. Cut off from viewing eyes not by geographical remoteness but by political design, the state and the lives within it seem strange and bizarre to observers. The mystery of the hermit state is part of its myth, which is cultivated by North Korea’s leadership, as well as a by-product of its peculiar circumstances. Outsiders can enter only irregularly. Western journalists cannot report on North Korea as they might any other country. Outside analysts can only guess at the bare facts of its economy, its politics and its culture. Continue reading
In the West, North Korea used to be a punchline. The hermit state was known to be repressive and its leaders were seen to be deeply cruel. But amid stories of man-made famines and mass starvation, prison systems and summary executions, Western journalists found something else to write about. Continue reading
Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading
Microhistory can largely be defined as it sounds. It is not grand; it is not grandiose. It is small and intimate and its subjects are often obscure.
The subjects of more famous works of microhistory, for example Martin Guerre, the focus of an excellent book by Natalie Zemon Davis, are plucked from the great mass of the unknown, or have their stories transfigured from myth to something resembling reality.
Such stories are deeply personal in every case. There is something in them which avoids the coldness of even the most effective biography and the rigid, unfeeling rosiness of hagiography. They are personal. Thus microhistory can illuminate ideas about personhood, self-knowledge, and self-perception in years past. And it can, in the way all literature has the potential to do, tell us a more than a little about ourselves. Continue reading