How Time Warps History in British Culture

 17th November 2011

They say time is a great healer I think each of us can testify to that in one form or another. Our feelings become less raw and our perspectives change. This is true of Historical events as well. In today’s news and media the speed of information and volume of information is vast and soon we have moved on to a new crisis a new event but there are still those key where were you when moments that linger in our memory. In this blog post I want to look how we view and even celebrate points in our history; how time has warped images or perspectives and have changed; how we have viewed the events in the 21st century as well as exploring how soon should we wait before turning horrific historic events into popular culture such as films.  

I learnt recently that the good people of Hastings celebrated the Battle of Hastings that happened in 1066 (which was also technically 7 miles away from the East Sussex town) with fireworks. This surprised me; the people of Hastings were in essence celebrating a battle that killed one king and allowed an invading force to come in and rule the country. I know that the winners are generally the writers of history but surely this is one step too far?  

In the early naughties I spent one New Years Eve in a grimy club in Watford (please don’t judge me it was free and v last minute) the club itself was full of black youths in hoodies and jeans under the bum cheeks, listening to rap and RnB, that in all honesty to my ears all sounded the same. The thing is the whole place was decked out in confederate flags from the American Civil war, in other words the flag of the African slave owning southern states! This seemed to bother and has done for years afterwards. 

Then take Guy Fawkes night every 5th November in the UK. Firstly I suppose on the outside people are celebrating the failure of a terrorist attack by an religious extremist (Catholic rather than Islamic) but then look deeper people are celebrating the torture and execution of a man. They even make an effigy of him and burn him, yet many people would find that type of behaviour in other parts of the world today very disturbing and wrong.  

Using the fireworks called Catherine wheels which get their name from St Catherine of Alexandria who was sentenced to death on a breaking wheel, an instrument of torture (incidentally when the martyred Saint touched the wheel it broke so she was consequently executed by beheading) again seems very wrong to me.  

Ok now you’re all just thinking I am a stick in a mud right? Well no I am just a historian who is shocked by what she’s seeing as a result of her historical knowledge.

For an example did you know that many of our high street banks started out as insurers for slave ships, yes that’s right both Lloyds and Barclays started their business that way. So yes I have chosen not to bank with these banks for this reason but do I have any reason to feel this way? Has enough time past for me to not see this as a problem?  

Then there are the bigger events in history that have happened in the 20th century how soon is too soon for horrific events to be made into other media for entertainment? When it come to war films it seems that there is no time needed when it come to making films. During the conflicts of both World Wars films about the conflicts were made while the troops were fighting on the battlefield.  An example of that was the 1918 release of Shoulder Arms starring Charlie Chaplin. This was a rare example of a motion picture rather than a documentary film. An example of the documentary films during WW2 is The Lion Has Wings a film from 1939. Were these films truly for entertainment purposes or were there other motives? Certainly in the case of The Lion Has Wings it was definitely a moral booster and propaganda film used to confirm that the Nazis really were the “Baddies” and the allies were the “Goodies”.  

Looking at the really dark side of the Second World War the horrific reality of the Holocaust can these films ever be entertainment? And how soon is too soon for a film to be made about such events?  The first official motion picture film about the Holocaust was polish and made in 1948; Ostatni Etap (The Last Stop) ridiculously soon after the end of the war. Could this have been a Polish way of telling the word that although these atrocities happened on their soil, it was the Germans not the Polish who instigated these horrific crimes?  Also in 1948 the first Yiddish film about the Holocaust was also made; Unzere Kinder was a joint Polish & Israeli made film; its name in English is Our Children. Of course these film today offer historians a visual insight into what it may have been like and are gold mines for history teachers but are they truly entertaining for the wider public? 

From the first part of the 20th century to the first decade of the 21st century and the second where were you moment in my life, September 11th 2001. We live in a very different cultural age were news rolls 24/7 and instantaneously. The events that happened that bright September morning on the East coast of America not only rocked the United States of America but also the rest of the world. But a historic event such as 9/11 with far reaching effects begs the question; how soon should such films be made?  

Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore is of course more a documentary than motion picture but was released only 3 years after the event. This off course was more about politics and staunched American patriotism rather than entertainment and in my opinion would have been better if Moore had waited to get the bigger longer term picture. As it was more factual and current affairs it was less controversial than a Motion picture. The first motion picture was of course United 93 released in 2006 only 5 years after the events. Many did say that it was too soon, if viewed as a film not related to September 11th the plot and drama would make a great pre 9/11 film but the close proximity to the events, in my view for what it is worth, this is too soon.

Which brings me back to the original point of this post; does time warp the perception of history? Well yes, of course it does, but time is a healer; the role of perspectives are important, for example what I saw that New Years Eve in the Watford nightclub, could probably not happen in the southern states of America. The bombshell is the concluding thought in this post is this: The context and sometime ironic situations seen by historians can sometimes shock, amuse and bemuse those of us in the know but the past can’t be changed all we can do is preserve the facts for the future, after all historians are the guardians of the past regardless of how the present portrays it.

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