Matt Elton Your new book is entitled What Is History, Now? What does it set out to do?
Helen Carr It manifests the realisation that 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the What Is History? lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge by my great-grandfather, EH Carr. Those lectures were then published in a book that has become very well known among students of history, because its main point – that history is interpretation – was really ground-breaking and, in some ways, quite an antagonistic perspective at the time.
I felt that the anniversary provided a good opportunity to give the book a reappraisal – and this was before the momentous events of 2020, including the tragic death of George Floyd and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, which sparked so much conversation about history. I felt it was a very timely moment to revisit some key questions. What is history? Who does it belong to? How can we talk about it and tell it? And what are the ways in which people get into history?
Suzannah Lipscomb Other books have revisited EH Carr’s work since it came out. David Cannadine edited an excellent one entitled What Is History Now? (without a comma!) in 2002, for instance. But our book is subtly different, and not just because of the extra punctuation. It’s designed to allow lots of different people to give their perspectives on what history is today, and covers a whole range of subjects. Jaipreet Virdi discusses how we can write the history of disability, for instance; Caroline Dodds Pennock and Leila K Blackbird explore how history changes when you take the perspectives of indigenous peoples; and Maya Jasanofflooks at how we can write the history of empire. Some offer perspectives that EH Carr would have shared, whereas others have views he would not have thought of. There are fields of history, and ways of understanding history, that have been pioneered in the past 60 years, and we wanted to explore those.
The subtitle of our book – How the Past and Present Speak to Each Other – is crucial, too. We think that the present helps us to reflect on the past, that the past informs how we understand the present, and that history is about engaging with the myriad ways in which those things happen.
ME Why was EH Carr’s book so controversial, and does this book attempt to engage with that controversy?
HC EH Carr pushed back against the idea of history as an accepted series of facts. His book makes repeated use of a fishing analogy, with historians as anglers and facts like fish swimming around in an ocean. The history you end up producing depends on the tackle you use, the area of ocean in which you fish, and the other factors that affect the facts you pull out of the metaphorical “ocean”. It’s an idea that historians have really developed, and helps explain why history as a discipline is in constant flux, always moving and changing.
Because EH Carr originally delivered his arguments as a series of lectures, they were designed for an academic audience. We want this book to invite other people in, too: those interested in family history, for instance, or people who are into blockbuster movies such as [Ridley Scott’s 2000 Roman epic] Gladiator. There are many ways into history.
ME As you mentioned, the events of the past 18 months have thrust history into the headlines. Do you think history is particularly political now, or has that always been the case?
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