When Greeks Flew Kites…

….is the title of a new Radio 4 series of discussions about history and historical fiction. ( Everyone, it seems, is exploring historical fiction these days, though the Clapham Book Festival did it first in The Past is Another Country in May 2017. ) The title comes from Henry Ford, he of ‘History is Bunk’ fame, who asked ‘What difference does it make how many times the ancient Greeks flew kites?’

Presented by Sarah Dunant, who writes excellent historical fiction about women in Renaissance Italy ( see Summer Reading in Autumn ) the series takes a look at a number of modern-day concerns and anxieties through the mirror of the past.  The first, broadcast last Sunday, examined inter-generational tensions, but later episodes deal with the rise of the nuclear family; race and the American dream; and British myths – how the post WWII generations came to believe that the future could only get better.

Dunant says she wants to ‘synch’ the listener into the past, each time with a view to throwing light on to a contemporary anxiety. The first touches upon generational conflict, beginning with a quote from Cesare Borgia and continuing to explore examples of rebellion during the Protestant reformation and the divisions in families caused by religious differences. The idea that things always improve is given a different spin when one considers the future of slaves and their descendants in the US.

Dunant talks with a variety of historians, each a specialist in an appropriate era or topic, including Prof Helen Berry, University of Newcastle, to look at the idea of the family and the freedoms and choices within it ( see Lawrence Stone The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500 – 1800 (1977) I remember that one, see History Writing).

She also looks at her own history – child of working class parents, recipient of free education to degree level, feminism, greater choice and freedom – and how she, along with many others were taught and believe in, equal opportunity through education (via the Butler Education Act 1944) and hard work. But was this just happenstance, because the economic circumstances were right and there was more than enough to go round? Now that those circumstances have changed do we return to a past where new generations don’t have better lives?

This idea of progressive social mobility, as a concept, is a late twentieth century phenomenon.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to abandon it going forward – indeed the rise of the politics of the left and Corbynism, seems to suggest that people, both new and older generations, having received that education, want to perpetuate it. For the first time in Britain, in the 2017 General Election, the educated were more likely to vote for the left, the uneducated for the right, regardless of class.

This is a fascinating question and deserves greater consideration than it could receive in part of a thirty minute radio programme.  That, in essence, is my beef with this series – it raises all kinds of issues which would repay a greater scrutiny and discussion.  It is also more about history than historical fiction, though none the worse for that.  Nevertheless, I will be tuning in for the next instalment in a months time.

In the meanwhile, if you would like to read more about history and writing about history you might like to read           Seduced by History                    Resurrection and How to Do It                    Ghost Writing                Authenticity & Verisimilitude            The Wrong Saint

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