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Friday, February 24, 2017

What Is History?

History is in the eye of the beholder, in my opinion.

Actually, I'm just talking chronology here, not propaganda. My friend Terry Morris commented in an email, in regard to Gillian Polack's The Wizardry Of Jewish Women, that it felt strange to think of a story set in the 2000s as historical fiction. 

And it is, in some ways, but not in others.

For example, there's my Year 7 class. They were mostly born in 2005, after the events of Wizardry. For them, it certainly would be considered history. Even young readers of the novel in their twenties might consider it historical, as they were too young during the Canberra bushfires to think about it or care(unless they lived in Canberra). 

There is a children's TV series, My Place, which is about a house in Sydney. It starts in the present day(when it was made) and goes back in time. The owner of the house is shown as a child in an earlier period. His time would be history for the later residents. Even the present day episode shows a historic event, Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generation. Only a few years ago, but today we only need to say, "the apology" for someone - in Australia, anyway - to know what we mean. It's already history, something my history teacher Principal recognised when he said that the day would surely be a public holiday someday, and gathered the whole school to watch it. 

I am old enough to remember Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. My school allowed us to go hone to watch it. For anyone born later, which is currently most of the world, that date, that event, is history.

And you know what? I was there, but it's history for me too. So, when I offered to write a piece about the day of the moon landing for the historical section of the  anthology Trust Me! my publisher Paul Collins was surprised, but I argued that it was history. 

When I was researching for my story, "Countdown To Apollo 11" I was fascinated by the old newspapers I read. I read ads for groceries that still exist and others that don't. There were ads for shops that have closed. There were films on at the cinema that have become classics. You could get a child ticket to a musical for 50c. Yes, I hear you cry, but wages were different then! Agreed, but my pocket money would buy me a seat in the gods to see Fiddler On The Roof with my schoolfriend Denise. Show me a child today who gets $120 in weekly pocket money. 

And there were letters to the editor about Vietnam and there was the old man who had been arrested at a protest about the war outside the U.S. consulate. And, in another reference to "what is history?" a colleague I told about it said, "Oh, I remember that protest! I was there." I worked the old man, who was unnamed, into my story as the young hero's grandfather. 

It was a time when I thought what fun it would be to be able to buy films like records. And by the way, records have never gone away! I don't use them, but vinyl snobs do, and you can still buy them at JB Hifi, a huge franchise. 

When I researched my story "Call Him Ringo" which was set about five years before "Apollo 11", I found a letter to the editor suggesting that the Beatles were just a fad and would be forgotten in a couple of years. 

Now, that's history! 


Gillian Polack said...

I see all my 'contemporary' fiction as historical, with concrete links to a precise time, because you're right - things change.

Sue Bursztynski said...

They do indeed! I'm currently reading Penelope Lively's The Ghost Of Thomas Kempe, written in the 1970s, with mentions of inkpots and other such things and though it was contemporary when written, it feels like history now. Even though I was around!

A latte beckons said...

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is one of my favourite books. I read it over and over again as a child.

Sue Bursztynski said...

A lot of people did. But the copy I'm reading is weeded from my library because we had more than one copy. The last borrowing date on it, alas, is 1988! Kids will read classics if they have nice new covers, but this was a shabby old Piccolo edition.

Unknown said...

What an interesting idea! Like you, I'm a 60s child, but I'd definitely consider that period historical now. I think I'd consider a book historical if it was set before computers and mobile phones. But you know what the test for SF is? Could the story/plot happen anywhere else than the location of the book? If the answer is yes, then the SF aspect is unnecessary - more of a gimmick than a true SF novel. I'd say the same for historical. If it takes place in the last 20-30 years, is setting it then really necessary? Couldn't the same story be told in the present? (I can't tell you how many woman-in-peril stories I've seen set in the 80s-90s just because of the lack of cell phones. The author doesn't want the protag to have one and possible save herself... That's just lazy writing.)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I've known the test for SF to be "would it fall apart if you removed the SF element?" If the answer is yes, then it's SF. I have read a lot of slush stories that just weren't SF or fantasy by that test. And I've read a lot of stories set in the time of mobile phones and the Internet which didn't use them! For example, a novel in which the character could easily have found the information on line and used a dusty old book instead.

Gillian's novel was set in the early days of the Internet - one of the heroines was spending time in chat rooms, which aren't used much in these days of Facebook. There were also Internet cafes and floppy disks; Internet cafes are few and far between now and USB sticks have replaced floppy disks. If you read my interview with Gillian you'll see her reasons for setting it when she did, and it isn't lazy writing in her case. It's history.