Michael Rosen: Everything, all human life, is history

To live with this paradox of history, being on the one hand “gone” yet at the same time being “with us at all times”, is what it is to be human.

All history is pointless. You can’t change it. It’s over. It happened.

Yet we’ve all got history. Even the person in a coma and the person with Alzheimer’s are who they are because of their history. You can see their history in the shape of their bodies, the marks on their hands, the shadings of their skin.

To live with this paradox of history, being on the one hand “gone” yet at the same time being “with us at all times”, is what it is  to be human. History is all that’s not there any more and yet we are nothing without it. Animals don’t do history the way we do it. Even if some of them remember stuff, they can’t talk about it. This gives us the pain of loss and the pleasure of memory. It gives us a country we can’t go to and yet we start every day in the place where it left us. History gives us who we are today by being who we were yesterday.

Today we’ll all do history. Maybe we’ll talk about what we saw on TV last night. Maybe we’ll talk about something from when we were children, or something we saw on the bus. Maybe we’ll remember something odd, or strange, or funny. Maybe we’ll look in the mirror and notice a line on our face, a look in our eyes, or that shirt – when we bought it.

I do history for a living. No one calls me a historian, though. People say I write poems, or I broadcast. Or I teach. But in truth, I’m the bloke going on about things my mum or dad or brother used to say to me, or the places we went. That’s history. I’m the bloke scurrying about trying to find  out stuff to do with my great-grandparents or great-uncles and aunts. More history. Or I’m the bloke wondering why British people say “I’ve got” and Americans say “I’ve gotten”. Or wondering how come Joseph Heller came to write Catch-22. And where did he get that “catch-22” thing from anyway? And why do so many of us say “it’s a catch-22 situation”? All history.

People all around us sing songs, tell stories of what’s happened to them, talk about their parents and grandparents, where they used to live. We remember some of this, and somehow it all becomes us. I just happen to be one of those people who mash it up and turn it into writing or telling stories or discussing it in books or on the radio.

Even a joke is history – it’s been told over and over again, someone nicked a bit of its shape from one place, someone nicked a bit of the punchline from somewhere else. We are inheritors of all this stuff.

I happen to be someone who spends hours and hours every day on it. Most people aren’t quite as into it as that. Even so, everyone does it a bit. Either way, a lot or a little, none of us can escape from what we’ve inherited – and I don’t just mean the genetic things. That gesture you make, your name, the languages you speak, the way you say the words, the food you like and don’t like, the work you do, or want to do – all inherited or acquired from people you’ve known and heard.

But I’ll turn this on its head. If all we are is the stuff we inherit and acquire, we’d just be animals. We wouldn’t be able to choose anything or change anything. When I say we are historians, I mean we are creatures who can make something of what we inherit and acquire. We can get to work on it, thinking about it, expressing it, changing it. We work on all the old stuff, to make new stuff.

But how free are we to do that? Can we change anything and everything? We can find that out only if we try things, if we explore what’s possible, if we invent things. And here’s my last paradox: one of the best ways to find out what is possible . . . is to  explore the past. History.

“Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story” by Michael Rosen is out now (John Murray, £16.99). The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

Images by Lee Jeffries, who can be found on twitter @Lee_Jeffries

Images: Lee Jeffries.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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