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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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump