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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.