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

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
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New Harry Potter and the Cursed Child pictures: an analysis

What do the new cast photos tell us about what we can expect from the Harry Potter play?

With the first public performance only a week away, the team behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have released the first in costume cast photos of three of its stars: Harry, Ginny and their son, Albus.

But what do the new pictures tell us about what we can expect from the play? Here’s your annotated guide.

Harry

Harry is suited up like the civil servant we know he has become. When we left him at the end of book seven, he was working for the Ministry of Magic: JK Rowling has since revealed he became the youngest head of the Auror Office at 26, and the play description calls Harry “an overworked employee of the Ministry”. Jamie Parker’s costume suggests a blend of the traditional establishment with Harry’s rebelliousness and familiarity with danger.

Parker told Pottermore of the costume, “He’s wearing a suit because he’s a Ministry man, but he’s not just a bloke in a suit, that’s way too anonymous.”

Ginny

Ginny looks like a mix of the cool girl we know and love, blended with her mother, and a little something else. She has a perfect journalist’s bob (Ginny became a Quidditch reporter after a career as a professional player), paired with a “gorgeous, hand-knitted jumper” reminiscent of the Weasley’s Christmas sweaters. In silhouette, she might look like her mum with an edgier haircut, but with (literally) cooler colours and fabrics.

Actress Poppy Miller said the costume matches Ginny’s personality: “Kind and cool, exactly as I imagined her.”

Albus

Albus’s costume is perhaps more interesting for what it hides than what it reveals – we are given no suggestion of what house he might be sorted into at Hogwarts. This is particularly interesting knowing Albus’s nerves about being sorted: the final book ended with him asking his father, “What if I’m in Slytherin?”. Rowling writes, “The whisper was for his father alone, and Harry knew that only the moment of departure could have forced Albus to reveal how great and sincere that fear was.”

Actor Sam Clemmett said, “This is what Albus wears at the start of the show. I had the idea he was wearing James’s – his older brother’s – hand-me-downs. So I wanted him to feel quite uncomfortable, and be able to play with his clothes.”

His oversized second-hand clothes also emphasise how important the role of family inheritance will be in the play. The only reminder of Albus’s older siblings, they call to mind both his Weasley heritage (Ginny and her siblings were teased for their hand-me-down robes) and the enormous legacy of his father. The play description notes, “While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted.”

Family portrait

Again, this group picture is interesting for absences – there are no Potter siblings here, further suggesting that Albus will be the main focus of this new story. It also continues to place an emphasis on family through the generations – if Albus donned a pair of specs, this could easily be a picture of James, Lily and Harry. Even the posture is reminiscent of the Mirror of Erised shot from the first movie.

An intriguing hint at what next week’s play might hold for audiences.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.