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