Chronicler

My first degree was in history – medieval history to be precise.  My reason for choosing medieval history was straightforward: I have always enjoyed reading primary sources, because of the way languages and customs change but people are still pretty much the same in any given time, and I especially loved the way chroniclers of those times made no attempt whatsoever to be objective.  Objectivity wasn’t their job – these chroniclers were there to tell a story and point the moral and tell you who was good and who was bad and who jumped over a fence while chasing pigs and turned from a girl into a boy (I would footnote this if I could, but my degree is nearly twenty years old now – I remember the story, but not the source). They were there to edify as much as to educate.

With the Enlightenment came a perception that history should be factual and objective.  A historian, it was felt, should rise above mere opinion and let the facts speak for themselves.  The trouble, of course, is that this is virtually impossible to do.   In fact, I would say that it’s impossible to record any event or series of events in an unbiased fashion – one’s own interpretations always creep in, and even if reporting strictly on facts, one must, by necessity, select which facts are relevant and which can be omitted.  And this, in itself, introduces a certain level of bias.  (This goes double if your ‘facts’ come from documents written in other languages – the translator must constantly choose between different ways to translate particular words or phrases, and these choices will reflect the translator’s world as much as the original author’s)

What this all came down to, in my mind, was that one still got biased histories, but they were far drier and less colourful, and you had to work a lot harder to find the biases.  In many ways, it’s easier (and much more entertaining) to get useful information out of someone whose prejudices are overt – which may explain my passion for tiny political parties.  One may not get precise facts (and this may be an impossibility in any case), but one can gain a very clear picture of how someone thinks the world works and should work from the way she or he writes about it.  And you can also start to get a pretty good idea of what this person will prioritise or leave out when telling a story – which in turn gives you an idea of what might be missing from an account, or of where things might be exaggerated.

This is, of course, why I cheerfully proclaim my biases on my manifesto.  I’d rather be entertaining and openly biased than pretend to an objectivity I don’t have, and mislead people inadvertently.  It’s more honest, and, frankly, makes what I write more useful because if you don’t happen to share my prejudices, you know which bits to disregard or take with a grain of salt.  Also, it’s far more fun to write that way.

So why am I writing about historiography on a politics blog?  Actually, history is incredibly relevant to politics, but that’s not the reason.  It’s much more exciting than that, at least to me.  You see, I received an email last week from the National Library of Australia, in which they requested permission to archive this blog in PANDORA, the national web archive for Australia.  Apparently, Cate Speaks is “an important component of the national documentary heritage”, and they want it to be available to researchers now and in the future.  Moreover, now that I have given my permission, the Library will keep a copy of this site perpetually, and ensure that it remains accessible “as hardware and software changes over time.”

This blog will outlive me.

I find this absolutely mindblowing.  And incredibly flattering.  And also slightly disturbing, given how much of what I write here is very much off-the-cuff with minimal editing and maximum sarcasm and silly jokes.

(I foresee a little bit more proof-reading in my future.  The silly jokes, however, are unlikely to change, because they are clearly an important component of the national documentary heritage…)

The other weird part is that this blog is something of a diary.  The earliest posts here are more than ten years old.  I’ve changed a lot in that time, and my opinions have changed, too (I’d like to think my ability to write intelligently about politics has increased in the last decade).  I can certainly think of a few fairly stupid things I’ve posted over the years, and those have now been archived, too.  Mid-twenties Catherine is preserved for posterity just as much as the older and wiser late-thirties Catherine.  I’m not sure what I think of that, other than being certain that it would be dishonest to delete my younger self (in all her naive glory).

Mostly, though, I am thrilled, and overwhelmed, and suddenly feeling a strong connection to those medieval chroniclers I used to read with such delight.  When I was nineteen, I seriously considered learning Arabic, the better to appreciate a particular chronicler who wrote with scurrilous and poetic glee about the arrival of the Frankish armies and who, the footnotes informed me, made endless puns and alliterations which were absolutely un-translatable.  This chronicler (whose name I have, alas, also forgotten) was clearly writing to entertain as much to inform – I doubt that he really believed that Richard had ‘demons and dragons’ in his ranks, or that all the noblewomen on the crusade were in fact courtesans, no matter how lasciviously he dwelled on this idea.  But he was enjoying every minute of it, and I wanted to be him when I grew up.

Well, the National Library of Australia archives hundreds and probably thousands of blogs every year (1% of Australia’s internet presence is still a lot of internet), and this one is a pretty small fish in a very big pond, but I like to think that in a few hundred years some undergraduate, studying the Fall of Two Party Politics in Early 21st Century Australia may happen on a translation of this blog, and wish, for just a few minutes, that they had time to learn Old Australian English, in order to find out if I was really being as sarcastic and ridiculous as the translation implied.

A note to that future reader: yes, I really was.  Probably more so, in fact.  And I will continue to be.  But I will try not to make too many puns, because they really are a pig to translate, and I imagine you have a lot of other things to study without adding yet another dead language to the mix.  Also, it’s totally OK if you have forgotten my name if and when you think about this blog in later life. Turnabout is fair play.

(Incidentally, comments are apparently archived too, so if you’ve commented here, you’re a little bit more immortal because of it.  Don’t forget to wave hello to your hypothetical future reader.  We are a time capsule, waiting to be opened…)

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4 thoughts on “Chronicler

  1. Congratulations Cate, what a fantastic achievement.

    I use the NAA a lot for family history research and love the many interesting items I come across. The good news is that type will be easier to interpret than handwriting. I have been following you since I happily discovered your blog before the last Federal Election. You have kept me well informed and helped me to make my voting decisions, and as you say I was able to take your prejudices into account when making my own decisions. Thank you and once again, CONGRATULATIONS. (From my Facebook page congratulating you and sharing your news. ) Regards Sandy

    • Thank you very much, Sandy! I’m very glad to have helped!

      And yes, I absolutely hear you about handwriting… I did, in my most obsessive stage, start getting fairly good at deciphering late 15th-century handwriting (not because I needed to, mostly for fun). It definitely makes life more time-consuming – though I think it also gives a greater sense of connection, too.

  2. Way to go, Catherine! It’s wonderful to know that this blog is being preserved for posterity. It deserves a large readership both now and in the future.

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