‘…history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another’

That quote is by Rudge in Alan Bennett’s brilliant play, the History Boys. There are several brilliant quotes on the nature of history in it, including:

‘Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past.’ Irwin in The History Boys.

That is probably the truest thing I’ve heard said about history recently. Or recent history. Whatever. The older, the deader the subject, the more objective the analysis. Look at the reappraisals of WW1 that are currently de jour. There is nothing like this with the analysis of, say, the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq and the links to the current political upheavals there. It will be decades before there is a proper analysis of the causes and effects. When I studied history at A level in 1973-75, the Nixon tapes, impeachment and Tricky Dicky’s resignation were the hot issues (along with the Yom Kippur war, the three day week and the miners’ strikes). It was impossible, then, to understand the links between these events and, say, the outcome of the Vietnam war, the liberalism of the 1964-70 Labour governments and the oil spike and inflation, but over time it becomes easier to see the how the jigsaw fits.

This week’s prompt from Charli Mills is very much on point.

June 25, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that considers history, near or far.

How close can you go with ‘history’? When does the past become history? In fiction we have the historical novel as a genre but when does that start? I’m currently working on a  novel that spans the period from the announcement that London had won the right to host the Olympics through to the opening ceremony (July 6th 2005 to July 27th 2012). Is that an historical novel? It feels odd to call it such. And maybe, as Irwin says above, it is too close, it is in the ‘dead ground’ and so not yet history.

Before I come to my flash, I have to make a confession; my recent attempts have been sadly lacking in one fundamental element of good flash fiction: the piece should stand alone as a story and not rely on either the prompt or knowledge of any previous work for it to make sense. Mine singularly failed that test. And while I’m continuing with my characters from before, I hope I have moved closer to the ideal of a self-contained piece.


You can’t take it with you

Mary opened the desk drawer. What a mess. She needed help with Dad’s estate.

Underneath some bills she found a postcard: Brighton, postmarked 1984. ‘Darling Peter, we have to stop.’ Signed ‘Angela’.

Mary remembered the strange woman at the funeral, calling herself Angie. ‘We need to talk’. Handing her a phone number.

Memories flooded back.

Mum crying. ‘Why with Angela?’

Seeing a list of Dad’s standing orders. ‘£100 to Ms A Simmonds each month.’

A trip to town. Bumping into a woman and red haired boy. Dad embarrassed. Boy’s hair like Dad’s in those old photos.

What a mess.


About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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19 Responses to ‘…history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another’

  1. Amber Prince says:

    This was good. I don’t think you have failed the “test”. You use the same characters, but each Flash stands alone perfectly.


  2. Sarah Brentyn says:

    OH, love this one! It’s fantastic!

    I do enjoy reading your story of Peter as it continues weekly but I see what you’re saying. Writing a flash that stands alone and can be read by anyone at any time in any order without having read your other (or previous) pieces. You nailed it. This is wonderful.


  3. lucciagray says:

    Very effective ‘story’, something very similar happened not too long ago to a good friend. Devastating.
    Regarding the historical novel, you make interesting points. My take on it is that to be historical it has to be ‘removed’ from contemporary reality. For ‘us’ in 2014, this means the pre-digital era, say anything before the 1990s. Why? Because daily life in the 1980s is so different from life today that even ‘we’ who lived then have to make an effort to remember and explain. I’d say 2005-2012 is contemporary rather than historical.
    I actually prefer writing historical fiction (neo Victorian), because it gives me the distance I need to be immersed in another world when I write.


  4. That is an interesting point about historical fiction. Theoretically although it is normally taken that it is about a period at least 25 years past from the time it was written it can take in any time that is in the past as long as it is written from the perspective of that time period and people wear the appropriate clothing of the day and use the appropriate technology. However, Jane Austen is considered historical fiction yet when she wrote her novels they were surely contemporary fiction. Does that mean therefore that all contemporary fiction will one day be historical fiction and futuristic perhaps become a contemporary work.
    I really like the idea that “there is no period more remote than the recent past.” Certainly time has to pass in order to look at history with an open mind and probably for the necessary documents to be released to get the true facts of the matter.
    You were successful in your aim with your flash.


  5. Charli Mills says:

    Great reflection on what is historical. I recall studying “modern history” in school and I didn’t like it; it didn’t seem like “history” to me. I think we do need to get beyond that dead zone to be able to reflect with objectivity, yet our reflections are grounded in our present lives. And Irene makes a good point about what was once contemporary, is now historical fiction. It reminds me of the Minnesota Historical Society that was founded the same year as the state. They must have foreseen the importance of their history in the making, but as contemporaries they were futurists, and now we see them as historical. The oddities of time, space and writing…As to your flash, you also make a valid point about it being a stand alone piece (which it certainly is). When I was talking about scenes, i think that would have been a good point to make–scenes should also be able to stand alone, like a pearl strung in a necklace. Each flash is a pearl, too, whether it is part of a greater story or its own piece. Great flash, Geoff! The unraveling of the mess, while standing up to its own tale, also makes me think back on the stress that led to Peter’s stroke and the whimsy of the unicorn-dog as symbolic of children’s fantasy–perhaps Peter is in denial but Milton helps him see the truth that the daughter is beginning to conclude?


    • TanGental says:

      Irene’s point is so perceptive. Do 1950s dramas such as the L Shaped Room and Saturday Night Sunday Morning which were contemporary when written become historical and if so when?
      I’m pleased you like the complications in the flash. Messy lives! Who knew?!


  6. Annecdotist says:

    I’ve only ever seen The History Boys on TV, but it’s such a fine piece of writing. Emma Darwin has a really good post on what constitutes historical fiction on her blog:
    And I really don’t think you failed with those other flash fiction pieces (although must admit reading them in a series I can’t possibly know what it would have been like to read them separately) but for me this one works BECAUSE it’s about a character who is already familiar, so that we feel the shock in the same way as the members of his family. I really don’t think it would be a strong without that.


  7. Lisa Reiter says:

    Love this Geoff, seems strong enough on its own to me – makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck – we’ve all heard the odd tale second hand of such a mess.


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