Quite early on during my masters degree I was approached by a lecturer in the department. ‘Would I’, he asked, ‘be willing to be interviewed by some of his undergraduate students?’ They were studying the British anti-apartheid movement in which I had some involvement and it would be ‘really good for them to interview someone who was there’. Even earlier an eminent professor, lecturing on diplomatics and archival method, asked whether any of us had ‘worked in an archive’. A few in the class raised their hands. I kept silent; as a television producer I had worked in archives in Russia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Cuba … but I realised I had also, rather disconcertingly, ‘been archived’. Films I produced now sit in archives, waiting for researchers to come calling, and sometimes they do. Similarly the early days of Fairtrade, in which I was involved, is now a subject of historical enquiry. Journalists write about it, researchers study it, policy makers learn (we hope) from it.
It is both because of my age (let’s say I was born after South Africa left the Commonwealth but before Kennedy was shot) and because I spent 20 years making documentaries that I thought I remembered quite a lot of what we now call history. I was ‘there’ when Mandela first returned to Soweto in 1990. I was ‘there’ when Mrs Thatcher left Downing Street in tears. I was ‘there’ when the Berlin wall came down, and I have been ‘there’ on many occasions besides. I have filmed, as it were, ‘war’ in the Congo and ‘peace’ in the Philippines.
But being there isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I was, for example, in an aeroplane en route from Yakutsk to Kamchatka when President Putin decided to do manly things there in August 2010. Our flight was rerouted without warning to Magadan, where I spent two days sharing a hotel room with an FSB computer programmer called Oleg. Only once the president had left Kamchatka were we allowed to complete our journey. In fact I had a little further to go; I had just spent three months retracing the voyage of discovery Vitus Bering made in 1725-28, a 10,000 kilometre journey, mostly by river. From Kamchatka I had still to get to Commander Island in the north Pacific, which is where Bering died in 1741.
And in any case history, we soon learnt, is not about being there. Someone was always ‘there’, otherwise nothing would have happened. And someone being there is not what makes it history. History is not what happened, nor even why it happened. It is not, even, the consequences of what happened. History is something else entirely. Coming to understand that was a slower process than I like to admit.
At first I was very reluctant to accept the view put forward – remarkably consistently – by the UCL department that history is whatever historians choose to discuss. History is an accumulation of historiography. It seemed to me to be oxymoronic, circular and – the offence! – vain. I imagined history in much more romantic terms. It was an act of the imagination, a narrative embellished – but only insofar as necessary – by reference to the written record. I took the more relaxed view that the truth lay somewhere between ‘fact and fiction’, between what Paul Theroux called ‘recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows’. As a TV journalist I had a healthy distrust for oral testimony – we all ‘know’ that the least reliable guides to what happened are the people who did it – but I was also impatient with documents and their underlying, but often hidden, multiple or contradictory, agendas. And I realised that all those things I thought I remembered, all the things I have seen with my own eyes, I have seen only partially. I remember the heat of the gun barrel the Congolese soldier pressed against my cheek in Buta. But I only found out later that the weapon was supplied by Uganda and made in Italy. You don’t bear witness to history by being there; you do it patiently, through research, after the event.
I am older now, and possibly wiser, and this is what I have learned: that history is a conversation, mostly between historians. It is a process in which there is no final word, in which method and theory matter, and in which narrative is helpful, but for which the really important thing is that it should, like language, be what James C. Scott called, a ‘structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.’
Sandy Balfour is a student at UCL History on the History MA programme, 2015-16.