After a week in which the United States Presidential Election has percolated into people's everyday lives, driving conversation in Covid-secure cafés and across newly sanitised dinner tables on this side of the Atlantic, I have been reminded of the pleasure and significance of the study of contemporary history. Both a passion and, benevolent publishers willing, a living since my student days along London's Mile End Road, contemporary history, as Peter Hennessy once memorably suggested, is, at its simplest, 'gossip with footnotes', pursued by those who belong to the 'Max Bygraves school of history: I wanna tell you a story
Whilst politics often shares the plight of education and nutrition – in that everyone who votes and watches BBC Question Time
, went to school and eats three meals a day reckons they are an expert – the art and skill of contemporary history resides in making sense of not just the events, but the trends of our own times – grappling with our collective national memory, enriching our collective understanding, and putting the end product into some context.
For the first draft of this history, one can typically look to print journalists, media commentators, social scientists and politicians. After a week of watching the Republican Red and Democratic patchwork being knitted from sea to shining sea, special mention must go to CNN's John King and his 'Magic Wall', which has become something of a sensation with politicos on this side of the Pond. For one fellow 3rd-November all-nighter, comedian Frankie Boyle, the one thing going for Donald Trump is that 'by raising the stakes to Game Over for all life on Earth, he really has brought the excitement back to election nights'.
Whilst some would suspect that those covering election nights with incomplete results would resort to inconsequential speculation, King's understanding of the minutiae of states and counties, and his incisive analysis of its democratic process, allowed him to serve as both the United States' psychiatrist and translator, explaining the twists and turns of vote tallies and chronicling what makes a nation tick in real time.
Whilst complex algorithms and often indecipherable data dominate election night, Alan Taylor suggests that, taking the pulse of a nation, invariably requires one to consult 'snapshots, anecdote, personal history and family upbringing'. Sights, smells and sounds often make for the most powerful and personal drivers of this kind of history. For George Orwell, two decades on from the conclusion of the First World War, his most lasting memory of the months leading up to its conclusion was the taste of margarine. A childhood shaped by total war perhaps, or as Orwell himself saw it, a lasting example of the 'horrible selfishness of children' unaffected by war 'except through our stomachs'.
Childhood memories of the aftermath of the next total war would, in part, be shaped by the taste of sweetened, concentrated Welfare State Orange Juice. A close friend from Musselburgh, born in 1939, often vividly recalls the excitement of seeing a banana for the first time at the age of 10.
To fully understand a nation and its people in a particular moment, the contemporary historian typically has to piece together a complex national mosaic and plunge the depths of folks' memories as well as the archival residue of the past. This week would have marked my first visit to Edinburgh (and a long-awaited return to familiar haunts) since the beginning of February, after lockdown and a flash-in-the-pan wave of Zoom dinner parties descended across the UK in mid-March.
As Andy Cameron, who adapted his 1978 hit single, Ally's Tartan Army,
for the pandemic and briefly became a Twitter sensation, put it, 'we should be on the loose, but we're all stuck in the hoose'. Although I was incredibly fortunate in managing to avoid attending one of these virtual soirees (albeit owing to an absence of invitations), I have been contending with a severe case of Archives-interruptus. The National Library of Scotland (NLS) and its Category A-listed home, dominating Edinburgh's George IV Bridge, is an institution whose absence I keenly feel, along with nearby Nicolson Square's Kebab Mahal curry house – which, one reviewer once noted, is 'as Tina warbled, simply the best'.
The National Library is one of the jewels in the shared historical crown that stretches across our four nations and its collections, along with those of the National Records of Scotland, the Glasgow Women's Library and one or two others, are the repository of Scotland's national memory. Its 'classical-modern' home, reminiscent of St Andrew's House, the Art Deco home of the Scottish Office (now Scottish Government) on Regent Road, combines what The Scotsman
once described as the 'majestic and beautiful with the functional'. Opened on 4 July 1956 to critical and public acclaim, the library's new home was blessed in prayer by Dr Robert Scott, the then Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and deemed, in both design and workmanship, to be 'worthy of a place alongside the finest examples of Scottish architecture'.
Like any archival institution, the NLS allows the professional researcher and the public alike to immerse themselves in the sights, smells and sounds of Scotland's past. In amongst the private papers which Scotland's great and good have left to the National Library and which form the bulk of its Special Collections, the scraps of paper, handwritten notes and hastily scribbled letters to friends can be as revealing, if not more so, than the most important documents of state.
John Buchan became a trustee of the NLS three years after its creation by act of parliament in 1925 and contributed a typically eloquent and perceptive call to arms to appeal for donations: 'It must not be said that a nation, which above others is tenacious of tradition and historic possession, permitted one of the chief of its heritages to decay'. For Buchan, the establishment of a new national repository was essential to avoid a situation where the nation which 'carried the light of learning throughout the globe suffered the lamp in its own citadel to grow dim'.
Whilst I share Billy Connolly's assessment that Scotland is not 'so much a place, but a state of mind', writing the history of a referendum campaign, as is my wont, requires one, to a certain extent, to walk the same streets as one's subjects. Taking in the air and standing on the same spot where John Smith handed out leaflets in Princes Street, a retired sheriff pitched sandwich boards and Glaswegian campaigners fought mock duels somehow enriches your sense of its significance and your analysis of why such a momentous moment in our national story played out as it did.
For all Edinburgh's complexity and the majesty of its surroundings and its architecture – Muriel Spark once compared Castle Rock, 'a great primitive black crag' rising up from pre-history, to 'the statement of an unmitigated fact preceded by nevertheless
' – there's a village-like quality to the city. Anyone who has made it in and out of Toppings Bookshop in Blenheim Place without bumping into someone they know has had a rare experience and many tourists and locals alike will have passed former First Ministers in Waverley Station. Likewise, it is not unknown to have spent a morning on George IV Bridge reading archival material about John Smith later, after a walk across The Meadows, to pass his widow, Baroness Smith, shopping in Morningside.
Throughout this year, from my study rather than the desks of archives and national libraries, I have been piecing together the history of Scotland in a decade, which I missed living through by over a quarter of a century, trying to take the pulse of a very different nation from the one I know today. Without masses of paper, box files and document wallets, the scratching of pencils (or increasingly, the clicking of MacBook keys) and the collective euphoria of another's golden discovery celebrated under their breath, historical research has been lengthier, more challenging and less satisfying than it usually would.
For all the benefits of being able to spend more time at home, the small pleasures of conducting research – walking to the NLS, up Leith Walk with the wind behind you, before carrying on along Princes Street and up the Mound, piping hot coffee and full-bodied soup at lunchtime – do not have quite the same sense of occasion when served from a can after a short walk from the study to the kitchen.
As this year's Festival of Politics approaches, it feels particularly significant that those partaking will be in their homes rather than the seats of their representatives in the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. It reaffirms the challenges we currently face being locked down and kept apart. However, fixed moments in the calendar, our nation's recent history and the anticipation of gathering again at Holyrood (and elsewhere) make me think that our collective spirit will once again emerge to affirm that we are all Jock Tamson's bairns.
Tom Chidwick studied History at Queen Mary University of London. He is currently writing a book on political history