There has been a lot of fuss this week about the fact that a piece of graffiti on a wall near Aberystwyth was vandalised by someone painting a different piece of graffiti over it and has subsequently been restored by a group of young people who have attempted to replicate the original graffiti. No doubt some will be offended by my referring to the original as graffiti at all: it is, as they see it, a commemoration of a significant event in modern Welsh history. And actually, I agree with them and am pleased that those local young people have restored the message – but I’m being deliberately provocative because there is an important point here.
It isn’t just the superficially obvious one about who decides what is or is not graffiti and/or vandalism. Not that that point isn’t important in itself, of course; like it or not (and for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t), Elvis really is more significant in the lives of some Welsh people than Tryweryn. I might, like many others, see Tryweryn as a hugely significant event in our modern history as a nation; but I also recognise the work which the possessive pronoun is doing there. ‘Our’, just in the use of the word, presupposes a great deal, and I’m not sure that that is being widely-enough recognised. There’s rather more to making something truly part of the history of all of us than painting a message on a wall.
And that’s the underlying point that I want to come to. The disrespect shown to what many of us regard as a memorial, albeit a completely unofficial one, has led to calls for people to be taught more about ‘our’ history. The problem is that history isn’t just a series of events – any ‘history’ requires events to be selected or discarded; given a significance on a scale in relation to other events, and above all, interpreted. And who makes all those decisions, none of which is entirely objective or impartial? I am always concerned about politicians – of any hue – demanding that pupils be taught ‘our’ history; they invariably mean that they want their own take on history to be taught. Like most people, I suppose, I don’t have a problem if politicians with whom I agree are selecting a version of history which I like; but when politicians with whom I disagree choose a rather different version, we can end up with situations like this one. I remember the old story about the Soviet historian who allegedly said that “In our country, only the future is certain – the past is always changing”. There’s something very Orwellian about politicians redefining history to suit the needs of the present, but continuing redefinition and reinterpretation is a normal part of developing history.
That there is a need for a better awareness of history, I don’t doubt. But it isn’t just in Wales – one of the things which Brexit has revealed to be rampant in certain sections of society (even among elected politicians) is an over-simplistic understanding of the complex relationships between these islands and our continental neighbours (which for many apparently is all about the inherent German desire to dominate and the plucky English single-handedly defeating them). It’s true that we all need to know more about our past, and that knowing the past is a key element of understanding who we are and how we got here, but it’s as naïve to believe that there is only one way of understanding that past as it is to believe that there’s only one way of being Welsh. I’m no more a fan of Elvis than I am of Edward I – but they both fit somewhere in what we are today. Deciding what to teach as ‘history’ is far from being as simple as some might suggest – and teaching dates and events without context and interpretation is unlikely to make much difference to anything.